UNH researchers say Clinton's inability to gain rural votes contributed to 2016 defeat
DURHAM — New research from the University of New Hampshire finds that while Hillary Clinton nearly matched President Barack Obama’s 2012 performance in most urban areas, her failure to match recent Democratic presidential nominees in less populated areas contributed to her defeat in the 2016 presidential election.
Researchers from the Carsey School of Public Policy say many political commentators mistakenly caricature rural America as a single entity, but their research shows that complex variations in voting patterns persist among both urban and rural places. Their study examined voting patterns over the last five presidential elections, treating rural–urban differences as a continuum, not a dichotomy.
They found that rural counties tend to vote Republican, while urban areas tend to go with Democrats, but in 2016 Clinton did far worse across the entire rural end of the continuum than any Democratic candidate in the previous four presidential elections.
Researchers found that the voting patterns in smaller urban areas are similar to those in the larger metropolitan areas, and in 2012, Obama received nearly half of the vote in the urban cores of smaller metropolitan areas. Clinton received slightly less, and as with the larger metropolitan areas, the suburbs of smaller urban areas are more strongly Republican.
It is at this point, researchers say, along the rural–urban continuum that the contrast between earlier elections and 2016 is evident. Here the gap between Democratic support in 2012 and 2016 widened — to Clinton’s detriment.
At the rural end of the continuum, counties tend to be more Republican, but researchers say there is variation within these rural areas.
They found that Democrats consistently did worse in counties remote from urban areas, as well as in those without large towns of 10,000 to 50,000. This pattern persisted in 2016, but there was a substantial decline in support for Clinton across all types of rural counties.
Researchers say in 2012, Obama received 41.6 percent of the vote in rural counties adjacent to metropolitan areas that contained a large town and 38.9 percent in those that did not. In contrast, Clinton received just 33.1 percent in these adjacent large town counties and 29.7 percent in other adjacent counties.
Researchers say the pattern continues in remote rural counties that are not adjacent to urban areas.
In 2012, Obama received 40.4 percent in non-adjacent large town counties and 35.8 percent in those without a town, while Clinton received just 33.1 percent in the large-town remote counties and 27.1 percent of the vote in remote counties without a town.
Researchers concluded that Clinton received 2.1 million fewer votes in rural America than Obama did four years earlier, even though 531,000 more votes were cast there in 2016. She also received 338,000 fewer votes in the suburban counties of small metro areas on the rural–urban edge, even though 450,000 more votes were cast.
The study found that residents of large urban core counties are the base of the Democratic Party, and are the most likely to identify as Democrat, vote Democrat, and hold liberal attitudes on a host of social and political issues. Democrats also enjoy considerable support in the suburbs of these large urban areas, as well as in the cores of smaller metropolitan areas, though they received less than 50 percent of the vote in each in 2016.
Outside of these areas, on the outer edges of smaller urban areas and in the vast rural regions beyond, researchers say Republicans find much friendlier territory.
Clinton nearly matched Obama’s performance in the three most populous areas of the researcher's continuum, where she received 55.9 million of the 106.7 million votes cast. But they say her campaign faced defeat by a thousand cuts along the rest of the urban-rural continuum, where she received just 8.8 million of 28 million votes cast. Despite these rural vote totals being dwarfed by those in urban areas, Clinton’s inability to match the performance of any Democratic candidate since at least 2000 in smaller, rural areas contributed to her defeat in crucial swing states such as Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.
Though many commentators had argued that the faster population growth and growing diversity on the urban side of the rural–urban continuum would give Democrats a significant advantage in 2016, the election demonstrated that what happens at the rural end of the continuum remains important.
The full report can be viewed here.