A recent study done by the Washington Post labeled counties based on how urban versus rural they are, in order to track partisanship voting trends over time. By comparing each county’s votes to the national average in subsequent elections, they were able to determine how different types of counties – urban versus rural – had changed in their voting trends since 1988.
In short, during the span of time from 1988 to the 2012 election, heavily urban counties became more Democrat by 32 percent; and heavily rural counties became more Republican by 11 percent. Each of these shifts became more happened progressively with each election year. The study also point out that there have become far more counties that are heavily rural, but fewer over all rural votes, explaining why the national average in all counties in presidential elections has become more Republican. The article concludes by stating:
“If you plot every county's urban-versus-rural divide by the per-election average change in the vote, the pattern is clear: more urban areas vote have been voting more Democratic.” And vice-versa.
These findings come to life in a recent op-ed in the New York Times. The author describes the idyllic, rural, coal town of Berea, Kentucky where he grew up. The ethnically diverse town founded by abolitionists, recently struck down a city ordinance to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
The author compares this to larger, more progressive cities, such as Louisville. Once you step outside larger cities, which have passed their own antidiscrimination ordinances, in many small towns it is perfectly legal to refuse service, employment, and housing to LGBT individuals. While protections vary locally, the author views this as indicative of where the struggle for equality lays – a struggle not between political parties, but urban and rural localities. Regarding the city vote to strike down the ordinance in Berea, he states:
“The vote illuminates a new reality for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Americans. The equality divide we face is no longer between red and blue states, but between urban and rural America. Even as we celebrate victories like this month’s Supreme Court order on same-sex marriage, the real front in the battle for equality remains the small towns that dot America’s landscape.”
Looking at the New York Times commentary in light of the study done in the Washington Post, both conclusions seem to reinforce each other if you buy into the conclusion that “rural” and “red” have become so inextricably linked that there is no way to differentiate one from the other. At least that’s what these two pieces suggest. If the trend described in the Washington Post continues – that rural counties are becoming more Republican – the battle for equality in small towns might become more and more arduous.