Liberals Are Celebrating a New Book on Rural Trump Voters That Falls Apart Under the Simplest Inspection

Maine state Sen. Chloe Maxmin correctly recognizes that coastal Democrats are confused by rural America. She’s exploiting their ignorance in “Dirt Road Revival.”

Rural Maine

A store covered with Trump signs in support of the former president is seen in Steep Falls, Maine, on Aug. 5, 2021.

Photo: Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

This past week, Maine Democratic state Sen. Chloe Maxmin has received glowing media attention for a new book about how to woo rural Donald Trump supporters. Maxmin, a 29-year-old first-term state senator and former member of Maine’s House of Representatives, and her campaign manager, Canyon Woodward, argue in their book “Dirt Road Revival: How to Rebuild Rural Politics and Why Our Future Depends on It” that the Democratic Party has “abandoned rural communities” and given up on trying to persuade people who disagree with them. Their book tour, which has stretched from the pages of the New York Times and Teen Vogue to the studio of Bill Maher, has focused on the insights she says she gleaned in flipping a rural state Senate district.

Their recent New York Times op-ed “What Democrats Don’t Understand About Rural America” describes how Maxmin — a progressive, small-town politician — stood up to party bosses, rejected standard Democratic Party dogma, and flipped solid Trump voting districts blue by having 20,000 face-to-face conversations with Trump voters over two election cycles. In a recent appearance on “Real Time With Bill Maher,” Maxmin lays out her argument this way:

I grew up in a House district and a Senate district in Maine that voted for Trump, and we just went out and started talking to folks and listening to people who did vote for Trump and try and have more of an honest conversation about what was happening. And we won in both of those seats. There were Trump signs next to Chloe signs, and we discovered all of this common ground with folks we usually write off. … It was so sad to see my community left behind by the Democratic Party, but also so hopeful at all of this space that we can build relationships for durable political power.

This is the kind of hopeful path forward in red America that Democrats in blue areas have been craving: that because she focused her campaign on engaging so many conservative voters, she was able to defeat a popular Republican incumbent in a Trump voting district. The possibility that Maxmin and her young team had cracked the “Make America Great Again” code is intoxicating. And it meant that Maxmin had no difficulty getting air and print space.

I share Maxmin’s concern that the national Democratic Party needs to do a better job of winning back rural voters. As a former state Representative who also defeated a Republican incumbent in a similar rural district up the coast, I also firmly believe in the mantra of knocking on doors and engaging with and listening to as many voters as possible. Like other Maine Democratic candidates, I was also able to get a few Republicans to put my lawn signs next to their signs for Republican Governor Paul LePage. But many of Maxmin’s claims about Senate District 13 and the nature of local Democratic campaigns in Maine are distortions and exaggerations.

Ironically, Maxmin accurately recognizes that liberals in New York and Los Angeles have a surface-level understanding of rural America which hampers their ability to connect. Instead of correcting those misperceptions, however, Maxmin deftly exploits the ignorance to spin tales that readers of the New York Times want to hear. Fact-checking her claims can’t be done with a single Google search but instead requires tabulating vote totals and taking a closer look at the district she actually represents. Here’s what that closer look reveals.

Map of Maine highlighting Lincoln County

Map of Maine highlighting Lincoln County.

Map: The Intercept; Wikimedia

The most glaring problem with her story of flipping a Trump district is that, running for state Senate, Maxmin did not actually flip any towns that voted for Trump.

Senate District 13 includes all but one town in wealthy, coastal Lincoln County with the addition of two neighboring conservative towns. Trump narrowly won Senate District 13 over Hillary Clinton by only 11 votes in 2016. In 2020, Maxmin lost all seven towns Trump won. Instead, Maxmin won her race with big enough margins in the wealthy areas to compensate for the Trump areas. In fact, Maxmin did not perform as well as Joe Biden, who won the whole district that year with 13,034 votes to Maxmin’s 12,806. And progressive U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree outperformed them both in District 13 — bringing into question how unique Maxmin’s win really was. (Republican Sen. Susan Collins did also win District 13, but she won in 14 out of 16 counties in Maine.)

Maxmin also claims in her book that Lincoln County is trending red, writing that “deeply ingrained frustration with Washington helps explain the phenomenon of so many counties across the country, including Lincoln County, Maine, that voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012 and then for Trump in 2016.” In fact, Lincoln County has voted for every Democratic presidential candidate since 2004 — including for Clinton in 2016. That’s not surprising, given that Lincoln County has a substantial population of middle- and upper-class retirees and transplants who reliably vote Democratic. And with more out-of-state liberal leaning voters moving here, it is trending even bluer.

Maxmin also writes, “Democrats only flipped one seat in the Maine State Senate — ours.” That’s incorrect. Democratic state Sen. Joe Rafferty also flipped a more conservative district in southern Maine that was previously held by Republicans.

And while it’s true that Maxmin flipped a state House seat in 2018, it was an open seat that she won as part of a large blue wave in the state. Her claim in her book that she is the first Democratic candidate to win in that district — House District 88 — is also misleading because the district has only existed since 2014. Before the lines were redrawn, a more conservative area including much of District 88 was also represented by Democrat Lisa Miller for three terms.

Maxmin deserves credit for her boundless energy; there’s no question that having tens of thousands of conversations with voters through both phone and door canvassing during her Senate campaign helped Maxmin against a popular incumbent, former Senate Minority Leader Dana Dow. Dow is a well-known, respected, and charismatic Republican who served Senate terms from 2004 to 2008 and 2016 to 2020. But Maxmin isn’t the first Democrat to defeat Dow. Former Sen. Chris Johnson, who served two terms representing Senate District 13, beat Dow in 2012 and served there until Dow defeated him in a rematch in 2016. Other Democrats represented Lincoln County from the mid-1990s until 2004. (Maxmin claims that Dow never lost a “general election,” and in fact Johnson beat Dow in a special election — which may be the distinction Maxmin is resting on to make her claim.)

Maxmin’s district has been trending blue for a long time, and the majority of the population of the county is represented by Democrats and one progressive independent in the State House. So if Maxmin is doing something unique, the result — a Democrat winning a rural district in Maine — is not.

Senate President Troy Jackson, D- Aroostook, conducts business at the State House, Tuesday, April 12, 2022 in Augusta, Maine. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Aroostook, conducts business at the State House in Augusta, Maine, on April 12, 2022.

Photo: Robert F. Bukaty/AP

There are also a lot of reasons why Maxmin’s strategy can’t translate easily to the rest of the country, which Maxmin and Woodward acknowledge in their op-ed. Just how unique Maine is may need a little emphasis for a national audience: Maine has a very large legislature for the size of its population of 1.36 million. With 151 House seats and 35 Senate seats, Maine House districts represent about 9,000 people and Senate districts have roughly 39,000 people. This structure allows for more face-to-face interactions and makes legislators much more accessible. Many lawmakers even put their cellphone numbers on their literature and websites.

For candidates in other states, Maxmin’s method would be incredibly difficult if not impossible to replicate. For instance, in West Virginia, a small state with similar demographics, state senators represent 54,500 residents on average. Maine also has a “Clean Elections” public financing system that allows candidates like Maxmin to focus less on fundraising and more on campaigning.

Maine also has a part-time citizen legislature where lawmakers earn about $25,000 salary for a two-year term, plus health care and very modest per diems for gas, food, and lodging. Incumbents struggle to balance campaigning with family responsibilities and earning enough income to survive. Half of Maine’s state legislators are self-employed or run a business, which allows for more flexibility than if they had to work a 9-to-5 job. Maine is the nation’s oldest state by median age, and more than a quarter of our lawmakers are retired because they have the time to devote to the job. When I ran for state representative, I was able to spend so much time campaigning because I was also in my 20s and had no responsibilities. I was able to cobble together enough income to survive on student loans and landscaping jobs and lived with my parents for my first campaign.

Maxmin didn’t have to hold a full-time job; she comes from a wealthy background and, according to her mandatory income disclosure reports, receives income from investments. She was fortunate to be raised by one of the most professionally accomplished couples to have made Maine their home. Her late father Jim Maxmin was CEO of Volvo and later Laura Ashley, a pioneer in the creation of the global supply-chain. Her mother, Shoshana Zuboff, is among the foremost chroniclers of the role of power and technology in the contemporary era, capping her career (to date) with the 2019 book “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism.” Zuboff attended and taught at Harvard University, where Chloe Maxmin also attended. (Jim Maxmin and Zuboff chose a farm in Nobleboro to raise their children and sent Chloe to Lincoln Academy, which the Harvard Crimson called a “public high school” in a profile of Maxmin. It’s true that students who live in the area can attend at a subsidized rate, but boarders from outside Maine owe $50,000 a year at the school founded in 1801. She told the Crimson there was no environmental club, so she started one. “We galvanized this huge movement in this rural Maine community where no one really talked about sustainability or environmentalism that much,” Maxmin said.)

She also had her fellow Harvard alums, Woodward and her field organizer Henney Sullivan, volunteering to work full-time on her campaign, which is a benefit most local candidates don’t have.

“I think [Maxmin] has a huge blind spot about her privileged position,” said April Thibodeau, a Lincoln County resident and former Maine House Democratic Campaign Committee organizer who worked on Maxmin’s House campaign.

The state and county Democrats also devoted a substantial amount of money, time, and labor to Maxmin’s campaign because her district was a key battleground district for control of the state Senate (which belies Maxmin’s claim that nobody in the party thought her race was winnable). As a result, it was one of the most expensive Senate races in Maine for outside spending in an election where Democrats vastly outspent Republicans. In addition to tens of thousands of dollars in independent spending, Maxmin outspent her opponent $68,478.70 to $33,700.44.

In their book, Maxmin and Woodward wrote that Maine Democrats told her they “don’t believe in talking to Republicans” — a claim disputed by Julia Brown, the former executive director of the Maine Senate Democratic Campaign Committee who worked on Maxmin’s campaign. In a Medium post, she points out that a key part of the Democratic strategy is to knock on doors and talk to rural voters.

In fact, Maine is the most rural state in the country, and Democrats couldn’t have won a Democratic trifecta of the governor’s office and both chambers of the legislature if they hadn’t talked to rural voters. All one has to do is look at Maxmin’s progressive caucus leader Senate President Troy Jackson — a labor activist, former Bernie Sanders surrogate, and a fifth-generation logger — who consistently outperforms Republicans and wins in his very rural Trump voting district in far northern Maine. Maxmin’s claim that Democrats in Maine don’t talk to Trump voters raises the question of why voters in an actual Trump district like Jackson’s keep voting for him if he doesn’t talk to them.

“Right now in the Maine Senate, Democrats hold the largest majority held by either party in over 30 years,” Brown wrote. “This was only possible by winning rural and non-rural senate districts and earning the support of both Biden and Trump voters. It wasn’t some messiah with an ‘only-I-can-fix-it-attitude’ that made the Maine Senate Democrats one of only two legislative chambers in the country to pick up seats in 2016. That didn’t secure us back-to-back historic majorities in 2018 and 2020 either.”

Thibodeau took particular offense to Maxmin’s anecdote about a man who claimed Democrats “didn’t even bother to knock on his door” because they “judged him for what his house looked like.”

“I can assure you we all talked to plenty of Republicans and independents. I’ve been down a lot of dirt driveways in Lincoln County in my time,” said Thibodeau. “I grew up in a trailer. I’m not skipping houses just because the person is low-income.” Poverty in Maine is not something that’s restricted to Trump voters.

What really happened is this: The Democrats provided Maxmin with what is known as a “persuasion” universe of voters in her district using voter data. It roots out both partisan Republicans and Democrats to come up with a list of gettable voters, including both unenrolled voters and Republicans. The final list comprises those voters who are considered the most persuadable.

Maxmin wanted to focus on those “forgotten” Republicans who had been discarded as unpersuadable. Brown, the party campaign aide, told her that it made no sense as a matter of prioritizing scarce resources, but the districts are so small, and Maxmin had so much energy, that it seemed mostly harmless.

“While Chloe used her candidates’ campaign to test her theory of deep organizing, the focus on actually winning her race went to the Senate Campaign Committee and volunteers.”

“From a strategy standpoint, it was baffling. But I loved Chloe and thought she could probably knock on all of the voters’ doors, so I said ‘Let’s do it,’” said Brown. “But while Chloe used her candidates’ campaign to test her theory of deep organizing, the focus on actually winning her race went to the Senate Campaign Committee and volunteers. This meant we had union guys taking time off work to knock doors and turn out people to vote.”

So while Maxmin focused on getting Trump voters, Democrats more broadly in the district, on her behalf, were talking to the persuasion universe of largely Republicans and independents. (In her interviews, she has focused on Trump voters, but in her Times op-ed, she and Woodward wrote that they “believed that Democrats could still win conservative rural districts if they took the time to drive down the long dirt roads where we grew up, have face-to-face conversations with moderate Republican and independent voters and speak a different language, one rooted in values rather than policy.”)

In my campaigns for state representative, I also used a similar strategy of deep canvassing that included reaching out to partisan Republicans. But in retrospect, I question this strategy of spending so much time talking to rock-ribbed conservatives. While I can also point to similar anecdotes of winning over conservative voters, it was most often because we connected on a personal level or they already knew me and respected my family. But hardcore partisan Republicans were seldom interested in supporting me no matter how much I tried to appeal to kitchen table issues or what Maxmin calls “rural values.” Brown said her team researched Maxmin’s theory to prove whether spending so much time on solid Republicans voters was worth the time and energy but couldn’t find any evidence of its effectiveness.

Harvard Sit-In Protests School's Investments

Chloe Maxmin, a co-founder of Divest Harvard, and other students staged a sit-in in Massachusetts Hall to protest the university’s decision not to divest from fossil fuel companies in Cambridge, Mass., on Feb. 12, 2015.

Photo: Pat Greenhouse/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Sen. Maxmin has been a great legislator, especially with her work bringing labor and environmental groups together to pass landmark Green New Deal legislation to create good union jobs in the renewable energy sector. She is also an excellent organizer and deserves a lot of praise for running a strong grassroots effort where she made 80,000 voter contact attempts over the course of the campaign. Making thousands of outreach calls to voters to offer aid and support at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic was an excellent idea. Knocking on doors and writing personalized, handwritten “clincher” postcards to every person she met on the campaign trail is a great strategy and one used by Maine Democrats for many years.

The fact that she ran her own campaign, designing her own literature and hand-painted signs, is proof of her commitment and of the freedom Maine Democrats give candidates to run their own campaigns. Unfortunately for many people who supported her, Maxmin has decided not to run again for her Senate seat and is instead focusing on going to law school, promoting her book, and creating a new nonprofit to help Democrats learn how to better campaign in rural districts.

Meanwhile, Democrats and grassroots activists in Lincoln County are focusing on holding onto Senate District 13 as we face what is shaping up to be a wave election for Republicans. With former Gov. Paul LePage making a comeback, control of the Senate will be critical to putting a check on his far-right policies if he’s reelected.

None of this is to diminish Maxmin’s success in winning her two races. She’s been a powerful voice for the climate in the legislature, while dealing with both ageism and sexism in the capital and on the campaign trail. What it does mean, though, is that there is no evidence her victories were in any way unusual, nor, sadly, are there lessons that can be scaled. Quite the opposite: A number of campaign organizers I spoke to expressed worries that other candidates might take Maxmin’s advice to heart and blow an election based on a theory tested in a blue-leaning district.

“Senator Maxmin’s playbook for rural campaigning leads Democrats into a dangerous trap,” says Brown. “By lumping all rural Mainers (and Americans) into one category, she insists the pathway to winning votes in a blue-leaning coastal community is the same pathway that wins votes in a rural community in the midwest. This one-size-fits-all approach is how Democrats lose a long-term rural strategy.”

Join The Conversation