Poll suggests rural-urban divide is more cultural, racial and ethnic than political or economic

For the second time in three weeks, a major national newspaper has taken a long look at the disparities between rural America and urban America. First, The Wall Street Journal showed how rural measures of well-being resemble those of inner cities 20 years ago. Today, The Washington Post reports in a multi-story package, “The political divide between rural and urban America is more cultural than it is economic, rooted in rural residents’ deep misgivings about the nation’s rapidly changing demographics, their sense that Christianity is under siege and their perception that the federal government caters most to the needs of people in big cities.” And, “On few issues are they more at odds than immigration.”

The main story and 10-minute video by Jose DelReal and Scott Clement are based mainly on a poll that the Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation did of nearly 1,700 Americans, including an over-sample of more than 1,000 in rural areas and small towns so that population could be analyzed with reasonable error margins. The Post used a very broad definition of small, including “counties near population centers with up to 250,000 residents such as Augusta, Va. (population 74,997), close to Charlottesville.” In the poll’s terminology, “Urban residents live in counties that are part of major cities with populations of at least 1 million, while suburban counties include all those in between.”

The poll found a strong rural-urban disconnect: “Nearly 7 in 10 rural residents say their values differ from people who live in big cities, including about 4 in 10 who say their values are ‘very different.’ That divide is felt more extensively in rural America than in cities: About half of urban residents say their values differ from rural people, with about 20 percent of urbanites saying rural values are ‘very different.’ . . . Nearly 6 in 10 people in rural areas say Christian values are under attack, compared with just over half of suburbanites and fewer than half of urbanites.”

It also found a rural resentment: “Disagreements between rural and urban America ultimately center on fairness: Who wins and loses in the new American economy, who deserves the most help in society and whether the federal government shows preferential treatment to certain types of people. President Trump’s contentious, anti-immigrant rhetoric, for example, touched on many of the frustrations felt most acutely by rural Americans. . . . Rural residents are nearly three times as likely (42 percent) as people in cities (16 percent) to say that immigrants are a burden on the country.” Among suburbanites, as defined by the Post, it’s 31 percent. But those views “are more closely tied to respondents’ party affiliations than to where they lived.”

Trump won the rural vote in exit polls by 61 percent to 34 percent. The Post reports, “While urban counties favored Hillary Clinton by 32 percentage points in the 2016 election, rural and small-town voters backed Trump by a 26-point margin, significantly wider than GOP nominee Mitt Romney’s 16 points four years earlier.” However, “Rural Americans overall have mixed views on whether Trump respects them, with 50 percent saying he does and 48 percent saying he doesn’t, a finding that goes against a common theory that Trump won by providing a relatable alternative to political elites.”

What about economics? “Rural Americans express far more concern about jobs in their communities, but the poll finds that those concerns have little connection to support for Trump, a frequent theory to explain his rise in 2016. Economic troubles also show little relation to the feeling that urban residents have different values. Rural voters who lament their community’s job prospects report supporting Trump by 14 percentage points more than Clinton, but Trump’s support was about twice that margin — 30 points — among voters who say their community’s job opportunities are excellent or good.”

The package includes stories exploring rural America’s politics, immigration, race, and one about the finding that “Rural and urban Americans are equally likely to say grace.”

UPDATE, June 18: Kevin Drum of Mother Jones sees an interesting incongruity in the poll: “The perceptions of rural folks about their communities are out of step with what they report about their personal lives. . . . When unemployment rises in a city, it’s a diffuse problem that doesn’t necessarily seem related to living in a city. Conversely, when the same thing happens in a small town, it’s probably because a factory laid off 10 percent of its workforce. That’s a punch in the gut that makes you lose faith in your town. Similarly, when someone in a small town decides to move away to look for employment elsewhere, there’s a good chance it’s someone you know. In a city it’s just the guy down the hall that you nodded to every once in a while.” Drum also notes that when asked what government can do to improve their economy, 93 percent of rural people in the poll said infrastructure, while 63 percent said cracking down on immigrants.

Reprinted with permission from The Rural Blog.  Published on June 17, 2017. Article written by Al Cross,  former Courier-Journal political writer, and director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues and The Rural Blog. Post photo credit: Michael S. Williamson.

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