Why Rural America Is Increasingly Red

In recent years, more rural voters have flocked to the GOP -- a trend that will likely impact this year's governors races.

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, center,
(AP/Brennan Linsley)
The biggest cities in Montana would probably be considered small towns in most states. Only three have populations greater than 50,000. Yet Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock will need to receive as strong a vote as possible from cities in his state in order to win re-election this year.

There are 15 states where rural residents make up more than half the population. Republicans are governors of 11 of them. The GOP this year has a chance to pick up the other four -- Montana, New Hampshire, Vermont and West Virginia. The reason is simple: Democratic messages are potent in big cities, but simply aren’t selling in rural America. “Rural voters have become a core component of the GOP, especially white rural voters, which is most of them,” says Seth McKee, a political scientist at Texas Tech University.

There are any number of reasons for this. Rural voters tend to be more conservative on family and social issues than city dwellers and suburbanites. They have higher rates of property ownership. And they’re more likely to be self-employed, which means they’re less likely to turn to government for solutions. As a result, the partisan split between voters is more pronounced along geographic lines than by other measures, such as income, says James Gimpel, a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland. “There is a gaping, canyon-sized urban-rural chasm separating support for the parties,” he says.

This gap is even more pronounced within states than between states. Votes cast in elections for governor in, say, Charlotte, N.C., and Kansas City, Mo., this year will look entirely different than the returns out of less-populated parts of those states.

In predominantly rural states, Democratic candidates nowadays struggle to differentiate themselves from the national party’s position on issues such as resource extraction and gun control. In fact, the efforts of state-level Democratic candidates over the years to prove their worth to voters by bashing the national leadership of their own party has served to weaken that party’s brand, says Scott Crichlow, who chairs the political science department at West Virginia University. “There’s a feeling that the national Democratic Party is not representing their interests anymore,” he says, “whether it’s tied to coal or EPA restrictions or the chicken industry or whatever.”

The shift of rural voters toward the GOP is nothing new, but it has intensified over the past several years. There’s not much room left for a Democrat to present him or herself to rural voters as a moderate on various economic or social issues. With the national party growing progressively more liberal, that case becomes harder to make. “In general, national Democrats do not poll that well in Montana,” says Jeremy Johnson, a political scientist at Carroll College in Helena. “It’s partly the identification of the party with issues such as firearms and extraction. Some of it’s a cultural thing, a reluctance to embrace the more cosmopolitan Democratic image.”  

Alan Greenblatt is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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