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Poor Rural Voters (Update)

- April 22, 2008

Last week, I wrote that Obama was incorrect to imply that large numbers of poor rural voters do not vote for Democrats. Larry Bartels does a more thorough analysis critiquing Obama’s (updated and clarified) remarks in the op-ed section of the NY Times. Bartels writes,

Last week in Terre Haute, Ind., Mr. Obama explained that the people he had in mind “don’t vote on economic issues, because they don’t expect anybody’s going to help them.” He added: “So people end up, you know, voting on issues like guns, and are they going to have the right to bear arms. They vote on issues like gay marriage. And they take refuge in their faith and their community and their families and things they can count on. But they don’t believe they can count on Washington.”

This is a remarkably detailed and vivid account of the political sociology of the American electorate. What is even more remarkable is that it is wrong on virtually every count.

Small-town people of modest means and limited education are not fixated on cultural issues. Rather, it is affluent, college-educated people living in cities and suburbs who are most exercised by guns and religion. In contemporary American politics, social issues are the opiate of the elites.

While Bartels is right, “social issues are the opiate of the elites,” Obama does (implicitly) raise a good point about the differences between poor rural and urban voters. Obama working assumption is that poor rural voters vote more Republican than their urban counterparts. Using the American National Election study, I plot Republican vote share by income for poor rural and urban voters.


We see quite a gap between poor voters in rural and urban areas, for example, the gap in 1980 was over 30%. So if economic issues are driving vote choice among the poor, why do we see this difference between rural and urban voters? Before we answer this question, we should probably factor out African Americans, and compare just poor White rural and urban voters. If we do that, here’s what we get


The gap narrows considerably, except we see the divergent trend in 2000. What do we make of this divergent trend? I’ll follow up using the 2000 and 2004 Annenberg election studies with much larger sample sizes. Stay tuned.