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Why resentful rural Americans vote Republican

Many of these voters think they are underrepresented, under-resourced and overlooked

- October 20, 2022

As the midterms approach, political observers are once again talking about the widening divide between urban and rural voters. Over the past 25 years, rural areas have increasingly voted Republican while cities have increasingly voted Democratic — a dividing line that has replaced the North/South divide as the nation’s biggest source of political friction. That divide will influence which party takes control of Congress in January.

But why are rural and urban voters so sharply divided? Some scholars and pundits argue that it comes down to who lives where: that the disproportionately White, older, more religious, less affluent and less highly educated voters who live in rural areas are more likely to hold socially conservative views generally championed by Republicans. Meanwhile, urban areas are filled with younger, more racially diverse, more highly educated and more affluent people who hold the more socially liberal views generally championed by Democrats.

While all that matters, our new research shows that place itself also matters. Unlike Republican voters in suburbs and the cities, rural voters care about what we might call “geographic inequity” — the idea that rural areas receive less than their fair share from the government, are ignored by politicians, and are mocked and derided in popular culture. Without these beliefs, the urban-rural political divide would not be as vast as it is today.

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Most rural residents deeply resent how they’re perceived and treated

Anyone who has spent time studying rural communities knows that rural residents hold deep and pervasive grievances about how they’re viewed. That can be resentment about their unfair treatment by the government, dismissive comments from politicians, or media portrayals that either simplify country life and its problems or flat-out ignore “flyover country.” Much of the scholarship about these attitudes has focused on a relatively small number of communities in a handful of states, including Wisconsin and Louisiana. Our research has involved numerous national surveys — and we find that rural beliefs about geographic inequity, or what we and others call rural resentment, are widespread across the country.

Political scientist Katherine Cramer defines rural resentment as focused on three things. First concerns redistribution, or the belief that rural areas don’t receive their fair share of government resources and benefits. Second is representation, or the perception that most politicians ignore rural residents. And third, a sense of being culturally overlooked, that rural lifestyles and cultures don’t get the same respect as those of urban and suburban communities.

In our most recent study, we fielded two online opt-in surveys among U.S. adults just before elections. The first one was conducted by YouGov in November 2018 as part of the Cooperative Election Study (CES). The second ran in November 2020 using Lucid/Cint’s market research platform, reaching roughly 3,000 U.S. adults. Survey results were weighted to match census population estimates for age, sex, region and race. Whether our 2018 CES respondents voted was verified via cross-checking the voter file, but we relied on self-reported voting status in the 2020 survey.

In November 2020, we found that large majorities of rural respondents to our survey reported feeling resentment across all three areas. Asked whether rural communities do not receive their fair share of government resources, 47 percent somewhat agreed and 33 percent strongly agreed. Asked if politicians pay too much attention to urban areas and not enough to rural areas, 42 percent somewhat agreed and 33 percent strongly agreed. And asked if urbanites look down on rural people, 40 percent somewhat agreed and 25 percent strongly agreed.

How rural resentment helps explain Donald Trump’s victory

We combined respondent answers to these questions into an index measure ranging from 0 to 1, with 0 being not at all resentful and 1 being maximally resentful. Among the questions our survey asked was how an individual voted in both the 2018 and 2020 congressional elections. We analyzed those answers, accounting for influential factors like whether they identified as a Republican or Democrat, ideology, education, age, attitudes about race and gender, and more. This analysis found that rural resentment stood out as strongly predicting the Republican votes. For example, in 2020, we found that voters harboring high levels of rural resentment were 35 percent less likely to say they would vote for the Democratic U.S. House candidates than non-resentful rural voters, all else equal.

In other words, rural resentment was among the most powerful factors in pushing respondents to vote for Republicans.

The urban-rural divide is concerning both for the parties and for U.S. democracy in general

Why does rural resentment seem to lead rural voters to support Republican candidates? Cramer argues that many of the purported sources of rural grievances — including the government and media elites — are psychologically associated much more strongly with the Democrats than with Republicans.

Is this resentment justified? Certainly, rural areas are sicker and poorer than nonrural America. And rural areas have undoubtedly lost many sources of meaning, money and respect over the past three decades.

Still, some Democrats may want to dismiss resentment as unjustified White anger. After all, rural states have more power than their numbers would warrant in institutions like the U.S. Senate and the electoral college. At least in politics, rural voices are already amplified.

But voters form judgments based on what they believe to be true. And most rural voters resent what they perceive to be real geographic inequity. Perceptions, not facts, drive political behavior.

The urban-rural divide affects both parties. Democrats’ immense struggle wooing rural voters, the rural/urban imbalance in the Senate and electoral college and Republican state legislative dominance in redistricting means that while Democrats routinely win greater numbers of votes nationwide, they find it increasingly difficult to translate voting majorities into governing majorities that hold both chambers of Congress and the White House. That makes it hard to pass their policy agenda. Meanwhile, Republicans’ struggles in states and districts with substantial urban populations means they don’t have much influence in the country’s most dynamic, vibrant and productive economic, technological and cultural centers.

Meanwhile, experts agree that the urban-rural divide is harming the health of U.S. democracy. For example, when Republicans win the presidency, they often do so without a popular majority. Many states create districts that group rural voters with one another and urban voters with one another, making races less competitive or even shoo-ins for one party or the other. Safe districts often mean less accountability and more extreme candidates. Alternatively, Republicans in states such as Utah have split the urban vote, combining neighborhoods in places like Salt Lake City with vast, sparsely populated rural areas adjacent to the city, to ensure Democrats can’t win any districts.

Just as rural resentment is central to understanding the urban-rural political divide, addressing it is key to a more democratically healthy future.

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Kal Munis (@KalMunis) is an assistant professor of political science at Utah Valley University.

Nicholas Jacobs is an assistant professor of government at Colby College.

Read more:

‘Red America’ is an illusion. Postindustrial towns go for Democrats.

This is why Democrats lose in ‘rural’ postindustrial America

Why is there such a divide between rural and urban voters?

The suburbs are the new swing constituency

White people grow more conservative when they move up — not down — economically

Here’s what Trump is telling resentful Americans (and Sanders is not)