There are often demographic differences between voters: income level, gender, age, etc., but there is one difference that cuts across all those barriers and has become something of a tectonic political shift in recent years: The urban/rural divide. We have studied this topic in prior posts, but it looks like the voting patterns in 2018 may be largely driven by this change which has positive and negative ramifications for both parties heading into November.
CNN reports on the growing divide and how some analysts see it manifesting in 2018 with a blue wave that may be present in suburban areas, but absent in rural areas:
Both the Kavanaugh controversy and the Rosenstein speculation could reinforce two of the central sources of that suburban anxiety: concerns that Trump does not respect either women or the rule of law.
Yet national polls and surveys in the key state and House district battlegrounds offer much less evidence that all of these forces are meaningfully eroding Trump’s support with the groups that keyed his 2016 election: particularly blue-collar, evangelical and rural whites.
That stark divergence means those watching the electoral shoreline for signs of a “blue wave” in November may be looking in the wrong place. Rather than a wave washing equally over all parts of the country, the 2018 election now appears more likely to produce a targeted current that widens the nation’s existing geographic and demographic divisions, like a river cutting through rock.
“Just like in 2016, we are seeing voters shifting in opposite directions, which is not something you usually see,” says Emory University political scientist Alan Abramowitz. “It’s not the normal pattern. The normal pattern you see is that everyone shifts in the same direction to varying degrees and usually the differences in the size of the shift are not all that great. In this case, we’re seeing really big differences and voters going in opposing directions.”
In essence, rural districts are appearing more conservative, and urban/suburban districts are appearing more liberal, regardless of which party has historically been in control. Swings districts on the cusp of urban/rural areas are the ones to watch, but the “blue wave” coming in 2018 might be far more pronounced in races that feature a demographic makeup outside of Trump’s deep support among working-class white voters.
As the CNN piece points out, a “wave” election typically sees the wave cut across these urban/rural lines and creates upset victories for candidates who wouldn’t ordinarily win in a certain area. In 2018, however, there is evidence that there may be competing waves depending on the urban/rural makeup of a given district.
The CNN story continues with some deeper insight on what this means for the future beyond 2018:
If this pattern persists through Election Day, it would widen the trench between major metropolitan areas increasingly dominated by Democrats and less densely populated areas beyond them where Republicans still rule. “If you look back over 20 years, these alignments are very pronounced, as the Republican base has migrated from the country club to the country,” says Tom Davis, a former Republican representative who served as chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee. “This is entirely consistent with a 20-year movement that Trump is putting an exclamation point on.”
The chance that November’s election will harden this divide rests on the atypical pattern that Abramowitz highlighted: while some groups are clearly recoiling from the President, others are moving little, if at all. That’s a departure from the more consistent movement, especially among white voters, evident in recent mid-term elections.
Traditional patterns have held that voters would move toward or away from the party in power in a fairly predictable fashion. Consider the Clinton and Bush years as good examples where the country lurched back and forth with voting trends cutting across this urban/rural divide. Then came the Obama years, when the divide began to manifest in a more defined way.
According to recent polling from House races across the country, the trend is multiplying in 2018:
These contrasting responses also emerge from the flurry of district-by-district House polls published in the past few weeks by Monmouth College and The New York Times in partnership with Siena College. Each shows severe vulnerability for Republicans in a wide range of suburban districts located inside major metropolitan areas and containing a large number of college-educated voters. The NYT/Siena polls, for instance, show that a majority of voters disapprove of Trump’s performance in the suburban seats now held by Republican incumbents Steve Knight and Dana Rohrabacher in California; John Culberson and Pete Sessions in Texas; Erik Paulsen in Minnesota; Kevin Yoder in Kansas; Peter Roskam in Illinois; Mike Coffman in Colorado; Carlos Curbelo in Florida and Leonard Lance in New Jersey.
The polls have returned more encouraging results for both Trump and the GOP in blue-collar districts defined by large numbers of voters without a college degree, usually centered on small town and rural communities outside of major metropolitan areas. These include contests in West Virginia, Wisconsin and Maine.
Finkenauer, in the northeastern Iowa district, is the only Democrat holding a convincing lead among non-college whites in any of the seats the NYT/Siena project has polled. In almost all the other contests they have polled, as well as the Monmouth surveys, Democrats still trail by at least double-digits among those voters, who provided the core of Trump’s support in 2016.
Democrats are doing well in “white collar” congressional districts, like Virginia’s 10th outside Washington, DC. The incumbent Republican Barbara Comstock is in the fight for her life against Democrat Jennifer Wexton. This seat has been held by Republicans for decades, but the district is a textbook case of the urban/rural divide where the demographics favor Democrats despite a historical Republican presence. In this district, the “white collar” Republican voters are moving away from Trump and this seat could change hands.
Both parties risk losing and gaining when they shift their focus and change their priorities. Democrats have moved further and further away from “rust belt” issues and have embraced social justice matters which appeal to minorities and younger, urban/suburban voters. Republicans, perhaps seeing this gap as exemplified in Trump, picked up the “rust belt” mantle of talking about trade, manufacturing and the erosion of traditional Midwest values and rode that platform to victory in 2016.
As a result of this trend, we could see some surprises on election night where Republicans hold seats that were expected to be more competitive, and Democrats gain seats in areas which weren’t expected to be close.