The Wisconsin Rural Vote

Mitt Romney lost rural and exurban counties in Wisconsin yesterday, but Rick Santorum's margins were small and not nearly enough to overcome Romney's 10 point win in the cities.

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The Republican primary yesterday followed a familiar pattern: Rick Santorum did better in rural and exurban counties than in the cities, but the difference was small and not nearly enough to overcome Mitt Romney’s vote in urban areas.

Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, won primaries in Wisconsin, Maryland and Washington, D.C. yesterday and now appears on his way to the nomination.

Wisconsin was the most contested of the contests. Santorum, a former senator from Pennsylvania, made a point of campaigning in rural areas. He made a tour of bowling alleys in small towns. He wore farm work clothes and repeatedly told people that he was the candidate who could turn out votes in small town America.

“I’m asking small-town America, rural America, rural Wisconsin to come out and speak loudly tomorrow,” Santorum said in Oshkosh the day before the primary. 

Santorum did win in Wisconsin’s rural and exurban counties, as you can see in the chart above. But Santorum’s margin was slight. He won rural counties by about 2.5 percentage points and exurban counties by just over 1 percentage point.

Romney, however, won urban counties by 10 points and easily carried the state.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich won about 6 percent of the vote across all counties and Rep. Ron Paul took just under 12 percent.

(Rural counties are non-metro, according to the Census. Urban counties are in metro regions. Exurban counties are metro, according to the Census, but about half the people who live in these counties reside in rural settings. In Wisconsin, 53.4 percent of the vote was urban, 29.9 percent was rural and 16.7 percent was exurban.)

In Wisconsin, Santorum did appeal to rural and exurban voters more than Romney. But the differences were slight. Remember, in the 2008 Democratic primary, Hillary Clinton was winning rural counties by up to 30 points over Barack Obama.

Since the 1980 election, Republicans have continued to build their advantage in rural counties. Santorum argues that Romney doesn’t do well in these strong Republican areas — and that this could spell trouble in a November contest with President Obama.

Santorum is right about the difference, but, again, his advantage over Romney in rural areas is slight.


In Maryland, Santorum lost to Romney among rural, exurban and urban voters. Santorum again did better in rural and exurban counties, but the differences were slight. Romney’s totals in rural counties fell off just 4 percentage points from his win in urban Maryland counties. And in Maryland, 83 percent of the vote was urban.

In Washington, D.C., 100 percent of the vote was urban.





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