Donald Trump was expected to win the rural vote, and he did. But by at least one measure, the urban-rural gap narrowed in this election.
According to exit polls done by Edison Research, Trump won the rural vote by a much smaller margin than in 2016. Indeed, comparing the 2020 exit polls to those four years ago, the erosion in Trump’s rural support appears to be one of the bigger demographic changes.
In cities with more than 50,000 people Trump’s 37% was two percentage points better than 2016 and in suburbs his 48% was two percentage points worse. As two percentage points was the margin of error in these exit polls, it seems the urban-rural gap narrowed primarily because Trump lost ground in the countryside.
Before you say, “The polls are never right,” please note that exit polls aren’t like the polls that incorrectly predicted a “blue wave” election. Exit polls survey people who have already voted, and much of the information they collect is demographic.
According to CNN, one of the many networks that use Edison Research’s exit polls, the market-research firm conducted “in-person interviews on Election Day at a random sample of 115 polling locations nationwide among 7,774 Election Day voters. The results also include 4,919 interviews with early and absentee voters conducted by phone.”
Trump’s rural decline stood out in the exit-poll results. On many of the questions, the 2016 and 2010 answers look fairly similar, within a few percentage points of each other. Biden did better than Clinton among whites and worse than her among people of color, but those changes weren’t as big as Trump’s eight percentage point decline in the countryside.
The only other change that big I spotted was the independent vote, of which Trump won 40% this year, down from 48% four years ago. Biden took 62% of the vote among those aged 18-29, up from Clinton’s 55%, but most of that didn’t come at Trump’s expense, as his support in that age group fell only two percentage points.
Mind you, these are broad categories and summaries of national trends. In some parts of the country, the urban-rural gap may have widened or at least remained unchanged. In Wisconsin, for example, Biden won not by taking back rural counties from Trump but by exceeding Clinton’s 2016 margin of victory in Milwaukee and Madison.
Now, even at the 54%-for-Trump level reflected in the exit polls, small cities and rural areas remain very red politically. Were the presidential election to be based on the number of counties a candidate won, Trump would have triumphed.
Texas is a good example. Of its 254 counties, Trump won 216 rural counties overwhelmingly and six suburban counties just barely. Biden won four urban counties overwhelmingly and 28 border counties convincingly. Biden performed better than Clinton in the 216 rural counties, but not well enough to take the state.
Yet even though the national map remains a vast ocean of lightly populated red surrounding only occasional islands of heavily populated blue, the narrowing of the urban-rural gap is worth pointing out. If the exit poll results are right, they raise the hope that Americans are not quite as divided as everyone says.
American voters sometimes defy neat red-blue categorizations. In Florida, which went for Trump, voters approved a $15 minimum wage, something Trump opposed and Biden supported. In California, Biden won, but so did an initiative to overturn a law passed by the Democratic legislature requiring Uber and Lyft to classify their drivers as full-time employees.
There has been an urban-rural political divide from America’s earliest days. Thomas Jefferson saw agriculture as the country’s ideal future, while Alexander Hamilton wanted to promote manufacturing and a sophisticated financial system. The disagreements were bitter.
What has changed in recent years is the tendency of some people on both sides to see people on the other as evil, or close to it. In the exit polls, 89% of the Trump voters said they would be “scared” if Biden were elected and 96% of the Biden voters said they would be scared if Trump won. While an urban-rural gap may be normal and understandable, this “can’t live with the other side winning” attitude is troubling.
Anyone with a foot in both camps knows that most of our neighbors in both camps, urban and rural, are good people, disagree with some of them though we might. The gap will persist. The hatred and fear needn’t. If they do, the country is in for some very hard times.
Former longtime Wall Street Journal Asia correspondent and editor Urban Lehner is editor emeritus of DTN/The Progressive Farmer. This article, originally published November 9 by that news organization and now republished by Asia Times with permission, is © Copyright 2020 DTN/The Progressive Farmer. All rights reserved.