Contrary to What You Hear, the Rural-Urban Gap Didn’t Grow in 2018 Election
Despite stories about the “deepening divide” between rural and urban, the difference between major-city voters and rural voters changed very little in last year’s election. In fact, Democrats made a 4-point comeback with rural voters in 2018.
The oft-told story of the 2018 election is that the gap between rural and urban voters grew. If you don’t believe it, just search for urban and rural and 2018. You’ll be overwhelmed with stories about how “America’s urban-rural divide deepens” and the “deepening American divide.” This story gets repeated until everyone knows it’s true. It isn’t.
The charts on this page show the Democratic and Republican votes in all House and presidential races from 2006 through 2018. We’ve split the results out by location, beginning with the counties at the center of the nation’s largest metro regions and counties that aren’t part of a metropolitan statistical area. (In this article, nonmetropolitan is synonymous with rural.)
You can see that in 2006, the vote for House members (represented by the blue and red lines; the bars are presidential results) was close in almost every geographic category. The only place any party dominated was in the core counties of urban areas with more than a million people.
Over the next six election cycles, Democrats continued to gain in these central city counties. Republicans gained majorities in smaller cities or in suburbs of medium sized cities and in rural counties. The two parties battled in the suburbs of the major metropolitan areas, where over 29 percent of voters lived in 2018.
The political division wasn’t rural versus urban. It was big city Democrats versus everybody else.
The simplest explanation for the 2018 House results is “blue wave.” Every area grew more Democratic. Democrats won the suburbs and they cut their losses in rural counties. And central city counties grew even more Democratic.
The gap between rural and urban areas shrank a tiny bit even as both geographies got considerably more Democratic.
In other words, 2018 didn’t see an increase in the rural/urban gap. This election saw a Democratic comeback in rural areas and an increasing concentration of Democratic voters in central cities.
Since the election, polls show a dramatic dip in support for President Trump in rural areas. “Trump loves sharing maps of the 2016 election results that show wide swaths of rural America colored dark red,” the Washington Post’s Philip Bump wrote earlier this year. “In our most recent poll, though, rural voters went from viewing Trump’s job performance favorably by 38 points on net to a net plus-eight — a 30-point drop.”
Will the Democratic Party recognize this shift in rural votes and act on it? The editorial page of the Roanoke Times is asking Democratic candidates to begin talking about economic growth in rural counties.
And two Democratic activists talk in the Daily Yonder about their party’s coastal myopia.
But is anybody listening? The Democratic Party is essentially following its voters, who are increasingly urban. Just over 24 percent of the Democratic presidential vote in 2008 lived in small metros (under 250,000 people) or in rural counties. In 2016, that number dropped to 16.7 percent, a 31 percent decline.
At the same time, the share of the Democratic vote residing in major metropolitan areas or in the centers of mid-sized cities increased 12 percent, from 70.6 percent in 2008 to 79 percent in 2016.
The Democratic Party has less reason to consider voters outside the nation’s largest cities because fewer Democrats live there. Perhaps this is why the Roanoke Times concludes that “Democratic attempts to re-connect with rural America haven’t been encouraging.”