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Democrats Must Bridge Urban-Rural Divide to Win in 2016

Rural communities pose a challenge to Democrats who will need their support to win the presidency.

(Photo: Rural Vermont via Shutterstock)

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Hidden from most public opinion polls and political issue analyses of the upcoming 2016 election is the increasing fragmentation of the US electorate. US politics operates on the norms and values of two cultures that are distinct and potentially disruptive: one urban, the other rural.

An urban-rural schism has been apparent in the United States since the late 18th century. However, since the 1970s, urban and rural political, economic and cultural differences have created the potential for a Balkanization of the US political landscape.

Laura Meckler and Dante Chinni claim urban residents are more than three times as likely as rural residents to claim religion is not important in their lives. A June 2015 Pew poll found 32 percent of people who live in urban areas are more likely to know a lot of people who are gay or lesbian as opposed to those who live in rural areas (20 percent). An August 2015 Pew Research study found 60 percent of urban households say it is important to control gun ownership, while 63 percent of rural households prioritize protecting gun rights. In the 2012 presidential election, only four major US cities, Phoenix, Oklahoma City, Fort Worth and Salt Lake City, voted Republican.

The rise of a post-industrial global economy has exacerbated structural differences between urban and rural areas.

Demographic differences related to age, educational attainment, socioeconomic status and political ideology are creating two distinct American societies. As Josh Kron noted in The Atlantic, “the new political divide is a stark division between cities and what remains of the countryside … virtually every major city (100,000-plus population) in the United States has a different outlook from the less populous areas that are closest to it.”

According to a study conducted at Michigan State University’s American Communities Project, approximately 46 million people live in rural counties in the United States. The majority of rural residents have a common identity: They are white (85 percent), have a median household income below $50,000 and are over 62 years of age. The report’s author, Dante Chinni, notes, “Rural America is sprawling and diverse in economies and population, but the larger trends for the whole are clear – As a whole it is aging, struggling economically, and strongly conservative.”

The rise of a post-industrial global economy has exacerbated structural differences between urban and rural areas. On the one hand, the urban core is a magnet for investment and employment, and possesses the amenities, creative talent and centers of learning, innovation and finance necessary to capitalize on the influences of globalization. On the other hand, globalization has ravaged the manufacturing sector of many rural communities that lack economic diversification. Insecurity in the agricultural sector has emerged due to declining commodity prices and a much stronger dollar, making US agricultural products less competitive in international markets. Rural agriculture and manufacturing have also suffered due to global competition from China and Brazil. These structural transformations have led to depopulation, stagnant economic growth, technological inertia and a general sense of malaise in many rural communities.

A 2014 report by the US Department of Agriculture found that during the post-recession period of 2010 to 2014, urban employment rose by 5 percent, while employment in rural areas increased only 1.1 percent. The rural median income of $41,198 in 2012 was 8.4 percent below its pre-recessionary peak of $44,974. The report noted median household income in rural areas was 78 percent of the urban median income ($52,988) in 2012. A sluggish economy has led to out-migration. Between 2010 and 2013, 61 percent of all non-metro counties lost population. The decline occurred across a range of occupational areas including recreation, manufacturing and farming.

Stark differences in educational attainment are also apparent. From 2008 to 2012, the share of working age adults with at least a four-year college degree was 14 percentage points higher in urban areas than rural areas. Educational attainment correlated with demographic stability. Those counties with higher college completion rates tended to gain population, while those with lower education levels declined. College completion often leads young college graduates to leave rural areas for higher-paying jobs in urban centers.

The margin of error will be too close in 2016 for a Democratic candidate to ignore rural America.

A perception has emerged that the source of rural America’s ills is the federal government – increasingly viewed as disconnected from rural life and unresponsive to the economic and cultural realities of rural communities – and as a result, many rural voters have become politically disillusioned. Rural communities have historically been attracted to a populist message critical of mainstream Washington politics. It is not surprising that the political cynicism of Ted Cruz and the racialized fearmongering of Donald Trump have found a receptive audience throughout the rural United States.

The conservative nature of rural America is most apparent in the South. Research conducted by political scientist Seth McKee found that Southern rural voters in recent elections have not only surpassed support for Republican candidates by Northern rural voters, but also they have cast more votes for Republican candidates than Republican urban voters in all but two presidential elections from 1952 to 2004.

In the 2012 presidential election, Bill Bishop has shown turnout in rural counties decreased by 3 million votes from the 2008 election. Seventy percent of the decrease came from Democrats who sat out the election. Bishop argues that rural Democratic turnout dropped in the 2012 election because of three factors: Barack Obama did not deliver on promises to rein in the excessive corporate power of the food industry during his first term; Obama failed to seriously campaign in rural areas in the 2012 election; and because Democrats are a distinct minority in rural electoral politics, “community censure” led them to not exercise their right to vote.

The political implications of the rural-urban divide are significant. Rural communities often have difficulty competing with the urban core for scarce governmental appropriations, increasing their alienation and mistrust toward government power. Rural economic and social dislocation has led to a sense of malaise and anger toward “business-as-usual politicians.”

Many rural conservatives feel the federal government has become a threat. According to this view, government policies constrain agricultural production with environmental regulations, promise prosperity from free trade agreements that never quite deliver economic growth and do nothing to stop the bleeding of outsourced manufacturing jobs. As a result, the perception of rural America as the last refuge of rugged individualism becomes a fading dream.

Rural voters who feel alienated from the federal government then become more likely to turn to right-wing groups such as the anti-government militia that took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. Writing in The New York Times, Nancy Langston describes how rural communities in the West feel federal government land management policies have led to diminished resources and economic decline. The perceived solution: “if they got rid of the federal government, they’d have control over their land and lives again.”

The burden of the rural vote will fall most heavily on the Democratic candidate this November. In the 2012 presidential election, the turnout of rural Democratic voters dropped 6 percentage points from 2008. A Gallup poll released on January 11, 2016, found the percentage of US adults identifying themselves as Democrats is the lowest in 27 years. To keep control of the presidency, the Democrats must maintain their base support in the urban core and inner-ring suburbs while also reconnecting with rural voters. The margin of error will be too close in 2016 for a Democratic candidate to ignore rural America.

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