Saturday, October 25, 2014

Are rural and urban counties moving toward partisan extremes?

A recent study done by the Washington Post labeled counties based on how urban versus rural they are. The study did so in order to track partisanship of voting trends over time. By comparing each county’s votes to the national average in subsequent elections, the authors were able to determine how voting trends in different types of counties – urban versus rural – had changed since 1988.

In short, between 1988 and the 2012 election, heavily urban counties became more Democrat by 32 percent; heavily rural counties became more Republican by 11 percent. This shift happened incrementally with each election year. The study also points out that far more counties are considered heavily rural, but fewer over all rural votes, explaining why the national average in all counties in presidential elections has become more Republican. The article concludes by stating:
If you plot every county's urban-versus-rural divide by the per-election average change in the vote, the pattern is clear: more urban areas vote have been voting more Democratic. 
And vice versa. These findings come to life in a recent op-ed in the New York Times. The author, Silas House, describes the idyllic, rural, coal town of Berea, Kentucky where he grew up. The City Council of the ethnically diverse town founded by abolitionists recently voted against a city ordinance to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

The author compares this to larger, more progressive cities, such as Louisville. Once you step outside larger cities, which have passed their own antidiscrimination ordinances, it is perfectly legal to refuse service, employment, and housing to LGBT individuals. While in many places protections vary from place to place, House views this as indicative of where the struggle for equality lays – a struggle not between political parties, but urban and rural localities. Regarding the city vote to strike down the ordinance in Berea, House states:

“The vote illuminates a new reality for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Americans. The equality divide we face is no longer between red and blue states, but between urban and rural America. Even as we celebrate victories like this month’s Supreme Court order on same-sex marriage, the real front in the battle for equality remains the small towns that dot America’s landscape.”

Both the conclusions of the New York Times and Washington Post seem to reinforce each other if you buy into the conclusion that “rural” and “red” have become so inextricably linked that there is no way to differentiate one from the other. At least that’s what these two pieces suggest. If the trend described in the Washington Post continues – that rural counties are becoming more Republican – the battle for LGBT equality in small towns may become even more arduous.


Damon Alimouri said...

Nice findings. However, we should ask why rural America has been locked into so-called conservatism.

I propose that common rural Americans are being manipulated as the foot soldiers of an agenda--an agenda of division and alienation. This is to say that powerful elites and ideologues have constructed spurious divisions between common Americans along the lines of race and party affiliation.

Why? Because its profitable and its politically beneficial to those at the top.

Sadly enough, those who suffer the same tribulations as their colored brethren have been pitted against them.

Of course, this is not to say that this situation is permanent.

Tiffanie said...

I had two thoughts when reading this post. First, these studies were unsurprisingly because many people already think of rural areas (rather than urban areas) when they think of Republican or conservative values. For example, I usually think of big, urban cities such as San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York City, etc, when I think of liberal, and I think of rural “middle America” as more conservative. Thinking in stereotypical terms, these studies are not surprising.

Second, I think Berea’s striking down of the city ordinance to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity is also something that many people wouldn’t be surprised about, specifically because Berea is a small, rural town. Unfortunately, it is occurrences like this that prevent more liberal individuals from wanting to move to rural areas.

Enrique Fernandez said...

When I think about rural communities, I definitely automatically assume that they tend to be more conservative. I would venture to say that most people ("white liberal elite") would say the same. When I was working on a Democratic campaign in rural Iowa in 2012, the county I was in would be classified as "rural" according to the US Census. Yet, despite the liberal voting majority, there was definitely an overwhelming feeling that people were generally more conservative, especially when I ventured out into the more "rural" counties in northwest Iowa.

It is interesting to contemplate the difficulty that individuals, who do not fit the prototypical conservative norm, in conservative, rural areas face. I imagine that in rural areas where conservative ideals dominate even law enforcement and the justice system that it can make life difficult for those who do not identify as conservative. However, I'm not sure that rural areas we become more conservative. If anything, I think they will grow to be more liberal especially considering the progress our nation as a whole has made on tough social issues in the past 50 years.

Kate said...

Julianna, I read the same article for my blog post earlier this week and then I saw your wonderful posting, so I decided to wait until after the elections to post on the subject with the election results so ours would be different.
I really enjoyed your post- I find the divide between urban and rural partisanship extremely interesting. Especially when thinking about why rural America tends to favor red candidates. Something that I found very interesting in researching this topic was the question of with the recent trend of urbanization- will rural America become politically obsolete? I think that it might, especially during charged elections with high voter turnout. Thanks for the post!

Kate Hanley said...

I'm not sure that Berea is the best model of American rurality or rural politics. It's a college town where about 40% of the population works in education and the populace is better educated than the state average. (And to rebut some comments, people I know in Berea seem to think of the place as pretty liberal.) Rural, yes. Not to be excluded, yes. A model example of what's happening in rural America... I don't know.

I think this might be a better example of how election systems with a large number of politically interested individuals might turn out. There are so many candidates that the margin between winning and losing is incredibly slight. Right before an election, candidates will likely want to espouse the views that small voter blocs intensely care about, rather than any view that people generally and apathetically support, in order to get those precious votes. Despite noting that Berea has had a hard time getting this measure through, I'm tempted to say that this vote was more attributable to the election system than rurality.

Kate Hanley said...

Here are my cites. My browser kept eating my comment when I tried to add them.

Berea election results:

Census data: