In the 2020 presidential election, Democrat Joe Biden won the popular vote in only 10% of the nation's rural counties. There was a certain type of rural county where Biden doubled that rate of victory. Unfortunately for Democrats, it was rural counties that are losing the most population.
From 2010 to 2020, 244 rural counties lost 10% or more of their population. Biden won the popular vote in 20% of those counties, as opposed to the rest of rural America, where he won at about half that rate.
Population loss didn't cause those counties to support Biden. Rather, it's the demographics of those counties that are losing population that explain the difference. The rural communities with the most population loss had higher percentages of ethnic or racial minorities than the rest of rural America. And these are populations that tend to vote more Democratic.
Rural counties that lost large portions of their population also tended to be economically distressed. That in turn leads to more people leaving.
Rural counties that lost 10% or more of their population are clustered in a few regions: Central Appalachia, the Mississippi River Delta, the border region of Texas, and parts of the Great Plains, and the Black Belt, a crescent stretching from Virginia to Texas with large numbers of Black residents.
The Black Belt of the Southeast is a region named for its dark soils where plantation agriculture dominated the economy before the Civil War. Because of slavery’s impact, systemic disparities persist in the Black Belt, where the average poverty rate is 23.8%. That’s 10 percentage points higher than the national rural average.
The counties with the most population loss also had higher percentages of vulnerable individuals, such as those who are elderly or living in poverty.
Take Quitman County, Mississippi, for example. Quitman County, located in northwest Mississippi, is part of the Delta region. It’s a farming community where approximately two-thirds of the population voted for Biden in 2020. Quitman County was classified as a persistent poverty county in 2013, which means the poverty rate exceeded 20% for at least three decades. In 2020, 75.9% of the population were ethnic or racial minorities, compared to 23% of the population in the rest of rural America.
Between 2010 and 2020, Quitman County lost 9.3% of its population, dropping from 8,223 residents in 2010 to 6,176 in 2020, according to the Census. The average population change in rural counties was 1.89% between 2010 and 2020.
Bamberg County, South Carolina, had a 16% decline from 2010 to 2020. The population dropped from 15,987 a decade ago to 13,311 in the last Census. Sixty-two percent of voters in 2020 voted for Biden in Bamberg County, which is also in persistent poverty. Sixty-two percent of the population were ethnic or racial minorities in 2020.
Bamberg and Quitman counties were not exceptions among Black Belt communities. The population change map shows a band of dark blue in the Black Belt region, indicating severe population loss.
Perry County, Alabama, lost 20% of its population between 2010 and 2020, while Duplin County, North Carolina, and Madison Parish, Louisiana, lost 17%. In Perry County, ethnic or racial minorities comprised 72.4% of the population and 65.9% of the population in Madison Parish. Both Perry County and Madison Parish voted for Biden in 2020, while Duplin County voted for Trump, who won by more than 20 percentage points.
The 2020 Census report showed that half of the population was white in Duplin County, which might explain the landslide win for Trump. In 63 of the 64 rural southern counties that had majority Black or African American populations, only Early County, Georgia, voted for Trump in 2020.