Voter turnout dropped across the country in the 2012 election, but the decline in rural counties was twice that of the nation as a whole. And most of that decline came from Democratic totals.
Turnout in November’s presidential election was down everywhere compared to 2008. Fewer people voted across the country this year than they did four years earlier.
But turnout in rural communities dropped at more than twice the rate found in urban counties.
“Neither of the candidates inspired rural voters to go vote,” observed James Gimpel, a University of Maryland political scientist, “although there was even less enthusiasm for Obama than there was for Romney.”
The election results back up Gimpel’s observation The drop in the number of rural voters in 2012 appears to have been concentrated among Democrats.
The chart above shows turnout in 2008 and 2012. Turnout is expressed as the percentage of those over 18 in the population who voted for president.
We have a national total on the far left of the graph. You can see that 57.9 percent of those over 18 nationally voted in 2008. That dropped to 52.5 percent in 2012, just over a 9 percent decline.
We then divided counties into three categories: urban, small cities (between 10,000 and 50,000 people) and rural. You can see that turnout dropped everywhere, but that turnout declined more as the population became more rural.
Turnout in small cities declined 13.7 percent, dropping from 61.1 percent to 52.7 percent.
And turnout in rural counties fell from 67.2 percent in 2008 to 54.9 percent in 2012. That is a whopping 18.3 percent decline, double the national rate.
Rural residents still voted more than those in the cities, but the decline is remarkable. And, as the county groups grow less urban, the turnout decline grows larger.
Moreover, this decline in rural counties appears to be mostly a Democratic phenomenon. In an earlier story, we noted that the decline in the rural vote appeared to come largely from Democratic voters.
Turnout was high in 2008, and about 70 percent of that increase over 2004 came in Democratic votes. Similarly, the decline in the rural vote in 2012 came largely from Democratic totals.
We asked James Gimpel, a political scientist at the University of Maryland, to look at this phenomenon and he came to the same conclusion. Gimpel examined rural counties with fewer than 10,000 people.
“In the most rural non-metro counties (those under 10,000 people), the number of Obama votes dropped by about 22%,” Gimpel wrote us in an email. “That isn’t quite the same as a measure of Democratic turnout, but it’s as close as we can get for now.”
Gimpel went on to say that “the number of Romney votes in these same counties also dropped, by about 5%. Less enthusiasm on the GOP side, too.”
Gimpel wrote that “the drop-off in the number of votes for Obama is understandable, as rural areas are known to be conservative, but those votes apparently didn’t go to Romney, because his performance was worse than (John) McCain’s (in 2008). Romney did better than McCain in all areas except the most rural and the most urban.”
Bill Bishop is co-editor of the Daily Yonder and Roberto Gallardo is Assistant Extension Professor at the Southern Rural Development Center at Mississippi State University.