Rural Democrats Stay Home in 2012
Republican Mitt Romney won rural America. There’s no doubt about that.
But it also appears that a decline in turnout in rural America is almost entirely attributable to the decision by Democratic voters to stay home. As a result, Democrats this year left a good number of rural votes on the table.
The chart above shows the results from rural, urban and exurban counties in the last three presidential elections. You can see that Romney soundly won rural counties, 59% to Obama's 39%.
The 2012 results mark a comeback for Republicans in rural. In 2008, candidate Barack Obama severely reduced the Republican Party’s rural advantage, winning nearly 6 percentage points more of the rural vote than John Kerry had in 2004.
Obama didn’t close that gap by turning Republicans into Democrats. Republican turnout increased in 2008 in rural counties, but Obama vastly increased the turnout of Democrats living in rural counties also.
This year, rural Democrats stayed home.
Turnout was down in 2012 from four years ago. And most demographic groups voted more Republican than they did in 2008, though the shifts weren’t enough to change the result. Altogether, the vote for Obama was down more than nine percent from 2008, nearly seven million votes.
About a third of that decline was due to lower Democratic turnout in rural counties.
Look at the chart below. It shows the absolute Republican and Democratic votes in rural counties in the last three presidential elections.
You can see that Republican presidential candidates got about the same number of votes in each of the last three elections — between 12.3 and 12.9 million votes.
Democrats Kerry and Obama received just over 8 million rural votes in the 2004 and 2012 elections. In 2008, however, Obama won about 10.6 million rural votes.
Yes, turnout was up in rural America in 2008, an increase of about 3.2 million over the average turnout in rural counties in 2004 and 2012.
But 2.24 million votes out of that increase were Democratic votes. When turnout increased in rural counties in 2008, 70 percent of that increase was attributable to Democratic voters.
Moreover, the turnout in rural counties was disproportionately strong in 2008. In 2008, the rural vote accounted for 18.3 percent of the national total. In the other two years, the rural vote was just over 17 percent of the national total.
Or, think about it this way: One third of President Obama’s decline in votes from 2008 was due to results from rural counties. But those counties make up only 17 percent of the nation’s voters.
The lesson seems to be that there are a lot of Democrats living in rural communities who just don’t vote — or they don’t vote unless they have a good reason.
Why did President Obama do so well in 2008 only to lose more than 2.2 million rural votes four years later? We don’t have an answer. The Obama campaign certainly concentrated more on rural communities and rural concerns in 2008. A good number of farm and ranch groups supported the Democrat because they thought he would enforce anti-trust laws in the food industry.
Those promises about anti-trust enforcement came to nothing, and the President barely set foot in rural America during this campaign. Maybe rural Democrats stayed home because the President didn’t deliver on promises from 2008, and he didn’t show up during the 2012 campaign.
There may be a social psychological explanation, also. People with minority political beliefs are loath to come out into the open. People surrounded by those with differing opinions keep quiet. They participate less in public affairs. They vote less.
Simply, there may be social pressures that are disproportionately suppressing the rural Democratic vote.
We don’t know the answer. We do know, however, that the decline in turnout in rural counties is due mostly to a decline in the number of Democratic voters.