Amid Turnout Concerns, Biden Continues to Win with Rural Voters

Before the coronavirus, Democratic turnout was up 20% compared to 2016. In Illinois, it was down 25%, with drops largest in core urban counties. Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders continues to lose ground in rural areas.

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A familiar pattern emerges in the preferences of rural voters in the Florida and Illinois Democratic primaries, held earlier this week.

Rural voters are lining up behind former Vice President Joe Biden, along with Democrats across the urban-rural spectrum.

It’s a contrast to primaries in the previous three election cycles, when we saw distinctive rural trends emerge in both the Democratic and Republican primaries.

On the Democratic side, the rural support that helped buoy Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’ primary bid in 2016 has evaporated. This year, Biden has rolled up the rural vote, alongside his victories in big and midsized cities, suburbs, and small metropolitan areas.

The trend continued in Illinois and Florida. (We’re still waiting on complete results from Arizona.)

In Illinois, there was little variation in voter preferences across the urban-to-rural spectrum. Biden won between 57% and 65% of the vote in every category of county, from major urban areas to remote rural counties.

That’s a marked contrast to 2016. That year, Sanders won against Hillary Clinton among every category of county except the core counties of major metropolitan areas (largely Chicago). Clinton rolled up a 9 point lead in those core metro counties, enough to give her a narrow victory statewide.

Sanders beat Clinton with rural voters by about 8 points in 2016. This year, he lost in those same counties to Biden by more than 30 points.

(Daily Yonder graphic. See county categories at the bottom of the story)

In Florida, Biden won about two-thirds of the vote across the board, from the Miami metro (which ranks seventh largest in the nation) to the state’s rural (nonmetro) counties.

In 2016, Sanders lost Florida by about 30 points to Clinton. The only bright spot in Sanders’ 2016 Florida race was his 23-point victory among rural voters. This year, he lost rural voters to Biden by 45 points.

The Impact of the Coronavirus

Since Biden’s winning streak began before widespread concern about the coronavirus, there’s no direct line between his victories this week and the pandemic. That trend was already in place.

But one place we can see the impact of COVID-19 is turnout.

Before the coronavirus became an all-consuming issue for American voters, turnout in the Democratic primary was up by bout 20% over 2016. In Florida this year, however, turnout was flat. And in Illinois, turnout was down from 2016 by about 25%.

In Illinois, turnout dropped by the biggest margin in the central counties of major and medium-sized metropolitan areas. Since residents there live in closer quarters than people in suburbs and small cities, perhaps they were more mindful of the risk of spreading the coronavirus.

These core urban counties are traditional strongholds of Democrats, which may raise questions about how voter reluctance could affect the general election in November.

County Categories

  • Major Metro Core: The core counties of metropolitan statistical areas of 1 million residents or more.
  • Major Metro Suburbs: Major metro counties outside the urban core.
  • Medium Metro Core: The core counties of metropolitan statistical areas of 250,000 to under 1 million residents.
  • Medium Metro Suburbs: Medium metro counties outside the urban core.
  • Small Metro: Metropolitan statistical areas with under 250,000 residents.
  • Nonmetro (Florida chart): Counties outside a metropolitan area
  •  Nonmetro Adjacent (Illinois chart): Nonmetropolitan counties that are adjacent to a metropolitan area.
  • Nonmetro Nonadjacent (Illinois chart): Nonmetropolitan counties that are not adjacent to a metropolitan area.
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