Q&A: Appalachian Voters Can't Be 'Pigeonholed'
In 2016, 95 percent of Appalachian counties voted for Donald Trump for president. Since then, the national media was quick to label the region as ‘Trump Country.’
Four years later, reporters in North Carolina dug a bit deeper and found there is more nuance.
Journalists from two newspapers, The News & Observer, and the Charlotte Observer, spent months interviewing people from every county in their state. They made 100 videos, asking voters what is on their minds. Travis Long produced and reported for the project. He spoke with Caitlin Tan about the Journey Across the 100 project.
This story has been lightly edited for clarity.
Caitlin Tan: So the Journey Across the 100 project looks at all regions in North Carolina, some of which are part of Appalachia, but some would be considered more East Coast. I'm assuming there were a variety of voters and views. Can you tell me about some of the big takeaways?
Travis Long: I think probably one of the more obvious takeaways for us was that there's definitely an urban, rural divide here in North Carolina. However, it's hard to pigeonhole rural communities as being a monolith. There's a lot more nuance there. There's a lot of issues that maybe don't come up in more developed areas that do come up in rural areas, even when we talk about things like infrastructure. There are still areas of western North Carolina in the mountains that don't have broadband -- that don't have cell service -- because of the mountains. There's also the opioid epidemic that has hit the Appalachian community especially hard.
Tan: And what was the impetus for the project?
Long: The idea was that we wanted to sort of talk to a really diverse cross section of people, and go to every single county, which there are 100 counties in North Carolina, and talk to people of all ages, people of all racial backgrounds, income backgrounds, minimum wage workers, retired people, pillars of the community and people who might otherwise just be overlooked. Our state is really diverse. It has a landscape that goes from the mountains, all the way to the beach and everything in between. And keep in mind that when we did this, the bulk of it was over six months in the later part of 2019. This was before COVID.
Tan: Were you surprised by some of the feedback or, the opinions and answers you heard from voters? Especially in the Appalachian region?
Long: We would ask people to describe their community -- how connected they feel to the people that represent them, how the economy was doing for them and their family in particular, and the top three issues or so that were going to influence how they vote in 2020. And then one of my favorite questions that really sort of elicited some really interesting answers was, “What keeps you up at night?” It's interesting, too, because you might have someone who you think would fit into a specific voting category, they might be very pro-Second Amendment, but at the same time, they may be really concerned about climate change. And I think it's really hard to just pigeonhole people into a set of issues and expect that that's how people are going to vote. I was surprised to find that a lot of people don't vote straight ticket.
Tan: What were some of people's top three issues that you can remember, or, or an example of some of the things that maybe kept people up at night?
Long: I think a majority of people had a concern about the polarization of our current politics, and how polarized things have become. And then there were the sort of everyday kitchen table issues, whether it be healthcare, or whether it be agricultural concerns, in some cases, climate change and Second Amendment. And then honestly, the answers were oftentimes really diverse, just depending on who we were talking to in the community.
Tan: You know, I think some of these more rural areas have a little bit of a distrust in the media, just from national media kind of doing parachute journalism -- showing up for a couple days, reporting on surface level issues and then leaving -- and it's kind of made, at least in my experience, some people shy of even talking to a local reporter. So I'm wondering, going into more rural counties, how did you feel like you and your team were received, especially when you're talking about kind of delicate issues?
Long: It was most definitely a challenge. I think for journalists, especially on the local level, this is a really difficult environment to work in. I think what you have to do as a journalist is to not be judgmental, to make people feel comfortable that you're going to listen to them and not judge them, and that you're going to represent what they say accurately.
Tan: Is there a county that stands out to you or a specific experience or someone that you met who stands out to you?
Long: Yeah. I'm a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. I have a lot of family that are on the Qualla Boundary, the Cherokee Indian Reservation there, that covers Swain and Jackson County. And so those were particularly fun counties for me to do just because it holds such a personal place in my heart.
Tan: Well, it's funny you say that, because I actually have a question about Swain County -- that was one of the videos that stood out to me. Swain County is a part of Appalachia, but then also the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians. And it feels like sometimes those are voices that get left out of the national conversation about Appalachia. And that video featured the voice of Mary Crow, who you guys said was an environmental advocate in the area. I have a short little clip, I'd like to play and then maybe you can react to it.
Mary Crow [Swain County Journey Across the 100 video]: I have a deep concern about the climate change that is going on, our crops are getting, you know, dried up, production, their fruit-bearing trees, are real small. I mean, there's just, you can see the effects of climate change, just here. We have to be consciously aware of how we use and abuse Mother Earth.
Long: I think our people have a special connection to the land itself. It's in our language, it's in our traditions, it's in our way of life. The land is part of us. And it's reflected in our community, the way that we conduct our lives, the way that our tribe governs itself and the way that we approach the world. And so I think Mary's perfectly summed up, you know, what some of our concerns are, and how we might see things differently than we would if we didn't have that connection to the land.
Tan: What do you hope the project accomplishes? And what do you hope people take away from watching some of the videos?
Long: I hope people can watch these videos and see themselves in it. I hope that they can see their family in it. I hope that they can take away hearing someone's perspective, sort of unfiltered, and being able to relate to them.