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Why Presidential Candidates Don’t Address Urban Issues

Democrats rely heavily on urban voters for support, but the states that hold the first caucuses and primaries don't have really big cities. That tends to leave them off the campaign agenda.

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State capitol in Des Moines, Iowa. The state's largest city, like Manchester, New Hampshire, doesn't rank high in terms of size, and it may be partly why urban issues don't get much attention from presidential candidates when they visit.
David Kidd
With less than two months remaining before the Iowa presidential caucuses, a number of Democrats have been complaining that the early voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire are too white to be representative of the country as a whole.

They could just as easily complain that the states are too rural to reflect either the country or the party's own geographic base.

"It would be nice if an early state had a city like Chicago or Cleveland or Pittsburgh," says William Mayer, a political scientist at Northeastern University in Boston. "One of several reasons that cities don't get the attention they probably ought to get is none of the early states has a very large city."

Manchester, the largest city in New Hampshire, is home to just over 110,000 people. Des Moines, Iowa, has more than 215,000 residents, but that doesn't make the cut among the nation's 100 largest cities. "States with important cities really don't show up until the mid-March primaries," notes Ned Hill, an Ohio State University public policy professor.

South Carolina holds the nation's second primary on Feb. 29, and no city in that state has as many as 150,000 people. Nevada's caucus comes a week earlier. Las Vegas has nearly 650,000 residents, but, as Mayer notes, it's a "quirky" city. At any rate, the Nevada caucuses tend to receive the least amount of attention of the four early voting states from candidates and the media.

"For obvious reasons, you campaign on the issues that matter to the people that are likely to be your voters," Mayer says. "Where you hold the early events has a lot to do with what issues get discussed. If you're not campaigning in a traditional Rust Belt city or a state that has a significant Sunbelt city like Atlanta or Dallas or Phoenix, you're not going to talk about the problems of cities."

Mayors and other urban leaders are seeking ways to address this. The National League of Cities has established a 2020 presidential election task force, and last month it released its list of top local issues it wants candidates to address. Recently, the U.S. Conference of Mayors co-sponsored a presidential forum in Waterloo, Iowa, with mayors interviewing five of the Democratic contenders about local issues.

"Dear God, we need a mayor in the White House," New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, a former Newark mayor, said at the forum. "Someone who knows how to make change on the ground."

But even at the mayors' forum, candidates stressed the commonality of issues that confront both urban and rural America. Julián Castro, himself a former San Antonio mayor and federal secretary of Housing and Urban Development, said his approach toward urban and rural concerns would be the same — stitching together programs among siloed federal agencies.

Democrats rely heavily on cities for support. In 2016, Hillary Clinton carried 87 of the 100 largest counties but mostly struggled elsewhere as Donald Trump won about five out of six counties around the country. Clinton carried metropolitan areas with more than 1 million inhabitants — often running up majorities in the 90 percent range in center cities — while Trump won everywhere else.

Nonetheless, Democrats tend to take urban voters for granted as they seek to appeal to swing voters in the suburbs. "They think they still need the suburbs to win, and they already know they have the votes of the city," says Jessica Trounstine, a political scientist at the University of California Merced.

The incentives that make presidential candidates more likely to talk about ethanol than gentrification are symptomatic of structural imbalances within the American political system that encourage politicians in general to pay disproportionately less attention to urban concerns.

"The issues that get discussed tend to skew to the right, and the viewpoints of the urban agenda tend to be viewed as more radical than they are within the mainstream of the community," says Pittsburgh Mayor William Peduto. "Cities struggle with that on a constant basis in state legislatures, and we see it with the presidential candidates as well."

Why Cities Matter Less

At the state level, cities tend to punch below their weight. There are states where representatives of the major population centers dominate the legislature — California and Colorado, for instance — but there are more states in which the main cities find themselves not only outvoted but targeted.

Partisanship is a major factor. There's always been a divide between the dominant city and the outstate, but now that geographic difference aligns with a pronounced partisan split. Largely Democratic cities such as Indianapolis; Louisville, Ky.; Milwaukee; and St. Louis often find themselves pre-empted by Republican legislatures that block them from pursuing liberal policies in areas such as minimum-wage rates, anti-discrimination efforts, environmental protections and gun control.

Any number of laws are passed that apply only to cities of a certain size, guaranteeing that a large city isn't able to do something that state lawmakers don't like. "There are various things that cities want out of state government that they can't get because the legislature has geographic representation that gives more weight to sparsely populated areas," says Trounstine, the UC Merced professor.

She notes that American government's "anti-urban bias" dates back to the founding. Both the Electoral College and the U.S. Senate give extra power to smaller population states. Wyoming, with fewer residents than Las Vegas, has the same number of senators as California's 40 million people. "There are lots of places in the process where candidates have no incentive to speak to urban issues," Trounstine says.

What Is the Urban Agenda?

If you ask any big-city mayor about the issues that concern them most, especially ones on which they could use more help from Washington, the answers are likely to be pretty much the same, including infrastructure, housing and economic development. In addition, "there's no discussion in the federal government about the trifecta cities face in combating the mental health issue, addiction and homelessness," Peduto says. "It's being left to the states, and states are leaving it to cities."

Peduto notes that cities and rural areas have many challenges in common. Low-income residents of urban neighborhoods who know they'll never be able to afford to live in the glitzy new apartment building that's going up are, economically speaking, in a similar boat as rural residents who've seen the factory shut down and the area left behind by the global economy. "Urban neighborhoods that are dealing with population loss are dealing with the same issues of abandonment as low-income rural counties," says Hill, the Ohio State professor. "The problems are the same: drug abuse, abandoned factories, losing kids to places with rising opportunity."

There's considerable overlap, as well, between smaller communities and larger urban areas in terms of bread-and-butter concerns. "Senior housing and rising drug costs — it's the same here as it is for our neighbors in Chicago and our West Coast people in L.A.," Waterloo Mayor Quentin Hart said at the U.S. Conference of Mayors forum.

It would be possible, Hill suggests, for a party to come up with an economic opportunity plan that would speak to both urban and rural residents. Our politics are driven not only by economics, however, but also by symbols and identity. Rural and urban voters may have more in common than they'd expect at first glance, but their sense of estrangement is due in part to the fact that politicians have found it profitable to remind them of their differences.

In recent times, plenty of Republicans have pledged to rural voters that they'll defend their values against the perceived evil of the big city. Democrats, while increasingly dominating major cities, have struggled to find similar ways of connecting with rural voters.

"When Cory Booker talks about the needs of the urban community that are his neighbors in Newark, that's just not of interest to rural white voters," says Barry Burden, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin. "A candidate like him is probably handicapped by the structure of the system."

President Trump has found advantage among rural voters by speaking directly to their anger over the shifting of the global economy from factories and other labor-intensive industries. And he has a habit of demonizing cities for their perceived ills — Chicago as a murder capital, San Francisco for its "filth," Baltimore as "a disgusting rat and rodent infested mess." At the Waterloo forum, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar said one way she'd be able to work with cities is by showing them renewed respect. "I would not mean-tweet entire cities, like Baltimore," she said.

Someone like Trump can signal to rural voters that he shares their values by offering, for instance, staunch support for gun owners' rights. That's a position that no longer flies on the Democratic side. "The reality is that every mayor in America is fighting the challenge of gun violence with our hands tied behind our backs," South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg said at the forum. "While we know a gun law can't prevent every tragedy, it can save thousands and thousands of lives."

Over the coming year, rural and urban voters will hear more about their differences than about what they have in common. The particular dynamics in 2020 may well find Trump rhetorically bashing cities while, for a variety of reasons, the eventual Democratic nominee shies from directly defending their interests, seeking to woo suburbanites instead.

"We as Democrats have not been able to connect both [rural and urban]," Peduto says. "We've got to be able to bridge that gap, with a promise of … jobs that will be funded through a federal American Marshall Plan directly into those areas, so people see they have a future.

"Otherwise," he says, "what you'll see is a lot of Democrats voting Republican."


Photo of Iowa state capitol by David Kidd, Governing Photojournalist and Storyteller.

Alan Greenblatt is the editor for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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