Saturday, September 6, 2008

More on Palin and the rural vote

The folks over at the Daily Yonder have been noting/observing/complaining for some time the Presidential candidates are ignoring rural people and rural issues. With Sarah Palin's selection as John McCain's running mate, there are hints from many corners (including here) that this is no longer the case because Palin is rural and understands that social and economic milieu.

I'm not sure whether Palin played the rural card first, or whether the rural constituencies picked up on her rurality and ran with it. In any event, many commentators have picked up on the link between Palin and the rural. One that caught my eye is by Will Bunch, who deploys the link with a rural metaphor in his Philadelphia Daily News column. He writes of Palin's "speech to nowhere" at the Republican Convention, calling her "a boffo politician who speaks in a plaintive prairie voice that channels America's Heartland like a chilling breeze rippling a wheat field." (More re: rural accents below). With policies like those she advocates, "chilling" seems an apt word choice.

Here's another story that makes the link. It is by Monica Davey in today's New York Times and includes this quote from Erik Iverson, chairman of the Montana Republican Party: “This is the first time we have heard a presidential candidate or a vice-presidential candidate even talk about what it’s like to live in rural America, and believe me, they were listening,” Mr. Iverson said. “All over the Western United States, there were a lot of heads nodding.”

Certainly, Palin has worked her rural credentials. Here's an excerpt from a commentary by Chase Martyn in the Iowa Independent which notes that, but then challenges the assumption that rural voters will flock to her as a result:

Palin’s speech to accept her nomination used the words “small town” five times. “I had the privilege of living most of my life in a small town,” she remarked.

“I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a ‘community organizer,’ except that you have actual responsibilities,” she continued, ripping into one part of Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama’s biography.

But while highlighting her small-town past might make some rural voters like Palin, it is too simplistic to assume that such statements will make them vote for her.

When Iowa’s then-Gov. Tom Vilsack launched his short-lived presidential campaign shortly after election day in 2006, pundits wondered aloud whether his candidacy would take his state’s first-in-the-nation caucuses off the table for other candidates. It took only about a week before it was clear that it would not.

I heard Iowans in coffee shops say things like, “I liked him as governor, but he thinks he can be president? Really?”

I like what Martyn has to say for several reasons, not least that he gives rural folk a lot of credit for being discerning voters.

For a contrary argument, see this, from Patchwork Nation (picked up in the Daily Yonder) asserting that "geography matters." Here's a quote from Dan Gimpel's story:

Geography matters in politics because candidates are evaluated not just according to who they are, but also on the basis of where they’re from. People tend to be more favorable to candidates who are from familiar places and less favorable to those who are from places unknown. Thus, fair or not, the place that somebody calls home can prove to be an advantage or disadvantage.

He goes onto say that "imagery in television and movies depicts rural people as being unsophisticated, heavily accented, and semiliterate. They are frequently shown working the land or engaging in related rural occupations – with it often implied that they’re not smart enough to make a living in a big city."

Sadly, he is right about how rural people are portrayed in popular culture. But, also note that to some ears, Sarah Palin does speak with an pronounced accent. I guess she embodies this somewhat negative stereotype. Judith Warner picked up on this in her Domestic Disturbances column a few days ago, and while I agreed with the vast majority of what Warner had to say, I wish she'd left out the comments on Palin's accent and focused on substance.

Mind you this is coming from someone who, outside Arkansas (which happens to be where I've lived most of the last two decades), is perceived to have a heavy accent. And, I'm aware of having been judged on that basis -- underestimated, that is. By way of example, a few months into teaching my year-long torts class several years ago, a student from New York told me that she and others in the class had really underestimated my intelligence after initially hearing me speak. Since then, she reported, I'd been redeemed in their eyes by my extensive vocabulary and other aspects of my classroom performance. But I digress . . . In contemplating bias against rural people, I've often considered how one's rurality may be manifest so as to invite that bias. That line of thought frequently brings me back to the accent issue, while acknowledging that accent is an imperfect proxy for rural origin and that various urban accents also invite condescension and ridicule.

I'm digressing again. Nevertheless, thinking about Arkansas reminds me that I've not yet seen any comparison of Bill Clinton to Sarah Palin in relation to the rural vote. Both arrived on the national political scene as governors of largely rural states that aren't very populous. (Arkansas has six electoral votes to Alaska's three). And Clinton certainly had an accent, albeit one that he still seems to turn on and off at will. My sense is that he attracted a lot of rural voters (along with other overlapping categories such as blue collar folks), though its hard to say how much of that attraction was based on his rural origin.

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