The Hagstrom Report

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Failure of rural vote to help Romney may have policy implications

Failure of rural vote to help Romney may have policy implications


Rural and exurban voters and especially big farmers overwhelmingly supported Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney on Election Day, but for the first time in decades the rural vote was not enough to help decide the outcome of the general election.

That’s a phenomenon that could make it harder for rural and farm leaders to get the ear of President Barack Obama’s administration, and could even affect how their interests fare on Capitol Hill.

National exit polls showed that about 59 percent of rural voters chose Romney over Obama. Other polls and surveys showed that about 75 percent of big farmers planned to give Romney their vote.

Those results may present an image of rural America as being dominated by angry, old, white conservative men (and some women), while liberal women, black, Hispanic and Asian-American voters and some male unionized workers who live in cities created a majority for Obama.

Meanwhile, the recognition that American Indian votes were important to Obama in New Mexico and to Democratic Senate victories in North Dakota and Montana may mean that politicians will pay more attention to rural Indians and their concerns in the future. (For details, see following stories.)

It’s not yet clear how this voting could affect the thinking of the Obama administration or indeed Capitol Hill, where Democrats have gained some seats in the House and will continue to control the Senate. But rural leaders will not be able to make the argument they have in the past that the rural vote was important to the winner.

In 2004, President George W. Bush got 57 percent of the rural vote and in 2008 Obama got around 50 percent, an unusually high percentage for a Democratic candidate.

But while Romney got 59 percent among rural voters it wasn’t enough to help the Republican win because the urban areas voted so overwhelmingly Democratic, said Tim Marema of the Center for Rural Strategies, based in Whitesburg, Ky.

“The GOP lost the game in urban counties,” Marema noted in an email to The Hagstrom Report, after analyzing the national exit polls and the election data on the rural and exurban vote in nine swing states — Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin. (Exurban counties are those that are within Census Bureau metropolitan regions, but where about half the people live in rural settings.)

Source: Center Rural Strategies and U.S. Census Bureau data (Kim de Bourbon/The Hagstrom Report)

In 2004, Marema noted, Bush narrowly lost among urban voters in the swing states, but the loss was so slim that the GOP advantage in rural and exurban counties overcame that deficit. Bush got 51.9 percent of the vote in these states in 2004, even though he got only 49.8 of the urban vote.

In 2008, every type of voter — urban, exurban and rural — moved toward the Democrats. Republican candidate Sen. John McCain of Arizona still won among rural and exurban voters but just barely, and the lack of exurban and rural votes helped Obama’s big urban vote make him the winner.

In 2012, Marema continued, all three types of voters in the swing states moved back toward the Republicans. Romney won the exurban and rural vote by bigger margins than McCain did in 2008, almost back to Bush’s 2004 levels, but the urban vote did not shift back as far.

Romney got 45.5 percent of the urban vote in these swing states in 2012, while Bush got 49.8 in 2004. That represents nearly a million votes in 2012 terms, Marema said.

“Even if the GOP had replicated the rural and exurban percentages of 2004, they wouldn’t have won without moving more urban voters back to the GOP in 2012,” Marema said.

“To win in these states in 2012, leaving the urban vote untouched, the GOP would have needed about 63 percent of the exurban and rural vote. That seems pretty unattainable. To have a shot, the GOP needed 47 percent or better of the urban vote.”

The reason that the rural vote lost significance was not that the rural vote declined in numbers or as a percentage of the vote, but because urban and suburban voters went so heavily for Obama, Marema said.

Although the rural percentage of the overall vote in the swing states went down slightly as rural populations dwindled and urban areas grew, the decline in numbers was so slight that it did not matter, Marema said.

“The proportion of votes that are cast in rural counties fell slightly — about 7/10s of a point over the three elections,” he said. “It fits the pattern of the rural population declining as a proportion of the nation’s population. Over time, that does mean less clout in the voter’s booth. But it’s small and gradual, and it’s hard to say here’s the exact point this trend caused an election to turn.”