Welcome to Political Outliers, a column that explores groups of Americans who are often portrayed as all voting the same way. In today’s climate, it’s easy to focus on how a group identifies politically, but that’s never the full story. Blocs of voters are rarely uniform in their beliefs, which is why this column will dive into undercovered parts of the electorate, showing how diverse and atypical most voters are.
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For a few years now, the increasingly Republican politics of rural America has struck a nerve for Democrats who call it home. But in the summer of 2020, when tens of thousands of people swarmed the streets to protest racism and police violence, tensions were particularly high between one of those progressive residents and a female neighbor.
“She approached me in my driveway and said she had some information for me,” Rob B., a 56-year-old who lives in rural Arizona, recalled of the encounter. “She informed me that she had purchased a pistol from the local gun shop for $75 to protect herself because the ‘news’ was reporting that antifa and [Black Lives Matter] were going to start ‘raiding’ rural towns.”
Rob B., who prefers to use only his first name and last initial out of privacy concerns, said he tried to convince his neighbor, a Republican, that no protesters were coming, which he said seemed to relieve her even if she wasn’t entirely convinced. And of course, despite some conservative social media accounts pushing versions of this story at the time, no one “bad” did come to their town. But it was around then that Rob B. said he started to notice an explosion of thin-blue-line bumper stickers and flags — a symbol originally meant to signify support for law enforcement. “They were suddenly everywhere,” he said. And as a speck of blue in a red political sea, he felt completely outnumbered. “Even though Biden supporters live here, too, the Trump people are more outspoken, louder, bigger and in complete excess.”
On the one hand, it’s not that surprising Rob B.’s neighbors are far more conservative than he is. For the past fifteen years or so, rural America has steadily trended red, with former President Trump winning rural voters over President Biden in 2020 by more than 30 percentage points, according to the Pew Research Center. In fact, given Republicans’ continued dominance in rural America, Democrats have largely abandoned trying to win voters who reside there, opting instead to focus their resources on bluer cities and suburbs.
This political maneuvering was driven in part by the fact that the U.S. has increasingly sorted itself along geographic lines, with Republicans living in more rural areas and Democrats in cities. This has changed how the two parties compete for votes, but another effect is that many of the rural Democrats and Democratic-leaning voters I spoke with feel like outsiders — or even unsafe — in their own homes. Many reported believing that their party had mostly given up on campaigning in their parts of the country.
To that end, I wanted to better understand why some rural residents vote Democratic when nearly everyone around them votes Republican. I also wanted to discuss how comfortable they feel discussing their political views with their neighbors. To do this, I spoke with five rural-dwelling voters who are either Democrats or overwhelmingly support Democratic policies. I learned that most feel they have drastically differing political priorities from their neighbors, while others feel they must keep their beliefs to themselves for fear of violence or retribution. And lastly, some told me they don’t currently have the means, or don’t want, to leave Trump country — rather, they wish Democrats would start treating their hometowns the same way Democrats treat battleground states.
“I have yet to see a sign for any Democrat running for office in my area or my district for 2022,” said Ian C., a 32-year-old living in Georgia who uses gender-neutral pronouns and prefers to be identified without their surname. “It really doesn’t seem like Democrats care about this area too much, even though they should. I think there are a lot of working-class people here who would resonate with the right message.”
At least in the short-term, though, Ian C.’s wishes might be futile. One of the reasons Democrats often fail to seriously contest — let alone win — state-legislative and congressional seats in much of rural America is because the issues that animate their base can be off-putting to many rural voters. Many of the Democrats and Democratic-leaning voters I spoke with said that the issues they prioritized — like climate change, election integrity and racial justice — weren’t top of mind for their neighbors. And in rare cases, confrontations erupted when my interviewees had tried to start discussions about policy or political issues important to them.
As the chart above shows, rural Americans, on average, tend to hold more conservative views than their urban counterparts. For example, on immigration, Pew found in 2018 that Republicans and Republican-leaners living in rural areas were more likely than their urban and suburban counterparts to see a growing immigrant population as a threat to “traditional American customs and values.” And on racial justice issues, rural residents were the least likely to think that white Americans benefit from societal advantages that Black citizens don’t have.
But policy isn’t the only arena where rural Democrats and their neighbors are at odds. Views toward Trump have been another dividing line. In that same 2018 survey, Pew found that rural Republicans and Republican-leaners were more likely than their suburban and urban counterparts to have “very warm” feelings toward the former president — which has led some Democrats to feel they have a moral obligation to call out perceived injustices from Trump and his supporters, even if they’re not being provoked.
For example, the day after the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, Rob B. said there were two separate occasions when he called people in his neighborhood either a “Nazi” or a “traitor” after he saw them donning “Make America Great Again” hats. He said his knee-jerk reaction wasn’t because these people merely supported Trump, but because, in his telling, “they were making a point to flaunt support the day after one of the worst days in America’s history.” To me, he compared these MAGA-hat-wearing neighbors to “folks who make a point to go out in full NRA garb the day after a major shooting in the U.S. — something I definitely also see here.”
Camellia El-Antably of Wyoming, 47, also felt she needed to say something to a neighbor who used to sell guns near where she worked. “Shortly after a major shooting, I told her something to the effect of ‘I believe that gun control is important.’ She got really angry and thought I was trying to denigrate her business or something,” she said to me. “Finally, I wrote her a note apologizing, and after that, it was OK. We’re definitely not friends, but we’re not enemies either.”
For the most part, though, these political differences left many of the people I spoke with believing it no longer made sense to talk politics to their neighbors.
“A while back, a couple of friends and I agreed that we would never change each other’s minds,” said Carol D., a 71-year-old Texan who wants to use only her first name and last initial out of privacy concerns. “It’s a little awkward because one of them is crazy about Trump, and I lost respect for her because of that. To be honest, I wouldn’t be surprised if she felt the same way about me.”
But it wasn’t always like this. For the rural Democrats I spoke with, the turning point was the Republican Party’s increasing illiberalism in recent years.
“In the 20 years we’ve been here, there was a dramatic change starting in 2015, when Trump announced his run for president,” said Donald Wright, a 52-year-old Virginian. “I think often about how much of it was under the surface versus what people now feel and are able to express freely. So maybe the feelings were there pre-Trump, but the more blatant hostility wasn’t always there.”
Of course, part of that perceived hostility likely stems from the fact that geographic political segregation leaves Democrats living in red areas (and Republicans in blue ones) feeling more out of place than ever before. And another part could be the fact that the most staunch conservatives are more likely to live in rural areas. Worryingly, what it means to be a conservative is also increasingly tangled up in a lack of respect for democracy.
As a result of current attitudes within the GOP, some rural Democrats now feel both alone in their politics and that they need to combat falsehoods that their own party consists primarily of socialists and those with far-left politics.
“As a progressive in these areas, it is mostly about trying to normalize that we aren’t all three-headed child cannibals but rather actual neighbors and parts of the community,” Wright said. “We aren’t going to be directly changing hearts and minds, but we can hope to help break down stereotypes.”
But despite what many described as a currently stressful living situation, most people I spoke to said they couldn’t see themselves leaving anytime soon. They listed several reasons for this: owning a home, having a steady in-person job and/or having children currently in school. They also haven’t given up hope that Democrats will eventually show interest in their neck of the woods.
“The Democratic Party is not very strong here,” El-Antably told me. “It’s very hard for them to field enough candidates, and as a result, there’s lots of times when Republicans run for statewide office unopposed or the Democrat running is weak, unable to raise enough money or doesn’t run a strong campaign.” She added that this had led some of her Democratic friends to register as Republicans to vote in a GOP primary so they could “vote for the least-worst Republican.”
The imminent problem for Democrats, though, is that rural America has recently drifted further from them than urban America has moved away from Republicans. From 1999 to 2019, urban areas moved 9 points toward Democrats, while rural areas swung 13 points toward Republicans, according to a Pew survey released in 2020. (The suburbs remained essentially tied over that same span of time.)
That means the Democratic Party will surely need to expand their base — which could include actively campaigning in redder parts of the nation. And if the Democrats I spoke to had one message they wanted to convey to their party, it’s to not give up on them and to take rural America seriously even if there’s not an election around the corner. Ian C., for example, noticed that Democrats stopped making regular campaign stops in Georgia after the party nabbed two competitive Senate seats last year. “I’m not a politician, but it seems like common sense: If you want to focus on winning Georgia again and keeping it blue, you have to invest in this,” they said. “The Democratic Party only cares about you if you’re a battleground or if you’re marginally safe. And that’s frustrating. It’s part of the reason why I often contemplate the point of voting.”
Still, Ian C. told me, Georgia is their home: “It’s cheap here, and it’s quiet. I bought my first home here.” And even though it might be easy to assume that Democrats living in rural America don’t mean much electorally, since their votes are often overshadowed by Republicans, the residents I spoke to were steadfast that their party shouldn’t throw in the towel with rural America. “Moving won’t change the fact the county is divided, and God forbid, the worst happens. We have to rely on each other when things do happen,” they said. “We have to be willing to try.”