Rural Voters Are More Politically Diverse Than You Might Think

Sep 22, 2015

Listen to enough political punditry, and you could easily conclude that America's rural areas are vast swaths of Republican support, with little variety in political opinion or voter demographics.

But recent research from the University of New Hampshire's Carsey School of Public Policy undercuts that assumption. In fact, rural America is actually surprisingly varied, researchers found -- at least when it comes to election results.

Researchers arrived at this conclusion by parsing the demographic and economic divisions within rural America, and, in particular, the evolving nature of rural economies.

The paper divides rural counties into three categories: farming, recreational, and other. Farming counties are ones where the economy is rooted in -- you guessed it -- agriculture. Recreational counties are ones in which amenities, services and recreational activities (think ski resorts and other seasonal tourism draws) are a big source of local dollars.

And while rural communities overall tend to lean Republican in national elections, those with recreation-based economies show increasing support for Democrats, the paper finds. 

The reasons behind this shift rest largely on the varied demographic trends in different rural parts of the country. "Amenity" rural counties have seen much higher rates of population growth over the past two decades than much of the rest of rural America -- or even much of the country on the whole. And those recent migrants to those counties are more likely to lean Democratic than longer-term residents.

That demographic divide is what's driving the political divisions within rural America. Residents of "recreational" rural communities, according to the paper, "tend to be wealthier, better educated, and are significantly more likely to reflect liberal stances than their peers in other rural areas." 

What are the implications of these trends for New Hampshire's rural areas? The researchers categorize the state's four northern-most counties (Belknap, Carroll, Coos and Grafton) as rural counties, and all of them qualify as part of the recreation-based or "amenity" economy. The economies of these four counties, however, vary greatly, with Coos County still relying to an extent on the declining timber and manufacturing industries, and Grafton County's economy anchored in institutions like Dartmouth College and the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.

There's a big divide, too, in the demographic pattern among these four counties. Carroll County's population grew by 33 percent between 1990 and 2010, and Belknap and Grafton counties saw more modest growth levels (19 percent and 14 percent respectively). And Coos' population actually shrank slightly over that period.

So while New Hampshire's rural areas may all count as "amenity" areas for the purposes of this study, those individual rural regions are looking at vastly different futures, at least according to current data.

You can read the entire research brief here.