Will Rural Voters Make It Three in a Row for Republicans?

Where you live, how you vote.
Sept. 19 2008 8:28 AM

Will Rural Voters Make It Three in a Row for Republicans?

Rural and exurban voters made George Bush president—twice.

You can see that in the chart below. It simply counts the vote in rural, exurban, and urban counties and subtracts the John Kerry totals from the Bush totals. Kerry won the nation's metro areas by about 3.7 million votes. He lost rural counties by more than 4.1 million.



Kerry won nearly 52 percent in urban areas, where 73 percent of the voters lived in 2004. The Democrat failed to crack 40 percent in rural and exurban counties, which had 27 percent of the vote.

The same was true in 2000. Gore won the cities. He lost the countryside.

And that is why Barack Obama is spending quality time in places like Lebanon, Va. , and Grand Junction, Colo .

We'll know better Monday morning how rural voters are sizing up this election when we report the findings of a poll from 13 battleground states. At this point in the 2004 campaign, Bush was up over Kerry by 13 points in rural areas. Stay tuned here for this year's comparison.

Thirty years ago, there was no Republican advantage in rural America. In fact, the average population of a county that voted Democratic in the 1976 election (for Jimmy Carter) was slightly smaller than the average Republican county. Over the next two generations, however, people made choices about how and where they wanted to live. We sorted. Some people gravitated to cities. Others moved to where there was a bit more space. The two political parties came to represent people who had a kind of lifestyle that was represented in where they lived.

By the time this century rolled around, the differences were astounding. Political scientist Michael Harrington compared blue and red counties by their population density. In 2000, Gore counties, on average, had 739 people per square mile. In 2004, Kerry counties had 836 people per square mile. Bush counties averaged 108 people per square mile in 2000 and 110 four years later.

Again, we don't think people who voted Democratic moved to cities to be around other Democrats. There are some people who enjoy an urban lifestyle, and those ways of life line up with Democratic presidential candidates. People who headed the other direction tended to vote Republican.

At a party of Republicans in the exurban town of Savage, outside Minneapolis, a man talked to me about the "places you go [in the city] where there are a lot of gray, pasty-faced people. I like it here." One of Bush's campaign leaders in the county told me, "A lot of us are fed up with the urban lifestyle. I would not want to see my grandchildren raised in downtown Minneapolis in an environment that is different from the one out here. I want to split my own wood and be less dependent on government."

There you are. Two Americas, defined by the size of government, population density, and wood-splitting. And that difference is determining presidential elections.

"It is hard to overstate the historical significance of the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections," writes Seth McKee , a young political scientist who has done the most work on the rural vote. "Despite the decline in the rural percentage of the American electorate, the rural vote has become more important because it is so decidedly Republican. Never before has the gap in presidential vote choice of rural and urban voters been so wide."

In May, we conducted a poll of rural voters in 13 battleground states. John McCain led Obama by 9 points. (McCain and Hillary Clinton were tied.) In May 2004, George Bush led John Kerry by 9 points. (These rural polls are conducted by the Democratic firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, with help from Republican consultant Bill Greener.)

Four years ago in September, George Bush was leading by 13 points with this key group. Monday, we'll have new results.

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