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The nation’s political divisions are etched into our geography.
Democrats are gaining ground in the central neighborhoods of big cities. Republicans are gaining everywhere else. This trend shows up in votes for Congress and the president we published recently in the Daily Yonder.
The most common explanation for this phenomenon is that rural voters have been reacting to the election of President Barack Obama, the nation’s first African-American president. Indeed, writes Emily Badger in the New York Times, the “rural divergence starting in 2008 mirrors a sharp turn in support for the Republican Party among white voters” with less than a college degree. The “shift” came in 2008, Badger writes, linking Barack Obama’s run for office with a change in how rural areas voted.
But that’s not how it happened.
In 2008, Barack Obama won 43 percent of the vote in rural America. That was 3 points higher than the share of rural votes Democrat (and white) John Kerry won in 2004. And support for Democratic House candidates was higher in 2008 than in 2006.
If anything, rural voters were attracted to Obama’s candidacy in 2008.
All that changed in later elections. By 2016, Democrat Hillary Clinton took a tad over 30 percent of the rural vote.
There’s been a great debate over why Republicans have gained so much strength outside the major metropolitan areas, especially among white voters. Was it tied to race, as white voters saw their influence diminishing? Or was it a reaction to an economy that was not rewarding those with less than a college education? Or, as sociologist Andrew Cherlin writes, was it both?
There’s another option. Perhaps rural voters began to turn away from the Democratic Party because the party abandoned areas outside the major metros. There’s evidence for this, too. After significant gains in rural areas in 2008, President Obama largely avoided the countryside over the next several years. And Obama discarded promises his administration made to farmers, ranchers and coal miners.
In his first year in office, for example, President Obama took 43 trips inside the United States. Only one was to a rural county, to Belgrade, Montana, for a health care forum.
The same disregard could be seen in policy. During the 2008 election, the Obama campaign said it would confront the growing monopolies that control every aspect of the food business, from the seed farmers buy to the grocery aisle. In early 2010, Obama’s attorney general and Agriculture secretary held five hearings around the country. Thousands of farmers and food workers showed up to testify.
And then…nothing. The administration took no action, despite all the promises during the campaign and at the hearings.
These weren’t the only broken vows. The Charleston Gazette’s Ken Ward recalled that when Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency announced a small crackdown on mountaintop removal coal mining in 2009 the new administration also made a commitment:
“Federal agencies will work in coordination with appropriate regional, state and local entities to help diversify and strengthen the Appalachian regional economy and promote the health and welfare of Appalachian communities.”
“Sounds great, right?” Ward wrote in 2016, after Trump swept the coalfields. “The problem is, the Obama administration didn’t really get moving with a broad and detailed plan for any of that sort of thing until about six years later — in 2015, President Obama’s next-to-last-year in office.”
By that time, the Republicans had cemented the idea that Democrats had instituted a “war on coal.” Ward doesn’t argue that a coalfield initiative would have made Obama popular in West Virginia, Kentucky, Virginia and Pennsylvania. But, he wrote, “a strong push from the national party would have perhaps at least given West Virginia Democrats something to respond more forcefully to the constant attacks about a ‘war on coal.’”
Ward notes that Obama gave a moving speech at a memorial for the 29 miners killed in the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster and was there at Senator Robert Byrd’s funeral. Both of these events took place in his second year in office. But when it came to helping coal communities make the transition from coal to something else, the administration was missing.
Obama created a White House Rural Council, but it never seemed to have much sway. And the president rarely showed up in rural America. In his second year in office, Obama visited 104 places in the United States. Only six of those were in rural counties – and two of those were vacations in Bar Harbor, Maine, and Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts.
Would it have made a difference if Democrats had shown up in rural America, in person and in policy? My guess is that the divisions in the country are deeper than a piece of legislation and a few landings by Air Force One.
But the actions by Democrats – rather, their inactions – reinforced the impression that the party didn’t care. In a political culture that became increasingly “us” against “them,” Democrats were telling those outside the major metropolitan counties that the party wasn’t theirs. And so in most of the country, Democrats became the party of “them.”
President Obama made 143 trips outside Washington, D.C., in his first two years in office and 103 were to cities of a million or more people.
Bill Bishop is a Daily Yonder contributing editor and was a founding co-editor of the publication.
Interactive Map: 2016 Congressional Vote with Republican/Democratic Swing from 2008
Red counties voted majority Republican. Dark red voted more Republican in 2016 than in 2008. Blue counties voted majority Democratic. Dark blue counties voted more Democratic in 2016 than in 2008. View that map via Google Maps