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In his only debate with President Jimmy Carter, then-candidate Ronald Reagan famously asked America, "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" Four decades later, how rural voters respond to that question will determine which party prevails in 2020.
President Donald Trump has failed to deliver for rural America – but Democratic politicians have also let their connection to heartland voters weaken. That is why I am launching the One Country Project, an initiative to listen to the voices of rural voters and support an economic agenda that supports rural communities.
Rural America's economic struggles pre-date our current president.
Hit by several factors including job loss and population decline, rural areas have been experiencing increasing economic distress over the past 10 years. Rural communities lost 400,000 jobs from 2007 to 2015 alone. At the same time the engines of rural economic growth have stalled, and the tools to jump start them are scarcer than ever. Opportunity-creating investments are increasingly clustered in just five major urban areas, despite holding only 17 percent of total jobs in the country. From 2010 to 2014, New York, Miami, Los Angeles, Houston, and Dallas produced as many new businesses as the rest of the United States combined.
Given the persistence of rural economic woes and the lack of a clear path to a better future, it's understandable that in 2016 rural voters took a long shot on a wild card candidate. During his campaign, President Trump promised to scrap a failing status quo and focus on issues that resonated with rural voters like fairer trade deals, infrastructure investment, regulatory rollback, and the return of manufacturing jobs. Desperate to have their voices heard, rural voters gave President Trump the win, with a margin 29 points higher in rural counties than in cities.
However, despite Trump's pandering and bluster, rural communities are not seeing improvements. Heading into the 2020 election, it's time to evaluate how rural communities are faring under President Trump, and how a Democratic alternative who listens to rural Americans might fare better. All it takes is a quick look to see that he's failing the Reagan test.
The president's ready, fire, aim approach to trade has done far more damage to American farmers, manufacturers, and customers than our foreign competitors. His agricultural tariffs have devastated family farm pocket books and put their long-term prospects in jeopardy. If federal farm income forecasts are realized, inflation-adjusted income in 2019 will be 49 percent below its 2013 peak.
The president has closed off vital trade relationships — leading to drastic declines in exports across the United States and massive new record trade deficits. In North Dakota, soybean processors had all their orders from China cancelled, devastating sales.
Furthermore, this president has done nothing to ease opportunity gaps fueled by insufficient access to fundamental resources, including health care and education.
In the part of the country where death rates for the five leading causes of death are highest, about 100 rural hospitals have closed since 2010, and the number will likely increase. Hospital closures are worsening rural America's medical deserts, with some people having to travel over 100 miles to the closest facility.
Rural Americans also lack proper equity in education, which is troubling as education highly correlates with economic prosperity. In 2016, 14 percent of the rural population 25 and older had not completed high school and only 19 percent of rural adults had a bachelor's degree or higher in 2015.
Will Democratic leaders step in where the Republican Party has failed? If not, they will continue to see an erosion of support in rural America even as they improve margins in urban centers. The electoral arithmetic must incorporate the voices of rural Americans. The road to the White House cannot be paved without them.
Every election is an opportunity to make a choice and, despite his failings, President Trump could be poised to win by big margins in rural counties if Democrats do not offer a sound alternative in 2020.
In 2020, the One Country Project will elevate the issues important to rural America, demonstrate why the rural vote will be decisive in the upcoming election, and encourage leaders to take a serious look at policies that can help America's heartland.
Democrats need to reopen the dialogue with rural America and show these men and women that Democrats understand the reality of the family budget and conversations around the kitchen table. And we need to make promises and deliver on those promises. Because it is increasingly clear that President Trump has not and will not deliver.
Heidi Heitkamp, a CNBC contributor, served as the first female senator elected from North Dakota from 2013 until 2019.