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Rural America and the nation’s largest cities have grown further apart in their congressional voting over the past 16 years, a Daily Yonder analysis shows.

The change has come primarily from an increase in the popularity of Republican candidates in rural areas. In 2006, half of voters in rural (nonmetropolitan) counties supported Republican congressional candidates. Over the next eight election cycles, Republican support generally grew and reached 68% in last month’s midterm congressional election.

A similar but slightly smaller trend occurred in small metropolitan counties and in the suburbs of medium-sized metropolitan areas. About half of these voters supported Republican candidates in 2006, while about 63% supported Republicans in 2022.

Democrats fared better in the central counties of major cities (ones in metros of 1 million residents or more), where support was relatively constant over the past eight election cycles. About 63% of voters in the central counties of major cities supported Democratic congressional candidates in 2006. That support declined as low as 58% in 2010, Barack Obama’s first midterm election, and peaked at 69% in 2018, Donald Trump’s midterm. 

Regional variation was evident in some of the voting swing. California, the Southwest, the Pacific Northwest, and the North East contained many of the counties that swung toward Democrats in congressional voting from 2006 to 2022. 

Rural Inyo County, California, swung Democrat by 13 percentage points between 2006 and 2022. In 2006, 65% of Inyo County voters supported the Republican party in congressional elections. But by this year’s midterms, only 53% of voters cast their ballot for Republican Kevin Kiley, the representative of California’s third congressional district.

On the opposite side of the nation, rural Carroll County, New Hampshire, showed a similar trend. In 2006, Democrats won Carroll County support by only 3 percentage points. In 2022, Democratic Congressman Chris Pappas won by a landslide. Sixty-seven percent of Carroll County voters supported Pappas in 2022.

The upper South, Midwest, and upper Intermountain West tended to have larger proportions of Republican swinging counties.

Congressional elections are subject to cyclical patterns and also reflect national political trends. Local results also depend on many issues beyond whether a county is rural or urban. But the cyclical nature of midterm elections is evident in the Daily Yonder’s analysis.

Obama’s coattails were helpful in 2008, when Democrats gained control of both the House and Senate. The “tea party” reaction to the Obama administration is evident in 2010 midterm. Obama’s second election helped lift Democratic support nationally in 2012, and the drop in Democratic support was less pronounced in the 2014 midterm election.

The gap between urban and rural congressional voting widened in 2016, the year Trump was elected. While only 38% of metropolitan voters supported Republican candidates in 2016, 65% of their rural counterparts cast their ballots for the GOP. 

The gap was even wider between rural voters and voters in the core of nation’s largest cities. The margin between rural voting and major metropolitan voting was 35 percentage points in 2022. 

Democratic reaction to the Trump presidency was evident in Trump’s midterm election in 2018, when support for the GOP generally declined. Sixty-one percent of rural voters and 28% of voters in major metros voted Republican in the 2018 midterms, compared to 65% of rural voters and 30% of urban voters the previous cycle.

The last two congressional election cycles have seen a general decline in Democratic support since the high-water mark in 2018.

Tuscola County, Michigan, a rural county in the ‘thumb’ of the glove-shaped state, voted Republican by 23 more percentage points in 2022 than it did in 2006. In 2022, 61% of Tuscola County voters supported Republican congresswoman Lisa McClain, compared to only 37% of voters who supported the GOP in 2006. 

Methodology

  • Large metro core are the central counties of metropolitan areas of 1 million or more residents.
  • Large metro suburbs are the counties surrounding those large-metro central counties. Medium metro core are the central counties of metropolitan areas from 250,000 to 999,999 residents.
  • Medium metro core are the central counties of metropolitan areas from 250,000 to 999,999 residents.
  • Medium metro suburbs are the counties surrounding those medium-metro central counties.
  • Small metro are all counties in a metropolitan area with fewer than 250,000 residents.
  • Nonmetro (rural) are counties not located within a metropolitan statistical area, as defined by the 2013 Office of Management and Budget. This analysis uses nonmetro as synonymous with rural.

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