Chilly weather and brilliant autumn colors reveal that both fall, and election season, are upon us. Many voters approach election season with understandable dread. Hyper-partisan politics and ugly, bruising races are now our national norm. This reality results from a competitive environment in which neither party can build enduring majorities. Since the 1992 election, the House has flipped between the two parties four times, while the senate has changed hands six times. The 2022 midterms are yet another election season in which the House and Senate control are at stake. Nowhere is the battle for control of the Senate more hotly contested than in Ohio and Pennsylvania, where rural voters play a central role.
In both states, Republicans have nominated flawed celebrity candidates, Ohio’s J.D. Vance and Pennsylvania’s Mehmet Oz. Both Vance, the venture capitalist and best-selling author of Hillbilly Elegy, and Oz, a physician and daytime talk-show host, have run lackluster campaigns, which make no effort to expand their base vote. By way of contrast, the Buckeye State’s Tim Ryan and the Keystone State’s John Fetterman have taken direct aim rural voters. But they do so in markedly disparate manners. In this way, the Democratic nominees offer insight into rural America’s working-class vote.
For decades, Ohio and Pennsylvania Democrats won on the strength of a rural-urban working-class political alliance. In the Buckeye State, Ohio Democrats combined northeast Ohio’s urban turnout with rural voters in the southeast. Likewise, Pennsylvania Democrats won on the strength of urban centers buttressed by rural and small-town votes in the southwest and northeast quadrants of the state. In 2008 and 2012, this calculus changed. Barack Obama won both states, but he did so almost solely on the strength of urban voters. By 2016, the Democratic decline in rural Ohio and Pennsylvania went into free-fall, which allowed Donald Trump to ride the rural vote to victory in both states.
What happened in Ohio and Pennsylvania was no Rust Belt phenomenon. Indeed, in this era of hyper-competitive elections, rural, small-town America has shifted to the GOP, while Democrats control the urban and, increasingly, the suburban vote. A simple check of the 2020 electoral map demonstrates this reality. The vast majority of Biden’s 81-million votes emanated from 551 mostly urban counties, while Trump’s 74-million ballots largely came from the nation’s other less populated 2,588 counties.
Ryan and Fetterman realize their route to victory runs through rural Ohio and Pennsylvania. But this path is not just rural; it is also decidedly working class. A function of the interplay of income, education, and occupation, “working class” voters generally possess less formal education, make less money, and hold service or manual labor jobs. In 2022 America, a bachelor’s degree has become almost synonymous with a middle-class status. Approximately, 35% of Americans hold a bachelor’s degree or higher. These Americans overwhelmingly live in urban America. Indeed, a mere 8% of those with a bachelor’s degree reside in rural counties. To be sure, rural and small-town America boast college educated professionals, but the working class constitute the region’s vast majority of voters. Increasingly, the Democratic Party has become the reserve for the college educated middle class while the GOP has morphed into a multiracial working-class party. Thus, the rural-urban political divide is also a class divide. This central reality explains the GOP’s rural tilt and the Democrat’s woes.
Clean-cut and square-jawed, Ryan looks the part of the former high school quarterback turned congressman. Born working class in Niles, Ohio, (population 18,443) the nine-term U.S. representative is an economic populist who rails against globalization but hews close to the political center on socio-cultural issues. Ryan’s economic populism, calibrated liberalism, and cultural centrism have touched a vein. In a state that Trump twice won handily, where one lone Democrat, Sherrod Brown, holds statewide office, Ryan has shocked the political world by his dead heat with Vance.
In contrast to Ryan is Fetterman. Bald, tattooed, and goateed, the 6-foot-8 small-town mayor turned lieutenant governor sports a decidedly casual, blue-collar look. Shorts in the winter and hoodies in all seasons, Fetterman radiates a working-class aura. But Fetterman breaks with Ryan in more than style. The self-described “progressive” endorses an array of universal social welfare programs along with socio-cultural policies, marijuana legalization and criminal justice reform, favored by the urban professional class. Fetterman, whose campaign has been greatly hobbled by the candidate’s stroke, has also seen his lead over Oz shrink as election day nears.
Formerly Democratic strongholds, the exodus of rural voters has made Ohio into a Republican bastion while Pennsylvania has become a swing state. Thus, Ryan’s dead heat is deemed much more impressive than Fetterman’s small yet consistent lead over Oz. Their campaigns, in essence, are real-life experiments that gauge the sentiments and sensibilities of rural voters. To progressives, a Fetterman victory would reveal the potency of rural-urban coalitions built upon common economic angst. In a policy sense, the Pennsylvanian is little more than Bernie Sanders in Carhart gear. Ryan, meanwhile, emphasizes bread-and-butter concerns that his campaign believes demonstrate consonance with rural working-class sensibilities.
Fetterman, like Sanders, sees the working-class as a monolith who vote their pocketbook interest in a similar fashion. But researchers reveal that the working class is divided between those in the second lowest and lowest income quintiles by disparate values on “work” and politics. For the second lowest income quintile, whom sociologists term the “settled working class,” they deem their hard-won place in the lower middle class as one that has been achieved by discipline and relentless labor. Related to and living among the lowest income quintile, the “hard living” poor, the settled working class see their disparate economic trajectories as byproducts of work ethic.
The settled working class support social welfare programs that provide, in their minds, earned benefits. A lifetime of hard work or a stint in the military make Social Security, Medicare, and the GI Bill into earned federal benefits. In this same calculus, these voters view federal programs aimed at the non-working poor as handouts or “welfare” given without regard to merit. In light of this, Donald Trump’s 2016 break with GOP orthodoxy on Medicare and Social Security demonstrates real political horse sense. Promising to safeguard these “earned benefits” and reverse bad trade deals for workers and farmers, he won the settled working class by the largest margin of any income group, 50-46. Taking note, Tim Ryan endorses traditional social welfare programs but rejects large-scale “progressive” policies.
The Fetterman-Ryan strategies matter for more than which party controls the Senate. Our hyper-partisan era results from partisan deadlock. With the GOP unwilling to move beyond its base, perhaps the Ohio or Pennsylvania race point to a future beyond political trench warfare. In both cases, rural voters will potentially play a pivotal in shaping the political era to come.
Jeffery H. Bloodworth is a professor of political history at Gannon University in Erie, Pennsylvania, and co-director of the university’s School of Public Service & Global Affairs. He is the author of the forthcoming book Heartland Liberal: The Life & Times of Speaker Carl Albert.