In statewide races, Democrats often lost urban counties in “red” regional cultures and won the rural ones in “blue” regions.
By Colin Woodard
For more than a decade now, conventional wisdom has been that the essential political divide in U.S. politics is between rural and urban America. This led august commenters to predict that, given the continued urbanization of the country, Democrats were going to dominate the 2010s, consolidating their control of Iowa, Ohio and other states as rural voters became a smaller and smaller proportion of the electorate. Instead the country – and Iowa and Ohio — shifted right, putting an authoritarian ethnonationalist in the White House and a huge block of election denialists in Congress. The urban-rural paradigm has not served pundits well.
To be sure, there’s a rural-urban divide in most every country. Rural economies and societies are built on the use of the land to create or extract resources, projects that often require long-term stability and predictability, generating a more conservative, risk-mitigating stance. Urban post-industrial ones thrive on innovation, reinvention, and adaptability. The latter tend to have more liberal politics in middle- and high-income countries, be it Hungary, Britain, Turkey, Mexico or Taiwan, though the differences often vanish in poorer nations and there are plenty of exceptions in rich ones (e.g., Japan.)
In 2011’s American Nations, I argued that America’s most essential and abiding divisions are not between rural places and urban ones, or red states and blue, or “conservatives” and “liberals,” but rather by historical sociocultural fissures dating back to rival colonizer projects in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. Today the United States is best understood a federation composed of the whole or part of 11 regional cultures which cut through state and even international boundaries and have an enormous influence on the geography of everything from gun violence to the pandemic response to political behavior. (For those unfamiliar with the American Nations paradigm, you’ll find a summary here.)
I’ve previously shown the enormous role of these regional cultures – “nations” if you will – over past elections, including 2011, 2012, 2013, 2016, 2018, and 2020 contests. The 2022 midterms exhibited the same regional patterning, with rural voters opting for Democrats in more socially communitarian regions, and urban ones for Republicans in legacy libertarian ones.
Consider the California U.S. Senate contest between Democrat Alex Padilla and Republican Mark Meuser. The overall result was never in doubt, as California as a whole is overwhelmingly Democratic these days, and Padilla won the contest 61-39. But consider that California was effectively colonized by three separate colonial projects: a Spanish one in its southern tier in the 17th century; a Yankee-Appalachian project centered on the central and northern coast in the mid-19th century; and a late 19th century resource extraction effort sponsored by railroad barons, mining companies, and the federal government in the late 19th century. The differences between these sections – ethnographic, economic, and ideological – have shaped California politics since the territorial period and drive efforts to break up the state.
Padilla won the legacy Spanish (El Norte) and Yankee-Appalachian (Left Coast) sections by wide margins: 21.5 and 48.5 percent respectively. He won nearly every county in the Left Coast and El Norte, and took the Left Coast’s rural counties by nearly 25 points. (El Norte has no rural counties as per the federal designation system used in our analysis.)
But the Democrat lost the Far West section by 5.3 percent Here Mesuer didn’t just win rural counties, he won the urban ones by 4.1 points, including those containing Fresno, Modesto, Bakersfield, Stockton and San Bernadino.
Or look north to Washington State, sharply divided between Left Coast and Far West, which have disagreed on everything from same sex marriage to legalizing marijuana. In November’s U.S. Senate contest, incumbent Democrat Patty Murray won Left Coast by 23.5 points, but on the other side of the Cascades in the Far West she lost to Republican challenger Tiffany Smiley by nearly 22. Murray won the Left Coast’s rural counties by 0.68 percent. Smiley won the Far West’s urban ones by 20.5. (Oregon’s senate contest saw a similar dynamic.)
Then there’s Texas, a state colonized by Spain (in the south), the Deep Southern slaveocracy (in the east), largely Scots-Irish settlers from the Greater Appalachian region (in the center, north, and west), and a small slice of (pluralistic, often German-dominated) Midlanders in part of the far northern panhandle, a section culturally linked more to north-central Kansas or eastern Nebraska than to El Paso, Houston or the Hill Country.
Republican incumbent governor Gregg Abbott won his reelection fight against Democrat Beto O’Rourke by 11 points. But O’Rourke trounced him by 9.3 points in the El Norte section, though he did lose this Spanish-colonized region’s rural counties by 15. To be sure, he did well in the core counties of the very biggest Deep Southern and Greater Appalachian cities – Houston, Dallas, and Austin – but overall he actually lost the urban counties of the Deep South overall by 11.5 and Greater Appalachia by 5.9. There’s been a lot of attention paid to Texas’s big cities, but “turning Texas blue” will very much be about reversing the erosion of Democratic support in the El Norte section, especially rural El Norte, the only part of the country where Trump massively grew his margin of support between the 2016 and 2020 elections.
Pennsylvania is a swing state precisely because, like Ohio, it is divided between three substantial regional culture sections, and the largest of these sections was created by the Quaker-founded Midlands, itself the great swing region of U.S. politics going back two centuries. As I’ve previously demonstrated, the Midlands is also the only region of the country with a stark rural/urban divide – in every other region rural and urban voters usually vote with the same party. We saw the same dynamic at work in both of 2022’s statewide contests in the Keystone State.
In the hotly-contested Senate race between Democrat John Fetterman and Republican Mehmet Oz, Fetterman prevailed statewide by five points. He won the Midlands by 10.4, but he lost Yankeedom by 9.7 and Greater Appalachia by 28! He lost Greater Appalachia’s urban counties by 22.6. In the Midlands there was a rural/urban split – Oz won rural counties by 25.2 and Fetterman won urban ones by 14.2 – just as seen in the 2016 and 2020 presidential contests. (Why this is consistently occurring in the Midlands – and only the Midlands – is a question I’d like to find answers to.)
Pennsylvania’s gubernatorial race provided a side-by-side taste test for how people feel about a conventional, Trump-compliant Republican like Oz compared with a conspiracy-mongering Christian nationalist election denier who helped bus insurrectionists to the Capitol on Jan. 6th, Republican gubernatorial nominee Doug Mastriano. Statewide, a slice of Oz voters switched to Democrat Josh Shapiro elsewhere on their ballot, causing Mastriano to underperform Oz by nearly 15 points. How did people react on a regional basis? About the same, as it turns out: Mastriano lagged Oz by 9 to 11 percent in each.
But here’s the rub. Rural voters in all three regions actually preferred the radical right Mastriano to the less extreme Oz. In rural Greater Appalachia and the Midlands Mastriano outperformed Oz by about ten points, and in Yankeedom by 6. By contrast, Mastriano underperformed by 10 to 12 percent in urban counties in all three regions.
This, in conjunction with the increasing rural/urban polarization in races where Donald Trump was a candidate, leads me to a preliminary hypothesis: a novel urban/rural divide may indeed have been developing in U.S. politics over the past decade, but the divide isn’t between support for Republicans over Democrats or communitarianism over libertarianism. It’s over endorsing radical right ethnonational extremists (e.g. Mastriano, Trump, Marjorie Taylor Greene, or Lauren Boebert) over “ordinary” (but still pro-Trump) conservatives (Oz, Kevin McCarthy, or Mike Lee.)
This, as academics often say, is an area for further research.
Thanks to Nationhood Lab’s analytical partners at Motivf, where Tova Perlman crunched the data and Sam Starr and John Liberty built the maps.
— Colin Woodard is director of Nationhood Lab at Salve Regina University’s Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy.