‘D’ Is for Disadvantage: Democrats Have an Identity Problem in Rural
Democrats are losing rural votes not because of what they propose but because rural voters identify more with the Republican Party. “Democratic” ballot initiatives do well in rural, but Democratic candidates don’t.
In politics these days, it’s not as much what is said as who says it.
The reports on the November 6 election have been largely about the growing political divide between rural and urban. Urban voters are getting more Democratic and rural voters more Republican.
We’ll see how much that actually came to pass as voting results are made final. What we can see now, however, is that Democratic candidates are paying an “identity penalty” in rural counties — they are losing votes not because of what they propose but because of the “D” that sits beside their name on the ballot.
In state after state, rural voters both rejected Democratic candidates by wide margins, but, on the same ballot, voted for very “Democratic” (if not downright liberal) positions in nonpartisan propositions and amendments.
Consider what happened in Florida. There, Democrat Bill Nelson, the incumbent U.S. senator, received just 33 percent of the votes out of the state’s rural counties. (That race is still in dispute and a recount is underway.)
However, these same voters were asked to vote on Amendment 4 to the state constitution. The measure would restore voting rights to convicted felons who have completed their sentences. (The amendment would not apply to those convicted of murder or felony sex crimes.) As many as 1.2 million Floridians who had served their time for a felony had been barred from voting – and that number was disproportionately African American.
A majority of those who had lost this right of citizenship were registered Democrats, according to a study conduced by the Tampa Bay Times and Miami Herald. Republicans opposed Amendment 4. Gov. Rick Scott spoke against it and so did the Republican candidate for governor, Ron DeSantis. Democrats and the ACLU favored Amendment 4.
Naturally, given the “divide,” we’d expect rural voters to vote against Democrats, against the ACLU and against something that would favor African Americans. They would follow their party. Right?
The difference in Florida in rural votes for a progressive position (favored by Democrats) and a real live Democrat is just a shade over 20 percentage points. That’s what we’re calling the “identity penalty” – the difference between who makes a proposal and the proposal itself.
Now, the vote in rural Florida for Amendment 4 was still lower than the state average by just under 10 percentage points. Rural areas may be more conservative than urban areas. But the difference is within shouting distance.
Meanwhile, the difference in party voting between rural Florida and the cities is more than 20 percentage points. Just over 33 percent of rural Floridians voted Democratic in the Senate race, compared to about 55 percent in the biggest cities.
Party is largely about identification these days, not policy. Columbia political scientist Donald Green has described the choice of political party as more like being a sports fan than a policy wonk.
Imagine walking down a hall of a large building, Green wrote, describing how people join political parties. There are gatherings happening in two separate rooms. You can look through a door and see the people in each group. You size them up, seeing what kind of clothes they wear and imagining whether they would be the kind of folks you’d want to spend time with or have your children visit. You make a judgment, pick a room and go in. You join a team.
That’s how political parties are chosen. It’s about identification and social solidarity, not issues. And that identity is strong and divided by geography. Rural residents went in one door and urban dwellers went in the other.
What we saw in Tuesday’s election, however, is that when policy is divorced from party, people can make different decisions. And it wasn’t just in Florida.
In Missouri, only 27 percent of rural residents voted for incumbent Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill. (See Richard Oswald’s column.) But 53 percent of rural voters favored raising the minimum wage, limiting gerrymandering of legislative districts and putting a lid on lobbyists – all normally Democratic positions.
In Utah, 27 percent of rural residents voted for Democrat Jenny Wilson against Republican Mitt Romney for an open U.S. Senate seat. But 50 percent of rural Utah voted in favor of full Medicaid expansion, which will be paid for in part with a slight rise in the sales tax.
The Republican Utah legislature had passed a limited expansion of Medicaid. But Utah voters wanted a full expansion – which is, of course, a key component of the health care reforms passed under President Barack Obama, a.k.a. Obamacare.
Medicaid expansion also passed in Nebraska and Idaho, two reliably Republican states.
There are perhaps two lessons from these results. The first, says ABC television analyst and former George W. Bush White House adviser Matt Dowd, is that so-called progressives in some states might do better by pushing referenda and amendments rather than Democratic candidates. “Instead of trying to accomplish policy through partisan legislature,” Dowd wrote in an email, “go directly to ballot initiatives where possible.” (Dowd’s take on this phenomenon is here.)
Second, identity is not something that people easily give up. (Have you ever convinced a sports fan to change his or her allegiance?) And so the “identity penalty” Democrats pay in heavily Republican areas might be too great to overcome. Candidates might do better if they run as independents rather than as Democrats in particularly “red” states.
This would only work, Dowd says, if Democrats “step down” and refuse to offer a candidate and split the vote. Then voters will confront the issues and the “identity penalty” might not be as harsh.
The results from last week’s election would say that strategy might work.
Bill Bishop is a contributing editor and co-founder of the Daily Yonder.