When the impact of other demographic characteristics are removed, there's a correlation between the distance a person lives from a city of 100,000 or more residents and political preferences. The generally downward slope on the right side of blue curve shows a decline in Democratic Party affiliation as distance from a city increases. The red and purple curves show increases in Republican and independent affiliation, respectively, as distance from a city increases. The median distance Republicans live from a city of 100,000 residents is 20 miles, versus 12 miles for a Democrat. (Graphic courtesy of the authors, from the paper “The Urban-Rural Gulf in American Political Behavior.”)

Sign up for our newsletter

News coverage of recent U.S. elections regularly calls attention to the urban-rural divide in partisanship and voting. 

Commentators note that people living in the country commonly express different political preferences than those in the city. This is neither a new nor fleeting development. This divide has been present in politics for some time. 

Even so, most observers downplay the role of space and place. They argue that individual characteristics — race, education, age, etc. — are the reason rural-urban political preferences are different. Since the characteristics of rural people are very different from those of individuals in cities, political preferences are different. Place itself plays no role. 

We found that this description is wrong. Living in a rural (or urban) area matters. It affects one’s political leaning in addition to your economic position, race and other traits known to matter.

The Question

Places commonly differ in the composition of the people who reside there. No one is arguing about that fact. The question is whether composition is all there is, or whether place has an independent effect. 

Simply put: Are two people, identical in their demographic profiles, likely to vary in their political behavior if one lives in a rural locale and the other in an urban one? 

Investigating such a question has been difficult. The sizes of most opinion surveys are too small to adequately represent rural areas. With just a handful of respondents from the countryside, most polls lack the variation in geographic context that would enable convincing tests of the impact of place and geographic environment. We got around this limitation by drawing upon pooled Gallup monthly surveys across a 16-year period to reach a sample size of over 100,000 respondents, including thousands of rural voters. 

Our basic idea is that, all other things being equal, the residents of some locations will behave differently because of the characteristics of their community. What citizens know and learn about politics is influenced by local settings and the social interactions within them, reinforced by repetition and routine. 

Democrats (blue curve) tend to live in more densely populated areas than Republicans (red curve) and independents (purple curve). The median population density for all Democrats in the study was 1,197 people per square mile. For Republicans and independents, the median was 585 and 738 people per square mile, respectively. (Graphic courtesy of the authors, from the paper “The Urban-Rural Gulf in American Political Behavior.”)

Importantly, a place or “neighborhood” effect has an impact on any number of outcomes. And these impacts are independent of individual demographic characteristics. If such an effect does exist for political opinions and behavior, then, it should show up as statistically and substantively significant along with the usual individual characteristics long known to be related to those outcomes. But to offer a fair and reasonable test of place effects, one must represent geographies well by having a sufficient number of respondents situated in those places, something a metro area cluster sample may not do. 

Examining Two Attributes of Geographic Space

With this rationale in mind, we looked at two attributes of geographic space closely tied to understandings of urban and rural difference: the distance of respondents’ residences from the nearest urban centers; and the population density of the locations where they dwell. 

Distance limits interaction. Urban and rural populations differ, in large part, because the populations do not mingle with each other regularly. Population concentration is thought to have a substantive impact on the psychological individualism of populations. 

The more populous a place is, the more people act in a reserved and indifferent manner toward one another, largely out of the need to limit the burden of getting to know large numbers of people. There is certainly liberation of expression in urban settings, explaining why they are havens of eccentricity and new ideas, but the cost appears to be loneliness and disorder. People don’t know their neighbors, and don’t much care. Conversely, relationships in rural areas have greater depth, and the neighbors care, but conformity pressures weigh more heavily, limiting freedom of expression. 

When we looked at the data, we found that the political differences between urban and rural people could not be reduced to an inventory of demographic characteristics. Population density and distance, however, did exert an impact on party identification, even after controlling for income, age, race and ethnicity, religious observance, and other items commonly employed in surveys. 

The Impact of Distance and Density

The effects of place are significant. For example, two voters with otherwise similar backgrounds, one living in a city, the other living 165 miles outside the city, will differ in the probability of expressing Republican loyalty by about 9 points. 

Density, similarly will alter the propensity to identify with the major parties, with those in the densest settlements 15 points more likely to be Democrats than those living in the least dense settlements. Individual measures of income and race matter more than these place effects, but income and race are themselves shaped by the geography of settlement, suggesting that we are probably understating the impact of urban-rural location in the models we estimate, not overstating it. 

In summary, people who occupy the same geographic spaces tend to be similar in their viewpoints, beliefs, and understandings. And this fact is not explained away by virtue of the inherent properties of compositional indicators such as education, income, age, race and ethnicity, or religious practice. 

That people choose to live in either rural or urban communities doesn’t discount the effects of place we describe. These choices are further evidence that place does have an impact. 

This research points to the potent impact of socialization processes involved in the drawing of residents into particular neighborhoods and cities, and the ongoing conformity pressures that consolidate and reinforce local opinion majorities over enduring periods. Observers of contemporary U.S. politics should take note that local ecologies of mixed political opinion are not the norm.

This article is based on “The Urban-Rural Gulf in American Political Behavior,” published in the journal Political Behavior. James G. Gimpel and Nathan Lovin are with the University of Maryland, College Park. Bryant Moy and Andrew Reeves are with Washington University in St. Louis.