The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Rural America lifted Trump to the presidency. Support is strong, but not monolithic.

Locals have been casting ballots at the Simpson Voting House in Derry Township, Pa., since 1891. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

Rural America has often backed Republicans in presidential elections, but rarely with the enthusiasm they showed for President Trump in 2016. More sparsely populated areas of the country form the heart of Trump Nation and continue to provide majority support for a president who has faced near-constant controversy and discord.

At a time when his job approval rating is in net negative territory nationally, more than half of all adults (54 percent) in rural America say they approve of the way he is doing his job, according to a new Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation survey. His approval rating among rural Americans is 10 percentage points higher than among suburbanites and 22 points higher than among city dwellers.

New poll of rural Americans shows deep cultural divide with urban centers

At the same time, however, any suggestion of rural America as near-monolithic in its support for the president represents a sizable oversimplification. Even in areas of the country where Trump scored some of his biggest margins, he is a divisive figure — loved by his supporters but disliked by many who voted for Hillary Clinton. Four in 10 adults in rural America disapprove of his job performance, a hefty number for a president still in the early stages of his tenure.

On Election Night last November, Trump lost America’s cities in a landslide. In the suburbs, he narrowly prevailed over Clinton. But in the 2,332 counties that make up small-town and rural America, he swamped his Democratic rival, winning 60 percent of the vote to Clinton’s 34 percent. Trump’s 26-point advantage over Clinton in rural America far exceeded the margins by which Republican nominees had won those voters in the four previous elections.

That statistic alone doesn’t tell the full story of Trump’s appeal and the growing urban-rural division in the country. Trump’s vote percentage in rural America was 29 points higher than he received in the nation’s urban counties. That gap, like his overall support level among rural voters, is far larger than for Republican nominees between 2000 and 2012.

The president is fond of showing visitors to the White House a map of the 2016 election results by county. It shows a sea of red along with smaller patches of blue. The red areas represent the rural and small-town counties won by the president; the specks of blue highlight the urban areas where Clinton rolled up big margins.

That map, however impressive from a distance, is deceiving, highlighting geography over population density. Small-towns and rural areas account for 74 percent of the nation’s 3,143 counties. But those counties account for just under a quarter of the total U.S. population. Suburban counties count for 46 percent of the country’s population and urban counties the remaining 31 percent.

When Trump’s actual vote totals are analyzed on that basis, the suburbs appear to take on greater significance in his victory march. Suburban counties provided close to half of Trump’s total votes, while rural and small-town counties accounted for not quite one-third of his votes.

Still, the outsize support from voters in rural America remains a major story of the 2016 election and of Trump’s presidency. Residents of rural American counties turned out in numbers big enough to help provide the crucial victory margins in states like Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Iowa — states that either had been presidential battlegrounds in recent years or consistently in the Democrats’ column. The more rural the county, the better Trump did on Election Day.

What attracted these voters to Trump? One factor, based on other post-election surveys, was their dislike of Clinton, whose negative ratings were nearly as high as Trump’s. Beyond that, according to the new Post-Kaiser survey, his appeal was grounded in economic and cultural issues, with immigration having particular resonance and skepticism that federal government programs have done much to help their areas.

Trump’s support was also driven by a feeling among rural voters that urban and even suburban Americans do not share their values, and that the news media disrespects them.

Trump won 67 percent of the vote among rural Americans who say their values differ from people in big cities. He won 71 percent of those who say the news media disrespect them. He won 74 percent among those who say immigrants are not doing enough to adapt to the American way of life. He captured 79 percent of those rural voters who say that federal government efforts to improve people’s standard of living generally make things worse.

Rural voters widely embrace the economic policy ideas Trump espoused as a candidate. Almost 7 in 10 of all rural Americans say decreasing regulations on businesses would be important elements of improving the job situation in their areas. Almost 8 in 10 say the same about lowering taxes on business and making better trade deals. Infrastructure projects really draw support, with more than 9 in 10 responding positively to such initiatives, including 74 percent calling them “very important.” On most questions, rural voters who say these policies would help their communities were more likely to vote for Trump.

Support for those ideas, many of which have yet to gain traction in Congress or even be proposed by the president, is tempered by more modest expectations of what a Trump presidency will do to improve the economic life of rural Americans. Overall, a slim 51 percent majority of rural residents are very or somewhat confident Trump will create jobs in their community, while 46 percent say they are not too confident or not confident at all about this.

Still, those rural voters who backed Trump in November express confidence that his presidency will improve their lives. About 8 in 10 say they are either very or somewhat confident Trump will improve health care and create jobs in their area. More than 9 in 10 Trump voters say they think he will keep the country safe from terrorism and that he will protect individual freedoms.

Hear from rural voters in Ashtabula County, Ohio, as they describe the most important issues to them. (Video: McKenna Ewen, Whitney Leaming, Whitney Shefte/The Washington Post)

Concerns about immigration, abuse of public assistance and racial biases resonate especially among Trump’s rural voters. More than 6 in 10 Trump supporters say immigrants are a burden because they take jobs away from American citizens rather than strengthening the country with their hard work and talents. More than 8 in 10 rural Trump voters say it’s more common for government benefits to go to undeserving people rather than for needy people to go without them. And by a more than 3-to-1 margin, rural Trump voters say whites losing out because of preferences for blacks and Hispanics is a bigger national problem than racial minorities losing out to whites.

Significant partisan differences exist in rural America, as they do throughout the country. On immigration, for example, 71 percent of rural Republicans say immigrants coming to the United States in the past decade are not doing enough to adapt to the American way of life, while just 29 percent of rural Democrats agree with that.

A 57-percent majority of rural Democrats say recent immigrants have values similar to theirs, but only 27 percent of rural Republicans express that view. Rural Democrats are almost three times as likely as rural Republicans to say federal programs designed to improve living standards do make things better — 50 percent vs. 18 percent.

Almost 4 in 10 rural Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents say they have different values than other rural and small-town residents, about three times the percentage of rural Republicans who say the same.

In other ways, residents in rural and small-town areas, regardless of party identification, often see the world and issues differently from their political counterparts elsewhere. Asked about their views of immigrants, rural Republicans are more negative in their responses than urban and suburban Republicans and rural Democrats are less positive than urban and suburban Democrats.

A similar pattern holds on the question of whether Christian values are under attack in the United States, at least among Democrats. Rural Democrats are 11 percentage points more likely to say yes to that question than urban and suburban Democrats, though rural Republicans are significantly more likely to see those values under attack than rural Democrats. And while most Democrats in all areas oppose Republican efforts to repeal and replace the 2010 Affordable Care Act, 23 percent of rural Democrats support such efforts, compared with 14 percent of urban Democrats.

This Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll was conducted April 13-May 1, 2017 among a random national sample of 1,686 U.S. adults reached on cellular and landline phones with an overall margin of sampling error of plus or minus four percentage points. The sample of 1,070 rural Americans has an error margin of plus or minus 3.5 points.

This Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll was conducted April 13-May 1 with a random national sample of 1,686 U.S. adults contacted on landline and cell phones. The overall margin of sampling error isplus or minus 4 percentage points. The sample of 1,070 rural Americans has an error margin of plus or minus 3.5 points; the error margin is 7 points for the sample of 303 urban residents and 6.5 points for the 307 suburban residents.

Scott Clement and Emily Guskin contributed to this report.