The rural-urban voter divide has plagued the United States for nearly three decades, and only continues to increase. For decades now, rural districts are typically governed by Republican House members, while suburban and urban areas tend to be governed by Democrats.
New York Times columnist Thomas B. Edsall spoke with many political science experts who have done extensive research on how rural voters’ growing "resentment" continues to fuel a rural-urban “apartheid,” and why it will likely persist for years to come.
MAGA politician Ron Johnson’s Senate win over Democrat Mandela Barnes in Wisconsin last year, Edsall wrote, is the one of the best case studies for “rural realignment and the role it plays in elections.”
Johnson is a Trump-backed lawmaker who staunchly denies the reality of climate change, has referred to Jan. 6 rioters as “people who love this country, that truly respect law enforcement,” and proposed cuts to social programs. Still, he has managed to win reelection.
Edsall talked to Marquette Law School scholar Craig Gilbert who found in his analysis that Johnson’s votes were much lower in the “red and blue suburbs of Milwaukee” compared to his 2016 race, but the group of voters that ultimately steered his win came from “white rural Wisconsin.”
He won the rural vote by 25 points in 2016, but that increased to 29 points this time around, leading him to victory.
University of Wisconsin-Madison political scientist Katherine Cramer summarized the reasons for this shift in her study “The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker," highlighting three points: “A belief that rural areas are ignored by decision makers, including policymakers; a perception that rural areas do not get their fair share of resources; and a sense that rural folks have fundamentally distinct values and lifestyles, which are misunderstood and disrespected by city folks.”
Edsall likens rural voters’ resentment towards Democrats to the “upheaval in the white South after Democrats, led by President Lyndon Johnson, won approval of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”
But the start of the rural-urban split, according to Boston College political scientist David Hopkins's book “Red Fighting Blue: How Geography and Electoral Rules Polarize American Politics,” began during a “conflation of cultural and racial controversies starting in the late 1980s and accelerating into the 1990s,” such as two major Supreme Court abortion rulings and the 1993 debate over gay people in the military.
However, Hopkins says the milestone that really solidified the divide was the 1992 presidential election, as it started “the emerging configuration of ‘red’ and ‘blue’ geographic coalitions that came to define contemporary partisan competition.”
After the election, the percentage of House Democrats representing suburban districts increased by nearly 20 percent while Democratic seats in rural districts dropped from 24 percent to 5 percent.
Hopkins wrote in a 2019 study, “The Suburbanization of the Democratic Party, 1992-2018, that “Democratic suburban growth has been especially concentrated in the nation’s largest metropolitan areas, reflecting the combined presence of both relatively liberal whites (across education levels) and substantial minority populations, but suburbs elsewhere remain decidedly, even increasingly, Republican in their collective partisan alignment.”
One of the reasons Republicans continue to pull in rural voters, Jordan Gest of George Mason University gathered in recent research, is that “Republicans are now beginning to attract socioeconomically ascendant and white-adjacent members of ethnic minorities who find their nostalgic, populist, nationalist politics appealing (or think Democrats are growing too extreme).”
Harvard postdoctoral research fellow Kristin Lunz Trujillo and University of Minnesota Ph.D candidate Zack Crowley, in their research found, “the key factor driving rural voters to the Republican Party: anger at perceived unfair distribution of resources by government, a sense of being ignored by decision makers or the belief that rural communities have a distinct set of values that are denigrated by urban dwellers.”
The scholars also found that, “culture differences play a far stronger role in determining the vote than discontent over the distribution of economic resources.” And stances on what they call symbolic issues “positively predict Trump support and ideology while the more material subdimension negatively predicts these outcomes, if at all."