Rural voters lean red, young voters lean blue. So what's a young, rural voter to do?
Young and rural voters are two voting blocs that can help swing elections in battleground states. And both these groups are on the radar of Democrats and Republicans in North Carolina ahead of the 2024 election.
President Biden's campaign is already investing in the state, three years after he lost it by just under 75,000 votes. Local and national Democrats are also unveiling plans for swinging voters back over.
"My own people are the ones that I've got to figure out a way to motivate and mobilize and get energized around building this thing up from the bottom," said Anderson Clayton, who is the new chairwoman of the state's Democratic Party and the youngest party chair in the nation at 25.
"I want to go out there and fight for everybody — and young people especially," she said.
Clayton, who is from Roxboro, N.C., about an hour northwest of Raleigh, is honest about the party's flaws in her state. Following a handful of federal and state losses in the 2022 midterms, she acknowledged Democrats dropped the ball when connecting with young voters, as well as rural and Black voters — three key parts of the state's voting base.
As a young and rural voter, Clayton hopes she can help repair some of these relationships. Republicans, though, are not giving up the reliably red rural communities easily.
"Republicans should not write off voters in a rural area," said Jon Hardister, one of the younger members of the state legislature's GOP leadership team.
"[But] you have to go after the swing voters. ... I think there's frustration for both parties. As the Republican Party, we have to focus on all demographics but get the voters in the middle, and you do that by talking about the issues they care about," he added.
Biden's popularity is low among rural, independent and young voters. According to the latest NPR/PBS News Hour/Marist polling, 38% of both young voters and independents approve of his job in office. Among rural voters, that number stands at just 28%.
But within those groups, Democrats may have an in. While rural voters nationwide typically vote Republican, young rural voters are more evenly split. In 2020, 50% of rural voters under 30 voted for Donald Trump, while 47% voted for Biden.
NPR sat down with with six young voters who grew up in rural, small towns across North Carolina to discuss what politicians need to do to win their votes in 2024.
Many were critical of how politicians on both sides see their communities.
"I do think that Democrats get rural communities wrong in the sense that they don't quite understand how to appeal to rural voters," said Larry McCallum, a 22-year-old Democratic voter from Lumberton, N.C.
"If Democrats can figure out a way to target a lot of the issues that are on a lot of rural voters' minds, namely the economy and agriculture, I think that they would do themselves a big favor in elections," he added.
A strong rural economy is also top of mind for Reagan Bunch, a 20-year-old Republican from Hayesville, N.C.
"I think a lot of it circles back to the economy in a local rural community," Bunch said, who serves as the chairwoman for the Hiwassee River Young Republicans, adding, "I know we have a huge demand for people in education and health care just to come and live there. But the cost of living is just too high."
Overall, the group said everyday issues like job availability, access to quality health care, education and community safety are top of mind just over a year before they head to the polls for the primary election. And though the whole group told NPR they plan to vote, several still aren't sure who to vote for.
"Even though I was conservative and I do have certain beliefs another party might not agree with, I hate that we're in that stance of if you're a Democrat, then we can't be friends, or we can't talk it out," said Trinity Locklear, a 20-year-old from Shannon, N.C., who is currently undecided but leans conservative.
Locklear is also a member of the Lumbee Tribe, which is the largest tribe east of the Mississippi and is not fully federally recognized. The tribe, concentrated in the southeast portion of the state around Robeson County, has notably grown more conservative in recent presidential elections, voting Democrat until 2016, when it flipped for Trump.
"I've seen the Republican Party do a lot more recently in the community. But I think for a long time, both parties just kind of ignored us and thrown us off," said A.J. Jacobs, an 18-year-old Democratic voter and fellow Lumbee tribal member from Pembroke, N.C., adding that even if both Biden and Trump support federal recognition, Congress has not moved the needle.
"And it's just every time nothing gets done. And I think both parties are going to take that vote for granted. The Democratic Party definitely did," Jacobs said.
Part of the challenge for Democrats will be navigating what issues to focus on.
For Kayla Tran, a 19-year-old registered independent from Bath, N.C., social issues like LGBTQ rights, reproductive health and gun laws are all a priority.
"Some politicians see the South as kind of like a lost cause, where they think that everybody there is so hyper-fixated on whatever their job is," Tran said, adding, "They think the people there don't really care about social causes or they don't care about things that are going on in the bigger parts of the country. But I think that discredits the people that live there."
Twenty-two-year-old Republican voter Bryson Hyman gave some examples of how outsiders mischaracterize communities like the ones they call home.
"This is a completely backward place, that there is no education, that people are involved in politics and the ones that are kind of crazy and don't have a mind. No, there are normal people down here," said Hyman, who grew up in Indian Land, S.C., but now lives in Lillington, N.C.
"We live life a little bit slower, and we like stuff sweet," he quipped, "but we're not stupid."
Read more of their conversation below. These responses have been edited for clarity and length.
The local and personal economic issues take center stage
The Biden administration has touted billions of dollars in investments from the Bipartisan Infrastructure law and the Inflation Reduction Act to the state, money that could help fund roads, hospitals and broadband.
But seeing those effects takes time. In the meantime, the students want to see more action for their communities and personal pocketbooks.
BUNCH: We don't have a hospital in my town. Everybody knows in my town, if you go to the hospital, you go to Union General in Blairsville, Georgia, which is still only 45 minutes away.
LOCKLEAR: Biden introduced the loan forgiveness, and I was like, Oh! It caught my attention. I got a couple of scholarships, but I did have to take out loans as one does. And that was a big hit for me.
The abortion debate
In May, after overriding Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper's veto, a Republican supermajority in the state legislature ushered through a 12-week abortion ban, joining a growing list of states with increased restrictions to the procedure since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.
But safeguarding access to abortion has been a key motivator for young voters to turn out in recent state and federal elections, notably in the 2022 midterms. And it remains a top issue heading into next year. Over two-thirds of Americans under 30 oppose the Supreme Court's decision, according to a recent NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll, which is higher than any other age group.
MCCALLUM: I'm definitely pro-choice. Obviously, the Democrats sort of embody that position. I do think that restricting access to abortion — it's only going to serve to negatively impact mostly poor women and women of color.
BUNCH: I'm pro-life. I would like to see heartbeat bills across the country. But I'd also like to see other legislation that would help make parenting more accessible.
TRAN: I think that people equate so much of where they stand based on their religion. I grew up in a religious environment and hearing the people around me say, well, we need to protect the sanctity of life. But then not being so supportive of programs that will actually support the children once they're born. The thing that everyone can agree on is that we need to have support for people that will get pregnant once the babies are born.
On the issues: an uncertain future with guns
Nearly all the students in the discussion grew up with guns in their homes or communities, mirroring many households in rural areas nationwide, where it's much more common to own a gun than in suburban and urban areas.
At the same time, gun violence has been a pertinent issue in their neighborhoods, schools and families. To Locklear, whose cousin was shot in an altercation last fall, increasing safety and reducing crime are top issues for her, with an emotional stake.
LOCKLEAR: With rural areas, especially Robeson County, we're big on ag — so big on hunting, fishing and all that other stuff. And I know that's going to be one big hit if they're like, 'let's take everyone's guns away.' I don't want it to take away, but I do want to see more stricter laws on regulating on whose able to get a gun — because both parents are concealed carry. But I cannot stand seeing people my age losing their lives to gun violence to other people their age. It's getting ridiculous.
HYMAN: I think that guns aren't the issue. I think that we have a mental health crisis, and it's mostly men that are committing these shootings, young men who don't have any hope for the future because the American dream has unfortunately failed them, and they have fallen into a spiral of dark thoughts. I think that we have to address that root problem because you take the guns away, the problem's not going to be over.
JACOBS: If law-abiding citizens want a gun, they can get one. I don't think that's any problem. I mean, I've been raised around guns. Both of my parents are concealed carry. I have shot guns. I mean, I don't think there's any problem with it. But I think, there are absolutely laws that be put in place to make it harder for people to get a gun.
TRAN: I think that Gen Z, in particular, we have been exposed to a lot of, especially school-based gun violence. I was in the fourth grade when Sandy Hook happened, and I think that everybody can kind of pinpoint in their life like when they realized that this was a problem that we were going to deal with for the rest of our lives, potentially, if something isn't done about it.
Another Trump-Biden rematch? The group laughs it off
As the oldest president in U.S. history, Biden's age has long been a factor in his candidacy. In 2020, Biden pitched himself as a "transition candidate," raising questions that he may not seek a second term. For many voters, the prospect of the president beginning his second term shortly before his 82nd birthday is concerning.
After the question, the room was silent. But within a few seconds, many erupted in laughter.
JACOBS: I mean, it's disappointing. They're both old.
TRAN: They're both old as dirt.
JACOBS: I understand Biden is an incumbent president but --
LOCKLEAR: He's 80.
MCCALLUM: Biden has been one of the most unenthusiastic candidates in American history. I voted for him. But the Democratic Party needs to work on their proposed candidates. I think I'll probably be voting for Biden in 2024. He's performed OK. But his enthusiasm, it's just not there.
LOCKLEAR: I was a caretaker for my grandpa up until his passing, and he passed away in 91. And I was thinking about when they were a little bit younger in their 80s, I was like, would I trust my grandfather to run the country? Probably not.
HYMAN: You could put a dead pig up against Biden, and the dead pig wins, but the only person that voters dislike more than Biden is Trump. A big portion of the Republican Party wants somebody sensible, wants somebody who can work across lines, wants somebody that has the experience in office already, that doesn't talk crassly, that doesn't make a fool of himself. That doesn't switch their positions every two seconds. So, I'm terrified of Biden being elected again, and I'm hopeful that one of our candidates, maybe Nikki Haley, [Ron] DeSantis, whoever can win this primary.
Undecided voters shy away from either party
For undecided voters, Tran and Locklear, they cringe at discussing party politics. Though Tran leans left and Locklear leans right, both remain unsure about who they'll vote for next year.
The one thing they do know: siding solely based on the political party isn't the answer.
LOCKLEAR: For the most part, I am very split on it because I don't want to just pick, why can't we just get into that state where we can negotiate? Even though I was conservative and I do have certain beliefs another party might not agree with, but for the most part, I kind of hate that we're in that stance of, if you're a Democrat, then we can't be friends, or we can't talk it out.
TRAN: I do plan on voting. As of now, who? I have no idea. That is a problem for future me.
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