The tiny town of Farmville, Virginia may seem like an unlikely place for the first and only vice presidential debate this election season. But Farmville illustrates one side of the divide that makes Virginia a key swing state this election season.
Farmville with its’ strong contingent of rural, conservative voters is only an hour away from Democratic vice presidential candidate Tim Kaine’s home of Richmond, a diverse, Democratic-leaning city that previously elected him mayor. The two municipalities with their rural/urban split and differing views of the presidential candidates are a study in lifestyle and political contrasts.
The latest polls out of Virginia show Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton with a seven-point lead in the state but in the days leading up to the debate, campaign signs for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and vice-presidential candidate Mike Pence dominate the roads to Farmville, population 8,000.
Once a center of factories that processed tobacco leaves from surrounding farms, Farmville is now a place where many voters are concerned about jobs and the economy and willing to consider the Trump-Pence ticket’s message of bringing jobs back to America even though Tim Kaine is their current senator.
But an August 2016 Washington Post poll breaking down the rural and urban divide in Virginia found Clinton has been able to hold a strong lead in the state due to her popularity with larger numbers of minority voters who cancelled out Trump and Pence’s advantage with voters in the southwestern part of the state where Farmville is located.
The outcome is important in this divided state, with Virginia considered to be a "battleground." Its votes in the electoral college go entirely to the winner, important to both campaigns in what is shaping up to be a close contest on November 8.
Carolyn Bowman, a life-long resident of the nearby town of Rice, Virginia, is one of those rural voters who says everyone she knows is voting for Trump.
“He’s going to put people back to work, and he wants to put people back work,” she says of her passionate support of Donald Trump. Bowman built a landscaping and country store business from scratch 17 years ago, employing her six sisters in a way that recalls how they worked together as children in the tobacco fields.
“I am 100 percent pure country woman, and I work hard,” she says proudly. For Bowman, Trump is a business man who speaks to her own strong work ethic and who will address the issue that concerns her most in election 2016: government entitlements.
At their weekly ritual Sunday dinner, Bowman and three generations of her family – all of whom say they support Trump - recall the past when people had reasons to work hard.
“People wanted to dream and have things like a white picket fence,” Bowman says. “Now they just want to give it to them. People wanted to give it to them because the government has gotten so into it – giving out the handouts.” She sees a Trump presidency as a chance to help change that trend.
“I work anybody that’s willing to work just like Donald Trump,” Bowman says.
Economic anxiety is easy to find at the twice-annual flea market Bowman holds in the parking lot of her landscaping business. Families set up tables with antiques and second-hand goods – many of them saying this is market is just another stop on the circuit as they find a way to boost their incomes or even to make a living.
Cliff Christian - who says he works seven days a week at four different jobs to support his wife and seven-year old son – is one of those looking to make a living. His booth of goods features large “Trump for President” and Confederate flags that he says are just a good marketing strategy to bring people in during an uncertain election season.
“I’m struggling every week to pay my bills because right now it’s very hard,” Christian says. “I went in the hole several times within the past two months just trying to make it.” He won’t say who will earn his vote this November but he sees both candidates in a doubtful light.
“Everything’s messed up, and whoever gets elected has got a hard road ahead of them, and if they fail, they get the blame for everything that’s happening now,” he says. “I don’t envy either one of them.
Equal playing field
According to that August 2016 Washington Post poll of Virginia voters, both vice presidential candidates Mike Pence and Tim Kaine received equal “strongly unfavorable” ratings of twenty percent with Kaine edging out his Republican opponent 54-37 percent on the strongly favorable side.
The poll is a sign that while many voters here in the Farmville area will be rooting for Pence on debate night, the demographics of Virginia’s city voters, who are much more familiar with Kaine’s work as governor and senator, will likely favor his side of the ticket on Election Day.
As she stands on the parking lot of the business she created, Bowman says the choice in this election is clear. She says, “I know that I have worked hard my whole life, and I am tired of this country being given away.”
But in a heated election season that has shown how demographics sharply divide the different parts of the American electorate, it is not hard to see that both sides of the vice presidential debate perceive a home field advantage in Farmville, Virginia.