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Who is the 'Rural Voter'? A new book builds on old themes to create new understanding

The Daily Yonder looks at "The Rural Voter: The Politics of Place and the Disuniting of America," in which Colby College political scientists Nicholas F. Jacobs and Daniel M. Shea set out to describe what differentiates the politics of metropolitan and nonmetropolitan places.

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photo of book, "The Rural Voter"

Daily Yonder

In their new book, "The Rural Voter: The Politics of Place and the Disuniting of America," Colby College political scientists Nicholas F. Jacobs and Daniel M. Shea set out to describe what differentiates the politics of metropolitan and nonmetropolitan places. Drawing on the largest survey ever conducted with the specific aim of understanding rural voters, they seek to explain the recent rightward shift of the American countryside. 

While rural voters only make up around 15% of the American electorate, their emergence as a reliable conservative voting bloc has redrawn the maps of electoral politics. In 2008, Barack Obama won 43% of the rural vote. In 2016, Hillary Clinton claimed just 30%, according to a Daily Yonder analysis. Since then, the politics of the countryside have remained staunchly Republican. In response to that change, "The Rural Voter" asks two related questions: Why did the swing happen? And about which issues do today's rural voters care most? 

The latter question is easier to answer than the former, especially with the aid of such comprehensive survey data. The first thing the authors make clear about rural voters is that the extent of their conservatism is not explained by their being older, whiter, and less college-educated than the average American. Rural people are more likely to vote for Republicans, even when you control for demographic characteristics.

If you're from a city and you've consumed much media about the countryside, that might not surprise you. You've probably seen a lot of images of homemade Trump signs standing high above vast cornfields and heard plenty about the Bible-thumping, gun-toting culture warriors who emerged from their villages to storm the Capitol on January 6, 2021. But, as our reporting here at the Daily Yonder shows, and Jacobs and Shea affirm, those images are dramatic misrepresentations of the politics of the countryside. 

On hot-button social issues, partisanship is actually far more powerful than geography. According to "The Rural Voter," ideologies of patriotism, evangelicalism, xenophobia, transphobia, anti-intellectualism, and anti-cosmopolitanism are not overrepresented in rural places. And rural Republicans are 10 points less likely than their urban and suburban counterparts to agree with the idea that "abortion should be ILLEGAL under ANY CIRCUMSTANCES."

So, in some ways, rural Republicans are less conservative than their urban and suburban counterparts. But in other ways, they're more conservative. On most cultural issues, rural Democrats think just like metropolitan Democrats and rural Republicans think just like metropolitan Republicans (the latter of which represent most GOP members, to be clear, since the metropolitan population is 6 to 7 times larger than the rural population). That said, we know from the Rural Voter Survey that the politics of the countryside are unique, even once we've controlled for demographic overrepresentation. 

So what makes rural voters different? Jacobs and Shea found that four sensibilities separate the rural populace from the rest of the electorate. These are 1) an "overwhelming sense that their ways of life are discounted, mis-portrayed, and dismissed;" 2) an individualistic belief in hard work and its ability to outweigh the "discrimination faced by racial and ethnic minorities;"​​ 3) a deep sense of "economic anxiety, which translates into a collective grievance toward government, experts, and outsiders;" and 4) a "heightened sense of civic pride."

While the first two features – perceptions of belittlement by outsiders and commitments to a bootstrapping mentality in the face of a highly unequal society – comport with broader media narratives about rural people and places, the latter two are less intuitive. 

What could economic anxiety have to do with a rightward shift in rural America? Isn't there just as much economic precarity in cities as there is in small towns? Wasn't it a myth that Trump voters were blue collar? And what could it mean for outsized hometown pride to sit alongside such economic distress?

Culture or class?

There were two main responses to rural America's outsized support for Donald Trump. Some coverage decried the Clinton campaign's disinterest in the economic hardships of sparsely populated places. Others in the media claimed that resounding rural support for Donald Trump was more a result of a backward-looking cultural politics in the countryside than of material anxieties or Democratic neglect. 

As historian Keith Orejel tells it, some journalists stressed culture over economics because of a deep and widespread misunderstanding of heavy industry's importance to rural economies. Contrary to those who emphasize a static and backward-looking rural politics, he argues that rural voters have always been responsive to economic shifts. 

According to Orejel, many political commentators don't acknowledge that the type of agricultural work urbanites often attribute to small-town Americans had already been hollowed out by 1960. Farm work was being rapidly replaced by factory work as companies fled the higher labor and land costs of Rust Belt cities. Industry in the countryside was volatile after the mid-1970s but remained a crucial contributor to rural economic vitality through the year 2000. 

In the first decade of the 21st century, however, rural industrial employment dropped by over a third. Unlike in cities, workforce participation and unemployment rates in nonmetropolitan areas never recovered to pre-Great Recession levels. So, Orejel's economic history shows that, in the run up to 2016, there was plenty of reason for economic angst in rural America.

But political scientists like Diana C. Mutz have argued that such angst can't explain Trump's performance among white voters who don't have college degrees. In 2018 she told The New York Times that there were a couple initial reasons to doubt the notion that Trump's supporters were reacting to being "left behind" by the globalized economy: First, she says, that economy was actually improving for Americans in 2016. And second, according to past research, personal financial hardship rarely inspires shifts in individual voting behavior. Instead, "It's much more of a symbolic threat that people feel," Mutz said. 

Do these claims apply to rural America? On the first point, we already know that economic recovery was less straightforward in sparsely populated places, even if the overall trends were positive. On the second, it's worth asking whether individual "pocketbook concerns" are the only valid causes of economic anxiety. What of rural voters whose communities have undergone deep economic transformations in recent decades? Well-documented cases of depopulation and economic decline are not merely "symbolic." 

Other scholars have argued that Mutz's widely covered study erred in its data analysis to begin with, and that "status threat" and "economic anxiety" are more difficult to untangle than Mutz acknowledged. But for our purposes, we don't need to disprove all of Mutz's claims to show that they don't accurately describe rural Trump voters, who have only ever represented about a fifth of the former President's total vote share. With the publication of "The Rural Voter," proving that is easier than ever. 

Linked fates

By asking rural people – in more detail than usual – how they've metabolized recent changes in American life, Jacobs and Shea find that even rural voters who are doing just fine financially are politically motivated by a profound sense of economic anxiety, and not irrationally so. This finding rests on the importance in rural places of what the authors call "linked fates." 

To understand their concept, let's consider depopulation in rural America. Trump won 90% of counties that lost population in the 2010s. Imagine you're a small business owner in one of those places, and you've benefited from high rates of consumer spending in recent years. You're flush, but your hometown went from 8,200 residents in 2010 to 7,300 in 2020 (like my own did). A loss of 900 people might not sound like a lot to some, but that's an 11% drop. Does the fact that you're still making money invalidate your looming sense of precarity? Jacobs and Shea show that, because rural voters understand that their fates are linked to their neighbors and their towns, they don't think so. 

As the authors write, economic deprivation does not distinguish rural Americans from urban ones. There is unbearable poverty in every American landscape, and if you're asking whether city or country has it worse, you can make a defensible case on either side. On the other hand, to a greater extent than among other demographic groups, rural Americans of all socioeconomic backgrounds experience economic hardship on the communal level, not just the individual. This is because, in small towns and on their outskirts, the poor live among the wealthy. "Unlike city dwellers or those living in suburbia, rural residents are especially attuned to inequality and economic progress in their immediate communities simply because those are more integrated places." In this way, the precarity of the neighbor, town, and county are transmuted into individual anxieties, even among those with sturdy financial foundations. 

But it's not only socioeconomic integration that makes neighbors in rural communities feel like their fates are linked – on average, those places are also less diverse in racial and industrial makeup. The demographics of rural America are changing, but it's still disproportionately white. For this reason, the authors write, "the racial and ethnic lines that define other political communities are simply not as visible in rural areas." 

Economic homogeneity, or the extent to which a place's residents are dependent on one type of employment, is also greater in sparsely populated places, meaning that industrial shocks are felt by entire communities, not just one sector of the economy. 

Since 1970, rural places have lost 48% of their jobs in agriculture, forestry, mining, construction, transportation, and production. While urban areas are not so far off, at 44%, the difference is that even 50 years ago there were many more urban Americans working outside these industries. Back then, less than a third of workers in metropolitan areas held these blue-collar jobs. That's in comparison to roughly half of the rural workforce. At the same time, urban places have been better compensated by a larger and faster-growing knowledge economy. 

So, while real rates of decline in industrial work were similar in rural and urban locales, the impacts of those changes on rural places in recent decades were nothing short of transformative. The shape of life in rural America changed, and it changed in towns and small communities nationwide. 

When that shift happened, Jacobs and Shea write, fates were linked not only among the rich and poor within small towns, but also between small towns across the country. The political coalescence of rural America – the tendency for less populated counties from the Deep South,  Appalachia, the West, or New England to all vote similarly – shows that a distinctive rural political identity has emerged all over the nation, among rural voters of all stripes.

This wasn't always the case. As the fickle rural voter was rocked by late 20th century booms and busts in the globalizing economy, she bounced back and forth between the Democratic and Republican parties: "Country values, with their emphasis on self-reliance and social conservatism, often worked to the political advantage of Republicans. But that was offset, at least in some rural areas, by a sense of unease with the economic status quo." In the meantime, as presidents from both parties pursued welfare retrenchment and neoliberal trade agendas, Democrats cast themselves as the party of progress, and GOP operatives wove together the backward-looking "myth of real America." 

Jacobs and Shea write that, between the financial shocks of the 1970s and the Great Recession, "rural Americans were told [by Republicans] that the earth below their feet was giving way due to ignorance and the indifference of coastal elites." That conservative story came to resonate with the many Americans who say their towns were better off in the 1970s than they are today. But Republican-spun narratives about the progressives that sought to replace small-town values with big-city mores didn't produce a decisive political shift in rural America until Donald Trump's election. 

Conveniently for the Right, the progressive archetypes they'd emphasized for decades were embodied by no Democrat more thoroughly than Hillary Clinton. In the wake of her historic 2016 loss in the countryside, the former Secretary of State cheerily declared her party's identification with places that are "optimistic, diverse, dynamic, moving forward." Jacobs and Shea show that, whether rural voters are personally cash-strapped or not, they are not optimistic. Conservatives cultivated the countryside's swing to the right over many decades. Trump's rhetorical empathy for those (especially white) Americans who felt left behind by the global economy, paired with Clinton's unapologetic indifference to them, solidified it. 

Why don't you leave?

That story is surely incomplete, but it begins to explain why rural voters are likely to channel their uniquely place-based sense of economic precarity into mistrust in government bureaucracy and elites – often represented by the Democratic Party. 

When it comes to the media, mainstream pundits earn the ire of rural Americans when they argue that people from struggling towns should be "more responsive to [geographic] differences in labor demand" (read: pick up and move), and express frustration that federal investments haven't made sparsely populated places self-sufficient yet.

Those perspectives make two key mistakes. First, they frame the countryside as a dependent of the city – when in fact rural and urban economies rely on one another in countless ways – and fail to acknowledge that rural America is also a site of massive urban wealth extraction. Second, they assume that economic angst turns people against their towns. 

As "The Rural Voter" shows, intense feelings of civic pride and place-based economic anxiety can sit side by side. While rural people are more pessimistic than urbanites about the futures of their towns, they're also more attached to their often struggling communities than are urban and suburban residents, and less likely to want to move. That may be a counterintuitive combination of feelings, but – as it's one of the key identifiers of rural voters from across the political spectrum – it's a crucial one for urban politicos to understand. 

Frustration with the direction your town is heading could produce a wide variety of secondary feelings – not exclusively a desire to move to a bigger city. To suggest that rural residents should flee their towns in hard times could thoroughly alienate them from mainstream media and politics. 

Learning to listen

As polling conducted in affiliation with the Daily Yonder recently showed, and the Rural Voter Survey affirms, rural people (like the nation as a whole) don't think the economy is working for them, or for their towns. That's despite its relatively good marks on traditional indicators like rates of inflation and unemployment. It also runs contradictory to the president's claim that "Bidenomics is working." The disconnect has many possible explanations. A simple one is that, despite inflation's slowed growth, consumers remain keenly aware of recent price jumps for goods and services like fuel, groceries, housing, and childcare. 

"The Rural Voter" offers another explanation, and it's worth restating: in sparsely populated places, community-level decline is experienced individually, even in the absence of personal hardship. That type of economic anxiety was routinely minimized by progressives and other elites after the 2016 election. Over the next four years, the national rural vote only swung further to the right. 

But that shift isn't inevitable, and treating it that way undermines democracy. Competitive elections aren't just good for Democrats. Having a real choice between candidates encourages genuine accountability and representation, two things severely lacking in communities losing local newspapers at a rapid clip. 

In the conclusion of the book – with examples like Washington Representative Marie Gluesenkamp Perez, and Maine Representative Jared Golden – Jacobs and Shea argue persuasively that, when Democrats show up in rural places, they don't need to abandon their progressive values to be competitive. They do, however, need to understand what actually unites rural people of all colors, classes, and creeds. Reading "The Rural Voter" is a good place to start. 

This story was produced by Daily Yonder and reviewed and distributed by Stacker Media.