To hear many Democrats tell it, the story of the 2016 election was simple. The problem wasn’t that millions of Barack Obama voters stayed home, including a large number of black voters — certainly enough to have swung the result in the three states President Trump won the most narrowly that year. No, the problem is that the party has done a bad job of appealing to working-class white voters who were persuaded by Trump to vote Republican.
That narrative has been remarkably sticky in the past three years even outside the party, though white working-class voters were moving away from the Democrats well before being courted by Trump. It’s why you get all of those dispatches from the heartland (many of them useful!): Understanding rural white voters has become an industry in itself.
On Thursday, Axios reported on an initiative meant specifically to encourage Democratic candidates to speak more directly to rural Americans. Former senators Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Donnelly of Indiana — both of whom lost reelection bids last year — are launching the One Country Project. It aims to give candidates “messaging, data, polling, and a strategy to break through with these voters who ‘didn’t feel that we shared their beliefs’ in past elections,” according to Axios’s Alexi McCammond. A central focus of the effort is the 2020 presidential election.
This seems sort of obvious on the surface. Of course a presidential candidate should try to appeal to Americans across the political spectrum. The problem, though, is that shifting a national message to appeal to a rural North Dakota voter almost necessarily means shifting it away from an urban voter in a state such as Florida.
Trump won 30 states in the 2016 election, many of them more heavily rural than the national average. The idea is, apparently, that it’s worth trying to pick off a few of those states by appealing to the white, rural voters with a more inclusive message.
The problem with the theory is, first and foremost, that there simply aren’t that many rural residents of states that Trump narrowly won. In the 10 states that Trump won by less than 10 points, there are about 10.4 million rural residents, according to 2010 Census Bureau data. By contrast, there are 39 million urban residents in those states.
So why not just talk to them? It’s true that rural counties are more likely to vote Republican, but they also, by definition, have far fewer residents.
The map below shows how this idea that the Democrats are out of touch with rural Americans is tricky.
Maine has a much bigger share of rural residents than Florida, but Maine went for Hillary Clinton and Florida for Trump. As one example.
Let’s look more closely at the assertion that Democrats need to appeal to rural voters to win presidential elections. In 2010, Indiana and North Dakota (Donnelly and Heitkamp’s states) were the 29th and 41st most-rural states in the country, respectively. Like most states, though, they’ve been getting consistently more urban over time, according to data from Iowa State University. Even as they’ve gotten more urban, each consistently still votes more Republican than the nation overall. (Yes, Indiana went blue in 2008, but by a smaller margin than Obama won nationally. So: more Republican than the country.)
That link between “less urban” and “more Republican” isn’t universal, though. Of the four least urban states in the 2010 data, two consistently voted more Democratic than the country and two consistently voted more Republican.
In fact, as the urban density in Maine fell, it voted more heavily Democratic. As West Virginia has gotten more densely urban, it’s also gotten much more heavily Republican.
On the other end of the spectrum, the pattern looks more the way we’d expect. The most heavily urban states tend to vote more Democratic than the country on the whole, though Nevada, the third-most-densely urban state, tends to look more purple.
In the middle, another mixed bag. Michigan, Kansas, Minnesota and Louisiana are about in the middle of the pack on urban density among the 50 states. Michigan and Minnesota generally vote a bit more Democratic than the country on the whole, though in 2016 both voted more Republican than the country on the whole (which, you’ll remember, cast more votes for Clinton).
Kansas and Louisiana are much more heavily Republican. That has long been the case in Kansas, even as it has become significantly less rural.
So what’s going on here? Pew Research Center data shows that differences in party lead to a much wider divide on political-value questions than does the urban-rural divide. In other words, an urban Democrat and a rural Democrat are more likely to agree on key political values than a rural Democrat and a rural Republican. Part of the reason Maine is so blue and Nebraska isn’t is that the rural Maine voters are more likely to be Democrats.
This seems sort of obvious, but it’s worth noting in the context of the Heitkamp-Donnelly initiative. The idea that Democrats should change their national message to try to persuade rural Republicans in the upper Midwest seems like not the best use of resources — especially given how few people fall into that category.
The Democrats might be better served trying to get those 2012 Obama voters to come back out to cast a ballot.