The slight difference between rural and urban voters in the early Republican primaries turned into a double digit gap in Ohio.

Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney was leading former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum by one percentage point statewide in Ohio Wednesday morning. But the race wasn’t very close at all if you split out rural, urban and exurban counties.

Romney’s winning margin over Santorum was nearly 8 percentage points in Ohio’s urban counties.

But Romney lost the rural vote to Santorum by more than 12 percentage points.

The chart above shows the division of Tuesday’s vote in Ohio’s rural counties. Santorum easily won in these communities. 

Just as significant, however, are the returns from exurban counties. Exurban communities are attached to metro regions — they are considered urban by the U.S. Census — but they have large rural populations. These counties have contained large deposits of Republican votes.

Tuesday, these counties went for Santorum. (Go to the next page for a chart.) The former Pennsylvania senator beat Romney by nearly 9 percentage points in exurban Ohio.


Romney did win in the cities, beating Santorum in these areas by nearly 8 percentage points.


The Republican vote in Ohio is a toned down version of the 2008 contest between Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Clinton won in rural and exurban counties. Obama won in the cities.

In 2008, however, the rural urban gap was massive. Clinton won 64.4% of the rural vote in Ohio. Obama won just 32.7%.

Still, the pattern is the same. What might cause Romney and Republicans some concern, however, is that the turnout in the cities may have been subdued. In Ohio, 70.5 percent of the population lives in urban counties. In the Republican primary, however, only 63.7 percent of the vote came from Ohio cities. 

Either urban voters are unenthusiastic, or there are just that many fewer urban Republicans.

Just over 23 percent of the vote in the Ohio Republican primary came from rural voters; 13.2 percent of the vote came out of the exurbs.

Romney’s inability to connect with rural Republicans is getting more pronounced — and may even grow as the primaries next week turn to the South. In a headline in Monday’s Los Angeles Times, Michael Finnegan reports that in the rural South, “Mitt Romney just doesn’t connect.” 

It’s not that rural Republican voters prefer President Obama. They don’t . Romney’s problem is getting Republicans to vote.

“Turnout: That’s why it’s important,” said Curtis Gans, director of the Center for the Study of the American Electorate. “Lack of enthusiasm will lead to lower turnout.”

The next full primary votes are next Tuesday in Mississippi and Alabama.