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Rural America continues to be a topic of political conversation.
For many journalists and pundits, this focus comes out of a
belief that rural America is the primary driver behind President
Donald Trump’s political base.
Resentment,” for example, is the title of an article last
week at Slate that, in its own words, “discussed how rural
dwellers see city folk.”
That’s all well and good, but the rural population in the US is
only a small and shrinking part of the coalition that put Trump
in the White House.
The rural population today, according to Census Data and
the Kaiser Family Foundation, comprises only 14% of the US
That is, only 14% of Americans live outside a metropolitan
area. Eighty-six percent of the population is connected to a
metropolitan area, its economy, and its amenities.
Moreover, rural areas are
a shrinking phenomenon, largely because the industries that
drive rural settlement — agriculture and natural-resource
extraction — are employing fewer and fewer people.
And today, many states that are often considered to have large
rural populations are really overwhelmingly metropolitan. This is
true in Colorado, for example, where 84% of the population lives
in metropolitan areas.
Yes, there are farmers and miners in the state. But more than
eight in 10 people live near a city.
Texas is also far more metropolitan than many people assume, with
92% of its population in metropolitan areas.
Where Trump voters really live
If we look at this through a political lens, we see that while
Trump was no doubt helped by voters in rural areas, he couldn’t
have won the 2016 election without a lot of help from people
living in metropolitan areas.
In the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, for example, only one county
out of 12, Dallas County, voted in the
majority for Hillary Clinton in 2016. A plurality of voters
in the 11 other counties voted for Trump.
While Dallas County voters delivered 461,000 votes to Clinton,
neighboring Tarrant County alone contributed 345,000 votes to
Trump. Nearby Collin County delivered another 200,000 votes to
Trump. Once the other nine metro counties are factored in, we
find that Trump rather easily won the metro area overall.
We find a similar phenomenon in the Orlando metro area in
Florida. During the 2016 presidential election, only two of the
seven counties in the metro area — Orange and Osceola — reported
a majority vote for Clinton. All other counties went for Trump,
including populous Lake and Seminole Counties. Overall, Trump won
a slight majority in the metro area.
Yes, Trump handily won in states with relatively high rural
populations, including Kentucky and West Virginia. But he also
won majorities in states where less than three out of 10 people
lived in rural areas, including Arizona, Texas, Florida, Utah,
and South Carolina.
Now, it’s important to keep in mind that just because someone
lives in a metropolitan area, that doesn’t mean the person lives
in a core city.
Urban dwellers make up only part of the metropolitan population.
The rest of the metropolitan population is made up of people
living in suburbs, or the so-called exurbs out on the fringes of
the metro areas.
But even those exurban residents often tend to commute closer
into the urban core to make a living, to recreate, and to engage
in commerce. They’ve very much a part of the metropolitan
Those metropolitan areas that voted in the majority for Trump
during the 2016 election were often very suburban in nature. But
their populations obviously weren’t rural. Nationwide, Trump won
the suburban vote while losing the urban vote handily.
The BBC reports:
“Mr Trump won the rural vote by 62% to 34% and the suburban vote
by 50% to 45%, while Mrs Clinton won the urban vote by 59% to
Yes, the differences in voting patters between rural and
core-city residents is stark.
But given the relative insignificance of the rural population
within many states, the political and cultural divide may be
better explained by looking to the metro areas. The conflict
resides just as much within metro areas, where core
urban areas tend to vote one way and suburban areas tend to vote
If we fail to look carefully within the metro areas, we
quickly find the information we get is less than illuminating.
California as an example
For an illustration of this, we need look no further than two
major ballot issues that took place in California over the past
The first was the statewide vote on the infamous Proposition 187
in 1994. This was a ballot measure that would have mandated that
public welfare institutions, including public schools, deny
taxpayer-funded services to immigrants living in the country
illegally. The ballot measure won easily, garnering 58% of the
Our modern narrative would have us believe that metro areas voted
against the measure while the country folk in the rural areas
voted for it. But that is not what happened.
If we look at a map of the voting results, we find that a
majority of the voters in all metropolitan counties in Southern
California voted to approve the measure:
Though the vote took place more than 20 years ago, we can hardly
say that a large rural population in 1990s California was skewing
California to the “yes” side on this issue. California was
already a thoroughly metropolitan state by the 1990s, and the
overwhelming majority or residents lived in the metropolitan
areas of California.
We can also see similar voting patterns within the past 10 years,
with Proposition 8. 2008’s Proposition 8 was a ballot measure
that banned government-sanctioned same-sex marriage in the state.
It passed with 52% of the vote.
As with Proposition 187, we can see that the measure received
significant support within metropolitan areas.
Indeed, with the exception of Santa Barbara County, all Southern
California counties — including the heavily metropolitan areas of
Los Angeles, Orange, and San Diego counties — voted in favor of
Once again, we find that the urban-rural divide fails to provide
a sufficient explanation for cultural and political divisions in
the US. It is often stated that California is characterized by
conflict between big cities on the coast and the more rural
A more accurate assessment would have to include very real
conflicts within the metro areas themselves.
The suburban population is growing
The metropolitan population in the US continues to grow, but only
some of that growth is going to core cities.
Hipsters and leftist pundits like to predict a future when
everyone will live in shimmering skyscrapers and take light rail
to work. But no data suggests this future will be arriving
anytime soon. Pro-suburb researcher Joel Kotkin often says as
much, and last year Kotkin and Wendell Cox wrote:
“The suburbs, intoned The Atlantic a few years back,
were where ‘the American dream goes to die.’ In reality, the
census estimates released this month reveal a very different
story, both here in Southern California and nationwide. Rather
than becoming more urban, the country continues to become more
suburban, with less-dense areas and regions gaining more
population than their inner-city cousins. Indeed, rather than
exiting to the city, people are actually doing the exact
opposite: heading to both the suburbs and the sprawling cities of
the Sun Belt. Overall, suburban populations are growing faster in
all but a handful of metropolitan areas. The perceived ‘historic
shift’ toward the urban core — based, in part, on two years of
slightly higher core growth in the wake of the housing bust — has
now reverted to its traditional path of dispersion. The new
numbers tell us something that was already evident to anyone who
bothered to follow the recent U.S. Census Bureau reports, which
once again follow well-established pathways. Since 2012, suburban
and exurban counties have again grown faster than the urban ones;
and this does not even account for the fact that suburbs and
exurbs already constitute a much larger part of the U.S.
population — seven times the population of urban cores in
metropolitan areas over 1,000,000 population.”
This isn’t to say that no one’s moving to the core urban areas.
There are still plenty of people doing that. But it would be a
grave mistake to assume that as rural areas continue to
disappear, urban core dwellers are all who are left in the wake.
The truth is far more complicated, and the urban/suburban divide
will continue to be an important part of American politics and
American economic theory well into the future.
Tying one’s political and ideological fortunes to the rural
population is clearly a grave error. With an aging population —
barring some major changes in technology and logistics — the
countryside will continue to empty over the next 20 years. (As
the Spanish experience shows, this
isn’t just an American phenomenon either.)
Suburban metropolitan populations, on the other hand, are likely
to continue to grow for any number of reasons. This does suggest,
however, continued conflict over state- and federal-level
government spending, urban planning, and a host of other issues
where urbanites and suburbanites attempt to use state and federal
government institutions to assert themselves over the other side.
State governments, especially, will continue to be battlefields
where politicians from small, high-population urban areas will
attempt to set policy for vast swaths of urban and suburban areas
of each state as dueling majorities fight each other in the state
It’s likely that the American news media will continue to run
stories that try to understand “rural resentment” and the rural
voters who voted for Trump. For the average journalist, these
people must seem exotic, unknowable, and possibly worthy of study
like animals in a zoo.
But if the media class is looking for a more convenient way to
take a look at “the other side,” it often need look no further
than the suburban county next door.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Business Insider.
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