Opinion: Growing urban areas were supposed to save the Democrats. Here’s why they won’t.

It has long been received wisdom among Democrats that Republicans face a challenging demographic problem: Urban areas are growing, Democrats dominate in those regions, and as the United States grows, Democrats will gain votes and Republicans will lose them. Analysts started making versions of this argument more than a decade ago — during Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign — and they haven’t stopped since.

But at least so far, things haven’t turned out as expected.

If you slice the data a bit differently, a new story emerges — one where the divide between large metros and smaller cities, towns and rural areas looks more like continuing deadlock than a growing Democratic advantage.

To see how this works, let’s rewind 40 years and divide Americans into two camps: the half that lived in the 40 biggest metros and the half that did not.

In 1980, nearly half of Americans lived in the 40 largest metropolitan areas.

The other half resided in smaller cities, towns and rural areas.

In 1980, Republicans held a slight advantage inside and outside the largest metros. Ronald Reagan won both areas.

The number of voters nearly doubled from 1980 to 2020. The 40 largest metros cast a thin majority of the votes. But only barely: roughly half of the votes still came from smaller communities.

Democrats such as Joe Biden secured clear victories in the the largest metropolitan areas. In 2020, he beat Donald Trump by 20 points there.

Republicans gained ground in smaller communities. Trump won small cities, towns and rural areas by double digits in 2020.

The political landscape changed dramatically between 1980 and 2020. Large metros — which made up roughly half of the electorate in both years — shifted dramatically toward Democrats. And the small cities, towns and rural areas between them raced toward Republicans.

The conventional wisdom is that major cities have been growing fast, while the rest of the country has been shrinking. But small metros, tiny towns and rural areas have collectively kept pace with the population growth in large metros.

One reason: Remarkable growth rates in smaller cities often goes unnoticed. In percentage terms, many smaller towns and cities are growing as quickly as the nation’s biggest cities. Retiring boomers have been drawn to temperate cities such as Cape Coral, Fla. Provo, Utah — home to Brigham Young University — has grown rapidly too, and Bend, Ore., has become a magnet for remote workers. These are just a few examples.

At the same time, not all urban areas have grown equally. As manufacturing has declined, Rust Belt cities such as Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Detroit and Milwaukee have struggled to grow. That stagnation has slowed the overall growth rate in major metros — and has helped smaller communities keep up.

There’s also some variation from one decade to the next — the 1970s were tough on cities; the 2010s were hard on rural areas. But when the trends in each category of place are combined, the population in smaller cities and towns has largely kept up with that of major metros.

As these two segments of the country grew, each party flourished in one segment — while lagging in the other.

Over the past 40 years, Democratic presidential candidates have added roughly 30 million votes in major metro areas. Outside of those metros, they’ve gained only 15 million votes — and are making only minimal improvements in their vote totals between 2008 and 2020. The Republican trend is somewhat more balanced. Between 1980 and 2020, Republican candidates added 11 million votes in large metros and 19 million votes in smaller communities.

The result is a continuing tug of war between urban and rural voters. The cities are not, as widely predicted, running away with the national elections.

In the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, when both parties remained competitive in rural and urban areas, presidents were often elected by landslide margins. But today, Republicans and Democrats each have a rigid, geographically distinct, base of support and compete for a small slice of swing voters in each category. The popular vote in presidential contests remains close — usually within a single digit margin — and both chambers of Congress routinely change hands.

There are many reasons for our divided politics: Race, class, culture, religion, ideology (and even reading habits) split Americans into one of two political camps. But the urban/rural divide — a split that physically separates Americans from each other — has become critical. Contrary to expectations, it’s not going away anytime soon.


Metro areas are defined by the 2020 Office of Management and Budget core-based statistical area (CBSA) boundaries. OMB started publishing these boundaries in 2003 so for the sake of consistency the same boundaries are used for every year. Alaska was counted as wholly rural, as its demographic and political boundaries often do not match.

About this story

Editing by Michael Duffy. Interactive design and development by Yan Wu. Graphics editing by Sergio Peçanha.

David Byler is a data analyst and political columnist focusing on elections, polling, demographics and statistics. He joined The Washington Post in 2019.