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A new report on the most recent presidential elections argues that rural America isn’t “an undifferentiated bastion of strength for Republicans.”

Below the surface, there’s more diversity in the rural vote, the report says.

But you have to know where to look. And even when you find it, Democrats aren’t winning. They are just losing by a smaller margin.

The study by Dante J. Scala and Kenneth M. Johnson with the Carsey School of Public Policy at the University of New Hampshire looked at the rural vote by the type of economic activity that dominated a county.

They found that while only about a quarter of voters in farming counties picked Obama in 2012, the number rose to about 42 percent in rural counties where the recreation industry dominated the economy.

Republicans still won by a landslide in recreation counties. But for Democrats – who lost four out of every five rural counties in 2012, according to an analysis by Bill Bishop – the better showing in recreation counties may seem like good news, at least in the future.

Recreation counties are places with cliffs to scale, rivers to paddle, or mountains to climb. And, more to the point, these counties tend to have young people who want to take advantage of those opportunities, either for their own enjoyment or to make a living.

In contrast, farming counties have been losing young people in recent decades.

“Most [farming counties] have experienced decades of migration loss, particularly of the young adults who have been among President Obama’s strongest supporters,” the report said. 

Recreation counties also have other demographic factors that favor Democrats.

“Residents of recreational counties tend to be wealthier, better educated, and are significantly more likely to reflect liberal stances than their peers in other rural areas,” the report says.

The trend may become more important in the future, if recreation counties continue to attract new residents, who are more likely to vote Democratic.

“Both the population and political influence of recreational counties in national elections are likely to increase given their appeal to the 70 million baby boomers who will retire in the next two decades,” the report said.

Recreation counties are home to about 16 percent of the rural population, and the size of that population has grown by a third in the past 20 years. In contrast, farm counties have 6 percent of the rural U.S. population and have grown by only 5 percent in the last 20 years, according to the report.

“Recreational and farm counties represent two poles that serve to underscore the political differences within rural America,” the report says.

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