GOP Stiffs Rural Voters

Rural voters cast ballots for Republicans; Republicans don’t return the favor

Photo by Gonzalo Facello on Unsplash

In the the last election, just over 10,000 voters cast ballots in the presidential race in Dunklin County Missouri. More than 8,000 of those voters cast their ballots for Trump while 2,100 votes were tallied for Joe Biden. The margin for Trump in other rural Missouri counties was even larger; Douglas County, near Springfield, favored Trump 84% to 14.5%.

In my own state of Ohio, rural counties in the western part of the state cast their ballots in similar fashion. Putnam County cast over 82% of its votes for Trump. Over 83% of Holmes County, near my home in Akron, favored Trump.

The strength of Republicans in rural counties is a well-known story. Many activists (including the author of this article) believe that rural voters are probably a lost cause for Democrats for the foreseeable future. Clearly, Republican legislators are showing their gratitude to their rural voters by passing legislation that makes their lives easier and more fruitful, right?

In fact, their representatives at the state and federal level are laughing at them when they aren’t outright seeking to harm them.

Rural Counties are In Economic Decline

… while America’s population has doubled, the number of farmers has fallen by two-thirds. There are only around 50,000 coal miners.

Some of the consequences have been tragic. Not that long ago we used to think of social collapse as an inner-city problem. Nowadays phenomena like the prevalence of jobless men in their prime working years, or worse yet, the surge in “deaths of despair” by drugs, alcohol or suicide are concentrated in declining rural areas. “Getting Real About Rural America”, NYT, 3/18/2019

Rural counties across the country are in decline. Half of all micropolitan and rural counties in the US have not grown or have realized population decreases. (Micropolitan counties contain a small city.) During the same period, over two-thirds of metropolitan counties’ populations have grown. Dunklin County, a micropolitan county, lost 7% of its population between 2008 and 2017. Throughout the rest of the Midwest, 61% of micropolitan counties and 85% of rural counties declined in population. Putnam County, Ohio lost just over 2% of its residents during the same period. This population loss, much of it in the 25- to 50-year-old demographic that includes the prime work years, creates a vicious cycle of economic decline. As automation reduced the jobs available in farming and extractive industries, young workers moved away. The resulting skills shortage made rural counties unattractive to industry so manufacturing jobs declined further. All to say, the decline of rural America has been accompanied by economic hardships for those living there.

Rutherford, Surrey, Scotland, and Cleveland Counties in North Carolina are all among the top ten counties in the country with respect to manufacturing job losses. Cleveland and Rutherford Counties are in the NC 10th Congressional District, which has been Republican since 1969. The North Carolina legislature has been under Republican control for last ten years.

Monroe County, OH lost all its manufacturing jobs in 2013 when Ormet Aluminum closed. In the past 30 years, Monroe County has lost population all but two years. In those two years it gained a total of five people. Monroe County has one of the highest poverty rates and unemployment rates in Ohio. The county voted for Trump over Biden 76% to 22%. It elected Republican Bill Johnson to the Ohio Senate in 2010 with 50.2% of the vote. In 2018, Johnson won with 80% of the vote. Republicans have controlled House, Senate, Governor for the last eleven years and 23 of the last 30 years.

Trump told rural voters that “he alone” would help them keep their jobs and farms. Instead, he started a trade war with China that made their economic lives worse. The $28B that the Trump administration paid out to help those hurt by his trade war with China was about double the final cost of the 2009 auto bailout after the financial crisis. Most of that money went to the largest and richest agribusiness concerns.

In Wisconsin, Trump’s Secretary of Agriculture David Perdue, told small farmers at a rural town hall meeting, “In America, the big get bigger, and the small will go out,” Perdue said. “I don’t think in America for any small business we have a guaranteed income or guaranteed profitability.” Rural Wisconsin voters responded by casting their ballots for Perdue’s boss at a higher rate in 2020 than they did in 2016.

The Child Tax Credit, a part of the 2017 tax bill, has had a large and positive impact on rural families. Studies show that the CTC is likely to have large economic benefits. The Niskanen Center, a think tank named for a Reagan economic advisor, estimates that the “CTC expansion will boost consumer spending by $27 billion, generate $1.9 billion in revenues from state and local sales taxes, and support the equivalent of over 500,000 full-time jobs at the median wage. In particular, rural regions stand to benefit from a substantial injection of relative purchasing power equivalent to 1.35% of non-metro GDP.” Despite these large and tangible benefits, legislators for whom rural voters cast their ballots recently voted to take it away.

The Economic Innovations Group has developed the Distressed Communities Index (DCI) that seeks to stratify zip codes by the degree that their citizens find themselves in difficult living conditions. In the most distressed zip codes, 25 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, 35 percent of the prime working-age adult population is out of work, and more than 20 percent do not have a high school diploma. Since the turn of the century, urban zip codes have seen economic advances while rural zip codes have been disproportionately more likely to become distressed.

Rural Citizens Have Limited Health Care Access

A few hours after the only hospital in town shut its doors forever, Kela Abernathy bolted awake at 4:30 a.m., screaming in pain.

Oh God, she remembered thinking, it’s the twins.

The old hospital used to be around the corner. Now, her new doctor and hospital were nearly 100 miles away.

“It’s 4 A.M. The Baby’s Coming. But the Hospital Is 100 Miles Away.” NYT, 7/28/18

Fewer than half the country’s counties have a hospital that offers obstetric care. Women in those counties schedule and attend fewer doctor’s appointments and more premature babies are born. Monroe County, OH doesn’t have a hospital at all. Nor does Putnam County, OH or Dunkirk County, MO.

Early in the pandemic, Randolph County, GA had the state’s highest rate of COVID-19 cases. It was one of 19 rural hospitals that closed in 2020, the worst loss of rural hospitals since 2005. (2019 held the previous record for rural hospital closures.) Now, Randolph County residents must make a 30-minute drive into Alabama to the nearest acute care hospital. One in four existing rural hospitals across the nation are in danger of closing soon.

Most of the closures and a large majority of the hospitals at high risk of closing are in six states: Texas, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Georgia, Alabama, and Missouri. None of these states expanded Medicaid.

GOP Cheats Its Rural Voters, Gets Returned to Office

We’re told that Democrats ignore, condescend to, and just don’t understand rural voters. What, though, are we to understand about voters who keep voting for representatives who continually vote against them? Republicans have learned that they can give nothing more than lip service to rural interests and remain comfortable that those voters will return them to office. There seems to be little the Republicans can do to dissuade voters from casting their ballots for them. Just as it seems there is no policy that Democrats can pass that will encourage voters to support their campaigns.

This ground has been covered before. Thomas Frank pointed to the quandary almost two decades ago:

“[In rural areas] the gravity of discontent pulls in only one direction: to the right, to the right, further to the right. Strip today’s Kansans of their job security, and they head out to become registered Republicans. Push them off their land, and next thing you know they’re protesting in front of abortion clinics. Squander their life savings on manicures for the CEO, and there’s a good chance they’ll join the John Birch Society. But ask them about the remedies their ancestors proposed (unions, antitrust, public ownership), and you might as well be referring to the days when knighthood was in flower.”

What’s the Matter with Kansas? Thomas Frank

The answer to the puzzle has been with us for centuries: the powerful have always been able to keep the people they subordinate in line by threatening them with takeover by “the other”. Voters in rural Missouri counties with no hospitals and few jobs vote for anti-immigrant, anti-gay candidates. The politics of racial resentment is such that rural voters would rather die than vote for policies that them AND Black Americans. As one of his interviewees told Jonathan Metzl, author of the book Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment is Killing the Heartland, “It might hurt us but at least our tax dollars aren’t going to Mexicans and welfare queens.” It’s difficult to develop a plan to reach and persuade voters who would rather die than cast their ballots for our candidates.

Perhaps their lives will become so miserable that they’ll change their votes. As reported above, the rural voters’ lives are meager at present, but they are increasing the number of votes for Republicans. Would better messaging with respect to the benefits that Democratic policies have on their lives and those of their children make a difference? Perhaps, but it’s difficult to see how that’s possible given that many of them are apparently willing to sacrifice their own lives rather than see the lives of black, gay, or Hispanic citizens improve.

Ironically, so long as the turnout of young Black and Hispanic voters remains under 50%, the lives of rural citizens aren’t likely to improve.



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George Bohan

George Bohan

Born and raised in the South, living in Ohio. Writes about politics, management, and religion.