The Republican political sweep in Virginia earlier this month shows once again that national and state-wide Democratic candidates have lost most rural voters. Yet previous voting results show that such Democrats can or may win if they get 40% or more of the rural vote.

Instead, in most recent swing state and presidential elections, Democrats’ rural vote share has been in the mid 30-percentage points or less. In such cases, Democrats lose unless they have huge urban and substantial suburban majorities.

Do progressives and liberals care about this? Or is abolishing the police more important?

Most national analysts of politics don’t seem to get this. An exception is Dan Balz, veteran columnist for the Washington Post and always a very astute observer. In his November 3 Post column, Balz writes that Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin’s big margins in Virginia’s rural counties show

again how badly Democratic support has cratered in small towns and rural areas of the country. This has major, long-term consequences for congressional and legislative elections unless Democrats find an effective strategy to reach voters in these areas, which at this point they do not have.

One bright note for rural is the infrastructure bill that the president is scheduled to sign today (Monday, November 15, 2021). It contains a number of programs that will help rural areas, such as $65 billion for broadband. The infrastructure bill passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 228 to 206. That vote included 13 Republicans voting for the bill and six very liberal urban Democrats voting against. But will rural voters notice all of the Washington sausage making?

In 2016 Hillary Clinton won about 56% in large cities and over 60 % in the biggest “mega” cities (those with populations of 5 million or more). But she got only about 30% in rural and 35% in small towns. As the graph below shows, this continued a stark trend in which Democratic presidential candidates since 1988 have won big urban and lost small town and rural by increasingly large margins. (The graph below shows the Democratic share of the two-party vote in presidential elections from 1988 to 2016 by county type. This is from an excellent post-2016 analysis by Sean Trende and David Byler in Real Clear Politics.)

The graph shows the percentage of Democratic vote by year and county type (rural to mega city). CBSA means Core Based Statistical Area. (Real Clear Politics/Sean Trende and David Byler)

The graph also shows that Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996 got over 50% of rural and small-town votes, and that Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 got more than or close to 40%. They won. Of course, the data also show that losers John Kerry in 2004, Al Gore in 2000, and Michael Dukakis in 1988 got 40% or more in rural and small town. (Gore, of course, lost only in the Electoral College and the Supreme Court.)  But those Democrats also had smaller big-city shares. Since 2008 Democrats have increasingly become the urban party and Republicans the rural one, with the suburbs often up for grabs. The change in the graphs above between 1988 and 2016 is stark. Democrats are also increasingly losing white voters and voters without college degrees.

Another example is the 2018 election cycle. Alleged media and campaign experts were enamored of Stacey Abrams’ gubernatorial candidacy in Georgia and Beto O’Rourke’s Senate run in Texas. They both lost, getting substantially less than 40% of the rural electorate. Rural was not the only factor, but consider two other campaigns that year. Moderate Democrats Tony Evers in Wisconsin and Laura Kelly in Kansas (yes, Kansas) won their races for governor with respectively 40 and 52% of the rural vote. (Full disclosure: I had never heard of Laura Kelly before reading about her in The Daily Yonder. I’m part of the problem.)

Donald Trump increased his rural vote share from 59% in 2016 to 65% in 2020. But Joe Biden grew his share of suburban voters to 54% from Hillary Clinton’s 45% in 2016.

In a second column on the rural vote on November 6, the Washington Post’s Balz writes that

[t]he rural-urban divide is real and has gotten wider. Democrats have seen their future as one that runs through urban and suburban America, with a coalition that is increasingly diverse, younger, and more liberal. What appeals to that rising Democratic party, however, doesn’t necessarily resonate with rural voters and sometimes drives them away. That’s the conundrum for the party as it considers how to mend its rural deficiencies.       

The increasing rural-urban divide is not the only cause of our political and cultural polarization, but it is a major factor. Democrats need to figure out somehow that rural is not just a place to see some fall leaf color.

Joe Belden is a writer and consultant based in Washington, D.C.