Obama and the Rural Vote

Last Updated: December 03, 2008

This appeared in the December 2008 Rural Policy Matters.

Commentary by Marty Strange, Policy Director, Rural Trust

Special Note to eRPM subscribers: An advance version of this commentary appeared in the November edition of eRPM.

When President-elect Barack Obama charted a pathway to the White House, he said he would “stretch the map,” meaning he would be competitive in many states that have often voted Republican. He proved to be just that, but he was by no means competitive in all 50 states.

In fact, where John McCain won, he won mostly by large margins. Only in Montana, where his margin was 3%, and Missouri, where his margin was less than 1%, did McCain win a state by less than 7%.

McCain’s margin was much larger nearly everywhere else he won, especially in ruby red states like Oklahoma (32%), Alabama (21%), Arkansas (20%), Mississippi (14%), West Virginia (13%), Texas (11%), South Dakota (10%), and South Carolina (9%).

These are all states with significant rural populations and by almost any measure the rural vote went heavily for McCain. But smattered across these red states are unmistakable clusters of blue counties, nearly all of them places of high poverty and high percentages of people of color.

They are characteristic rural regions, like the Mississippi River Delta spanning the borders between the states of Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi. There, blue counties are lined up back-to-back along both sides of the river, standing against the sea of red that surrounds them in their respective states. In the Delta, President-elect Obama piled up victory margins of 20, 30, and 40%. In Jefferson County, Mississippi, with the highest percentage of African-American population of any county in the nation, Obama won 87% of the 3,745 votes.

Another of these regions is the Black Belt, cutting through the heart of the Old South’s cotton country, across central Alabama, into south Georgia, and up through the Carolinas in the lowland counties not on, but just removed from the coast. In the Black Belt, Obama piled up big margins, often two-or three-to-one.

In the heavily Hispanic rural Rio Grande borderland counties in Texas, Obama gathered as much as 84% of the vote. In the highlands of northern New Mexico, where Hispanic communities are older than the United States, and native communities are even older, Obama routinely got 70–80% of the vote. And on the Indian Reservations scattered across the Northern Plains, his margin of victory was rarely less than 30%. The Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota yielded 89% for him. Nearly every rural county he won in the close Montana race includes an Indian reservation.

There are other rural pockets of blue with majority white populations, including much of Northern New England, the Iron Range of northern Minnesota, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and some of the poorest vestiges of coalfield poverty in places like McDowell County, West Virginia.

Rural 800 (click for larger image)Can’t picture this map? Take a look.

Oops, my mistake. That’s not a map of the rural counties that voted for Obama. That’s a map of the 800 rural school districts with the highest poverty rates. Well, never mind. It’s pretty much the same map.

If you want to see the presidential vote by county, take a look at the last few maps in Mark Newman’s website. Newman is in the Department of Physics and Center for the Study of Complex Systems at the University of Michigan.

What is most interesting about Newman’s maps is that when the colors “red” and “blue” are blended into various shades of purple that reflect the relative proportion of each county’s vote that went to McCain or Obama, the brightest spots on the map — that is, both the reddest and the bluest — are in rural areas. This is especially true in those states where the bright red outmuscles the bright blue — that is, in the rural states that went heavily for McCain. In these states, almost invariably, both poverty and large percentages of people of color are concentrated in the rural blue zones.

Even though the votes of these rural regions did not sway the Electoral College where the state’s winner takes all (except in Maine and Nebraska), let’s hope their votes are not in vain in the Obama presidency. He should remember those who voted for him in states that did not.

He should be sure, for example, that the infrastructure rebuilding that almost certainly will be part of his economic stimulus plan deliberately and specifically includes high poverty rural areas — new schools, new bridges, new roads. He should remember these high poverty rural places by changing the way Title I funds are distributed so that these places are no longer discriminated against, as they now are. He should be sure when he amasses an army of new teachers, as he says he will, that the best among them will serve the poorest communities, including the poorest rural communities.

We hope that in President-elect Obama’s stated quest to earn the support of those who voted against him, he visits a state like South Dakota, where he lost by a 3–1 margin. When he does, he could take the time to visit Shannon County, on the Pine Ridge Reservation, where rural people gave him 89% of their votes.

RPM Note: In Vermont, demographically the most rural state in the nation and the first state to be called for President-elect Obama, he won all but 4 of 250 towns, and piled up the widest margin for president of any candidate since Favorite Son Calvin Coolidge in 1922 — 67% to 32%.

Read more from the December 2008 Rural Policy Matters.