Politics & Elections: Rural-Urban Voters’ False Dichotomy

A recent wave of political stories seeks to explain the “rural” appeal of presidential candidate Donald Trump. But the analysis is marred by a fuzzy and often flat-out wrong definition of rural. Rural voters trend Republican, but in 2014, so did all voters except those in the largest metro areas.

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There has been a spate of articles recently that try to explain what’s behind the rural support for Republican Donald Trump. Consider a story by National Public Radio headlined “Is ‘Rural Resentment’ Driving Voters to Donald Trump?”

Reporter Danielle Kurtzleben finds that rural areas are more Republican than the cities. Well, actually she finds that only those people who live in metro areas of a million or more vote in large majorities for Democrats. Every place outside those major metros mostly votes Republican.

(Yonder readers know this already. In the 2014 congressional races, Republicans got a majority of the votes, on average, in all but the nation’s largest metro areas.)

One key to understanding current political reporting is that many national reporters seem to think that any area that is not within a major U.S. city is rural. Which leads to an aside: Isn’t it interesting how this data is always pitched as rural versus urban. A better description is that the nation’s huge cities are voting very differently from everyone else.

The NPR reporter runs down the differences between major cities and the rest of the country – major cities are more mixed racially, for example, and people there on average have more education. But she makes the case that “living in a rural area by itself shapes a person’s politics, and can particularly drive a voter toward Trump.”

“There’s this sense that people in those communities are not getting their fair share compared to people in the cities,” said Katherine Cramer, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin who studied how Gov. Scott Walker appealed to rural voters.

“They feel like their communities are dying, and they perceive that all that stuff — the young people, the money, the livelihood — is going somewhere, and it’s going to the cities,” she said.

Cramer has labeled these intense, negative feelings against people in the cities “rural resentment.” For example, Cramer said that rural people perceive (rightly) that their kids don’t have the same opportunities as kids in some suburban and city schools, like AP classes.

This is a common theme. In the New York Times, writer Daniel Hayes says Trump has become the “most pro-gun-rights nominee in modern G.O.P. history,” harnessing “the power of the Second Amendment people – a strength that comes less from unity than desperation.” The desperation, he writes, is primarily economic. Hayes comes from Bell County in Kentucky’s coal mining region and says that voters “in towns like mine have come to view themselves as the men on the wall guarding the last outpost of a disappearing way of life.”

Meanwhile, there is more news about the hard economic times in many counties, a lot of them rural. The Washington Post is running a series on the increasing death rates among white women. In this latest installment, reporter Terrence McCoy visits with an undertaker in a rural Kentucky county.

Back on the campaign trail, the Hill notes that Trump is attacking Democrat Hillary Clinton on “rural issues.” Like what? Ben Kamisar reports on a speech by Trump Saturday:

The GOP nominee is often criticized for vague promises and an unsteady handle on issues, especially when compared to the wonkish Clinton. Saturday, he bolstered his arguments with a figures-heavy speech that also touched on energy and agriculture.

Trump promised to eliminate the “destructive and invasive” Waters of the United States rule, which he argued is “so extreme it gives federal agencies control over creeks and small streams — even puddles — on private property.”

He also listed statistics on the benefits of removing energy regulation, accusing the Obama administration of stifling job growth and economic output by enforcing regulation.

Under Clinton, he said, it would be worse.

“Hillary Clinton supports every last job-killing Obama regulation and wants to go even further,” Trump said.

“She wants to put the farmers out of business, just like she wants to put the miners and steel workers out of business.”

Finally, we would remind everyone that if the fight is between rural and urban voters, urban is going to win every time. Only about 15 percent of the population lives in a rural county.

Contributing Editor Bill Bishop is a founder of the Daily Yonder.

 

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