WASHINGTON — Over the past few election cycles, color-coded results maps have developed into a very familiar pattern at the county level. They mostly look like seas of Republican red punctuated by little islands of Democratic blue, even in races that end up being close.
The maps are a sign of a major overhaul in American politics in recent decades, a remarkable deepening of the nation’s urban/rural political divide. And for some Democrats, one wonders if the split is getting too broad.
There’s a long list of reasons why Democratic candidates do better in cities. The party tends to do better with non-white voters, who typically make up a larger portion of urban environments. The party also tends to win higher percentages of younger voters and voters with a bachelor’s degree, and they also tend to live in and around cities. And, generally speaking, urban areas tend to be more culturally and socially liberal.
But the extent of rural vote displacement in recent decades, in particular, has been astonishing.
In 1996, then-President Bill Clinton won about 1,100 rural counties. (The analysis, which is based on the National Center for Health Statistics Urban-Rural Classification Systemcounts the two least populated groups as “rural”.)
Clinton had some advantages in addressing rural voters. He was from Arkansas, a state with a lot of rural areas, and maps from this election, even outside of the South, show he gained substantial rural territory. For example, Clinton won all but 20 of Iowa’s 99 counties and fared quite well in the more rural western half of the state.
To be fair, part of Clinton’s rural advantage may be due to her overwhelming popular vote margin of more than 10 points, but consider the change in Barack Obama’s 2008 victory. Obama also won the presidency with a significant margin, more than 7 points. in the popular vote, but he only won 455 rural counties. That’s only about 40 percent of the rural counties Clinton won in 1996.
Fast forward to 2020 and President Joe Biden’s victory, and the number shrinks to less than 200 rural counties won for the Democrat (about 17% of Clinton’s rural total in 1996). Granted, the race was tighter and Biden won the popular vote by about 4.5 points, but a dip in the Democratic vote is hard to ignore. Even in Michigan, a state he wore, Biden won just 11 of 83 counties.
And the problem for Democrats hasn’t gone away since Biden was elected, according to a merge of data from NBC News polls from January and March, which use a different system to categorize urban, suburban and rural voters.
In heavily urbanized areas, there is a strong preference for democratic control of Congress by a margin of about 24 points. And in dense suburban areas, the party still holds a considerable 12-point advantage. But then things turn around. In the suburbs, Republicans are the pick by about 10 points. And in rural areas, the Republican advantage reaches more than 30 points.
For the most part, Democrats love their urban edge, and for good reason. Often this sea of red with a few blue islands is enough to win. Elections are not won by size; they are won by votes, and these blue islands hold a lot of votes.
But there are also challenges.
For example, if the GOP red tide gets too big, these islands may get too small to save the Democrats. In 2020, Biden won Pennsylvania by just over a point and he won Wisconsin by less than a point. In those states, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Madison and Milwaukee saved the day for Democrats, but barely.
And beyond that, in some states, there just aren’t enough blue islands to help Democrats. Wyoming and Nebraska each had two blue islands in the 2020 presidential race. West Virginia and Oklahoma had none. These states send eight senators to Washington, and currently seven of them are Republicans.
Add it all up and the challenges of the urban/rural divide for Democrats become clear, especially when trying to wield power in Washington. Part of the split is a function of genuine party differences in politics and demographics. But if the Democratic Party goes too far to become the party of urban America alone, a real functional majority seems very elusive.