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Understanding the rural voter

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The widening gulf between rural and urban America is becoming the most serious political divide of our time. The sparsely populated counties of Texas have a modern record of overwhelmingly voting for the Republican Party. While the urban areas are seen as blue dots in a sea of red.

According to the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas, in 2022 Republican Greg Abbott easily won reelection thanks to Republican over-performance in rural counties. Abbott garnered nearly 80% of votes in rural Texas. This is up from Abbott winning 77% of that voting bloc in 2018. This is despite directed and high-profile efforts by Democrats to claw back some of the rural votes with Democratic candidate Beto O’Rourke. The former El Paso congressman spent considerable time holding rallies in rural Texas and promoted policies that would address some of the major concerns in the areas, including the need for healthcare, public education and job opportunities, yet he was only able to bank less than 20% of the rural vote.

For comparison it should be pointed out that O’Rourke won the most populated county in Texas, Harris County, with 54%. He won Bexar with 58% and Travis 73%. So even with wins in the heavily populated counties where the actual majority of Texans live, Democrats are unable to overcome the overwhelming rural Republican support.

Partisan loyalty of the rural voter to the Republican banner is the party’s greatest strength and weakness. If Democrats were able to make rural areas more competitive, then Republicans would have a much harder time getting elected. Democrats don’t have to win rural counties. They only have to shave another 10% off the Republican vote total to dramatically alter the political landscape.

Yet support for Democrats, up and down the ballot, has plummeted throughout the countryside, and the entire governing system is threatened by one-party dominance. After Donald Trump’s surprising victories throughout rural America, pundits and journalists went searching for answers, popping into roadside diners and opining from afar. Rural Americans were cast as supposedly being bigots, culturally backward, gun crazy, lazy, scared of the future, and radical. But is it that simple? Is the country splintering between two very different Americas—one rural, one urban?

The book The Rural Voter: The Politics of Place and the Disuniting of America pinpoints forces behind the rise of the “rural voter” which is a new political identity that combines a deeply felt sense of place with an increasingly nationalized set of concerns.

Combining a historical perspective with the largest-ever national survey of rural voters, Nicholas F. Jacobs and Daniel M. Shea uncover how this overwhelmingly crucial voting bloc emerged and how it has roiled American politics. They show how perceptions of economic and social change, racial anxieties, and a traditional way of life under assault have converged into a belief in rural uniqueness and separateness. Rural America believes it rises and falls together, and that the Democratic Party stands in the way.

It is an unparalleled exploration of rural partisanship and offers a timely warning that the chasm separating urban and rural Americans cannot be papered over with policies or rhetoric. Instead, The Rural Voter shows how this division is the latest chapter in the enduring conflict over American identity.


Nicholas F. Jacobs is a co-author of The Rural Voter: The Politics of Place and the Disuniting of America. He is an assistant professor of government at Colby College. He is a coauthor of What Happened to the Vital Center? Presidentialism, Populist Revolt, and the Fracturing of America (2022).

Daniel M. Shea is a co-author of The Rural Voter: The Politics of Place and the Disuniting of America. He is professor and chair of government at Colby College. His books include Why Vote? Essential Questions About the Future of Elections in America (2019).

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*This interview will be recorded on Tuesday, April 23, 2024.

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David Martin Davies can be reached at dmdavies@tpr.org and on Twitter at @DavidMartinDavi