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Conventional wisdom says that Rep. Eric Cantor lost his Republican primary to a more conservative candidate thanks, at least in part, to the preference of rural voters.
It’s a hard conclusion to draw from the facts, however.
The data is scant, but what there is paints a much more complex picture about the preferences of rural and metropolitan voters in Virginia’s 7th District congressional race.
Cantor, considered a shoo in in his GOP primary, lost to tea party challenger Dave Brat by a whopping 12 points, 56 44%.
The New York Times reports that one cause (admittedly, among several) was that Cantor is Jewish and therefore “was culturally out of step with a redrawn district that was more rural, more gun oriented and more conservative,” according to David Wasserman, a House political analyst at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
At the county level in Virginia’s 7th, there’s not a lot of rural data on which to base that conclusion. But what there is points in the other direction.
Out of 65,000 votes cast in the primary, only about 4,400 came from nonmetropolitan counties (Louisa and Orange). The rest came from counties in metropolitan statistical areas.
But of those 4,400 nonmetro votes, Cantor won 52%, versus Brat’s 48%.
That’s right. The man who allegedly lost because his district was redrawn to include more rural voters actually won the vote in the most rural counties in his district.
That doesn't add up.
The general consensus is that Brat’s surprising victory in a low turnout race shows that politically hard core voters didn’t like Cantor’s stand on immigration reform, and they thought he wasn’t hard enough on President Obama, Time reports.
If that’s the case, then voters in suburban and urban counties were more upset about Cantor’s behavior on those issues than voters in rural counties were.
And if, as Wasserman asserts, Cantor's religion was a factor, you sure can't tell if from the nonmetro voting results.
We’d temper this conclusion by saying county level voting tallies are a pretty rough approximation of rural and urban political differences at the level of congressional districts. And, again, the number of nonmetro votes was small – only about 7% of the total.
But if rural voters were really categorically “culturally disconnected” from Eric Cantor, you’d expect it to show up in the nonmetro county vote.