An election official places a sign as voters line up outside a polling place at the Fogelsville Volunteer Fire Co., Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2016, in Fogelsville, Pennsylvania. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

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Part 1 of a series

Conventional wisdom and national media narratives hold that in America’s 2020 presidential and congressional elections, urban areas will support Democrats and rural areas Republicans, with the suburbs in between acting as the decider in battleground states. 

That pattern largely holds from a national perspective, but a closer look at key battlegrounds across the country reveals a more complicated patchwork of local and regional dynamics. The race between Republican President Donald Trump and Democrat Joe Biden breaks down differently in different parts of the country, as do the races that will decide control of the U.S. Senate. How voters respond to presidential and congressional candidates will determine not just who governs the country, but how Democrats and Republicans engage rural, suburban, and urban constituents in future campaigns. 

Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania, which is 27% rural by population, is considered one of the most pivotal states in the country, and in 2016 Trump shocked Clinton by winning in rural counties, small cities and medium-sized metro areas. Clinton won major metropolitan areas of 1 million residents or more – Pittsburgh and Philadelphia — but still lost votes from Barack Obama’s 2012 performance. The combination landed Trump Pennsylvania’s 20 electoral votes.

Rural Pennsylvania has been a GOP hotbed going back to the Civil War, with the exception of the Appalachian region in the southwest, which was historically Democratic before flipping to become strong Republican. Those rural voters turned out in force for Trump in 2016, which helped secure him a statewide margin of fewer than 45,000 votes, or 0.72 percentage points. 

Democrats made a comeback in 2018, sweeping statewide elections largely on a partisan shift in Philadelphia’s suburban counties. However, the 2016 shift in rural Pennsylvania and some Pittsburgh suburbs toward Republicans remained through the midterms, suggesting a longer-term realignment is taking place. 

“Republicans have made some gains in the southwest, said Christopher Borick, a political science professor and director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion. “Those areas had been voting Republican, and now really flipped their local governments too — no split ticket stuff. We also saw some gains in the northeast for Republicans in the state house. That area had some long-term Democratic strength, but Republicans have crept in there.”

The stickiness of those 2016 shifts through the midterms suggests a longer-term realignment is taking place in Pennsylvania. 

“There’s the policy side of things where neither party has done anything that would radically change the economic fabric of rural America in a way that promotes job growth,”  said Jennie Sweet-Cushman, associate professor of political science at Chatham University. “If neither party has done anything that seems like it’s been beneficial, you kind of start off on even ground that way.”

Instead of policy, Pennsylvania’s realignment has been driven by the development of cultural “super identities” that increasingly frame American politics.

“Trump either knowingly or unknowingly fed right into these identities,” she said. “‘I’m rural. I have a blue-collar job. I’m disaffected by big-city elitism. I’m more religious than my urban counterparts. I’m more white than my counterparts, and I’m more republican than my urban counterparts.’ All of those things combined together create this super entity that’s really powerful, and Donald Trump became the figurehead for this identity. It’s very powerful to feel like someone finally sees you, recognizes that you have this identity and values that identity.”

That phenomenon, largely disconnected from policy arguments, has become firmly entrenched in Pennsylvania politics, Sweet-Cushman said. It explains why many of Trump’s rural supporters remain steadfastly committed to him.

Even among rural voters, Trump’s margin is likely to soften against Biden as compared to Clinton. 

“Joe Biden has a little bit of that rural identity to him,” Sweet-Cushman said. “He’s got a little bit of macho, challenge you to push-ups on the stage in Iowa, little bit of trash talk, some humble roots, a history of military service in the family. There’s just enough cross-cutting that Republicans in rural Pennsylvania who have not doubled down on identity might still feel comfortable voting for Biden. It doesn’t have to be a huge percentage to flip Pennsylvania.”

Trump is competing for Pennsylvania but has consistently trailed Biden, whose lead has remained remarkably stable despite the drumbeat of events that could be game-changing in any other year — the pandemic, the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the first chaotic debate.

“It’s just been one kind of historic or really major event after another this year, and certainly these things have had some modest effects here and there on pushing numbers, but not as much as you might consider,” Borick said. “We have a historic, once-in-a-century pandemic, and the numbers in Pennsylvania in the presidential race don’t look all that different, maybe a little worse. The world has changed but the race has only modestly changed, which tells you how baked in people were with their views.”

One notable change has occurred among voters over 65, who tend to make up a larger share of the population in rural areas. Trump won that group in 2016, but his numbers have softened since then, and especially since the pandemic began.

“The issue of the pandemic is very salient for older voters,” Borick said. “In ratings of the president, older voters give him extremely poor ratings in how he’s handled it. This is one area where the pandemic has modestly changed the landscape, and in a part of the electorate he can’t afford to lose.”

Pennsylvania also occupies a national spot in rural politics as ground zero the post-Obama re-emergence of the “Blue Dog” Democrats. The Blue Dogs appeared in the late ‘90s and surged during George W. Bush’s presidency with a platform based around fiscal conservatism, gun rights and national defense. Many Blue Dogs were voted out during Obama’s presidency.

In a March 2018 special election, military veteran and federal prosecutor Conor Lamb fipped Pennsylvania’s 17th congressional district, largely based in Pittsburgh’s northwestern suburbs. Lamb’s district has since been redrawn in a way that favors Democrats. His 2018 special election win attracted national attention by demonstrating a path to victory in Republican districts that had voted for Trump. In the fall midterms, 31 Democrats won in Trump districts.

Sweet-Cushman said that Lamb doesn’t necessarily represent the beginning of a new era for Blue Dogs so much as one of the few remaining members of an endangered species.

“Lamb has carved out a space that used to be a common space,” she said. “Is there still a space in this time of super identities to cut across those identities, and say ‘I’m half this, I’m half that, but I’m a Democrat, will you support me?’ It’s getting harder and harder because of hyper-partisanship. I think it’s going to get worse before it gets better. We’re headed in a direction where people are doubling down on their partisan identities.”

Maine

Jared Golden, a Democratic state legislator who served in the Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan, ran a similar campaign to Lamb’s in Maine’s 2nd congressional district. The district is 72% rural — the 2nd most rural in the country. On election night, incumbent U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin held 2,000 more votes than Golden, but because neither candidate reached a 50-percent-plus-one majority, Maine’s ranked-choice voting system came into play. The second choice of voters for two independents were counted and ultimately gave Golden the seat.

Golden has built a profile around the district’s rural nature, focusing his campaign around veterans issues and 2nd Amendment gun rights. His ads speak to rural culture as well.

“Golden in many ways is a great fit for this district,” said Mark Brewer, a political science professor at the University of Maine. “He’s got this blue-collar, rough-around-the-edges image. He’s regularly in jeans and flannel shirt and boots, sleeves rolled up, tattoos showing, military haircut. His ads feature fishermen and workers at Bath Iron Works [a shipyard].”

Golden’s issues reflect his district. While lobster fishing may not translate everywhere, Brewer said, it does translate more broadly “as an extractive industry where blue-collar workers are working with the natural environment, like logging, mining, industries throughout North America.”

As a freshman congressman, Golden faces a strong challenge from Republican Dale Crafts, businessman and former state legislator who emerged from a three-way primary. 

“It’s a strange race,” Brewer said. “Everyone thought it would be super close, one of the top 20 or top 10 House races in the country. Crafts is a good candidate. He was paralyzed in his early ‘20s, and went on to have a family, run a successful business and have a relatively accomplished record in the state legislature. Everyone thought it would be crazy close. It’s not. Crafts has no money; he’s barely on the air.” 

Some of that may be because Republican donors are more focused on the presidential race and trying to hold the U.S. Senate. In Maine, which is 61.3% rural, U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, a four-term incumbent known as one of the most moderate Republicans in the chamber. Polls show Collins is in danger of losing to Sara Gideon, the Democratic speaker of the Maine House of Representatives.  

In presidential contests, Maine hasn’t voted Republican since 1988, although Clinton’s 3-point margin in 2016 was the closest result since then. Collins’ moderate image has kept her in the Senate since 1996. But in a chamber where Republicans hold a 53-47 majority, she has been increasingly pulled into Trump’s orbit, most notably with her vote to confirm Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

In a chaotic year when antipathy toward Trump has energized Democrats around the country, Collins has the difficult task of trying to keep Republican base voters satisfied while maintaining enough independence to win swing voters who don’t like the president.

“She needs to maximize her Republican votes where Trump is very popular among Republican’s base, but that’s not enough,” Brewer said. “She needs to get unenrolled voters. For that she needs to claim a plausible amount of distance from Donald Trump. That’s a difficult tightrope to walk.”

Montana

The dynamics around the race for U.S. Senate in Montana, 44.1% rural, are very different. There Republicans have won every presidential race back to 1968, except in 1992 when Bill Clinton narrowly defeated George H.W. Bush with the help of the 26% who voted for Ross Perot.

Despite that Republicans lean on the presidential level, Montana has elected Democratic governors since 2004, and frequently elects Democratic U.S. Senators. This year, Democrat Steve Bullock, the state’s governor since 2013, is challenging incumbent U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, who is finishing his first term as senator and previously was Montana’s at-large congressman. 

Bullock briefly ran for president, but suspended his campaign in December 2019, then declared his Senate candidacy on the last day to file. He faces an uphill battle in a state Trump won by 20 points in 2016, but will certainly run ahead of Biden and presents a formidable challenge to Daines.

“The thing that’s interesting about this race is that neither Bullock or Daines can say, ‘I’m the rural candidate,’ because they’re not from a rural area,” said Jessi Bennion, adjunct professor at Montana State University. “But they’re both fighting for that. You see it in their advertising, on their Twitter pages, how they’re trying to signal rural identity. Both talk that they’re hunters, about the value of the land — all the things you’d think that someone who’s going after the rural vote. They’re fighting right now over who is the most Montanan, who has lived her the longest.”

Bullock has emphasized healthcare and his record of working with state Republicans to expand Medicaid to cover more people. He talks up rural hospitals and health infrastructure. The pandemic and lack of comprehensive federal response has put governors in the spotlight, so Bullock has enjoyed the opportunity to actively demonstrate leadership in governing outside the context of a campaign. For his part, Daines has emphasized his connection to Trump, who is popular with rural Montanans.

“The playbook out here is Republicans try to nationalize the election, every election, whether for Secretary of State or U.S. Senate,” said Lee Banville, professor in the University of Montana School of Journalism. “You talk about national Republican issues: guns, guns, tax cuts, guns. 

Daines is quick to point out the NRA ranking for Bullock [an “F”]. Bullock walks a line: he’s essentially appealing to pragmatists with bipartisan messaging about getting stuff done. That’s the typical Democratic message.”

Bullock is running a different style of campaign than Montana’s other U.S. Senator, Democrat Jon Tester, a farmer who is not up for re-election this year. But their maps to victory are similar — and also similar to other Democrats running in largely rural states: run up the score in cities, win the suburbs and keep the margins low in rural areas.

Banville sees another similarity between the two that translates nationally as well.

“That authenticity thing is the key ingredient for Democrats,” Banville said. “Republicans start with a natural advantage in these places, but Democrats can cobble together a coalition if they really can honestly speak to voters in a way that feels genuine.”