In 2008 Barack Obama won the largest popular and electoral vote victory for a Democrat since Bill Clinton in 1996. But Clinton’s and Obama’s coalitions were quite different. Clinton’s coalition was far whiter, older, rural and moderate. Barack Obama’s coalition was much younger, diverse, urban and liberal. The difference in these coalitions could spell the difference between victory and defeat for Republican nominee Mitt Romney.
To explain this phenomenon one need look no further than Washington County, PA. The county is rural, economically populist, old and solidly white. It voted for Bill Clinton twice and in fact had not voted for Republican for president since Reagan. That is until 2008. Amid Barack Obama crushing John McCain in Pennsylvania Washington County backed a Republican for president for the first time in two decades. In fact, almost every county in SW PA backed John McCain. There are numerous, majority white rural counties just like Greene County that are ripe for the picking for Mitt Romney in 2012.
The divide between the Dixiecrats, heirs to Andrew Jackson’s rural and populist Democratic Party, and the modern liberal and urban Democratic party’s base was on display in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary. Barack Obama captured the heart of the modern Democratic party, winning blacks, urban whites, single women and affluent suburban liberals. Hillary Clinton’s base of support came from Hispanics, rural whites that dominate in Appalachia, taking in parts of WV, PA, VA, OH and TN up in the East and portions of NC, SC, KY, GA and AL in the South, and certain moderate suburbs. Obama’s vote was unusually young and Hillary’s was unusually old.
The way Obama and Hillary ran their campaigns in 2008 also illustrates why these voters backed John McCain in 2008 and will probably back Romney in 2012. Barack Obama ran on a moderately wrapped up liberal agenda based on hitting issues such as gay marriage, taxes, HC Reform and foreign intervention. Hillary’s campaign focused on hitting issues appealing to older, rural Democrats such as a strong national defense, fiscal responsibility and experience.
The modern Democratic party has begun to shed these Dixiecrats in droves (especially in 2010) because of its sharp move left on social and economic issues. The Democratic party now largely focuses on minority and suburban/urban issues leaving rural issues on the back burner. The Democratic party gives far more heed to feminists, Wal Street and the environmental movement then to rural farmers or counties like Washington that could benefit from new permits to allow drilling to exploit the shale deposits under their soil.
For Republicans and Romney this creates an opportunity. Much has been made of the demographic changes that are hitting the country that could favor Democrats. Fewer Americans getting married, a growing Hispanic and Asian population, more people congregating in urban areas where govt services are needed more, etc. But all those changes have forced the Democratic Party to move left on a host of issues that matter to these voters. In turn, they have alienated the more moderate and conservative rural base of their party.
Republicans can and should pounce on this. In 2008 in rural counties running all across Appalachia we saw these voters turning to the GOP for the first time since Reagan. In 2010 many of these same voters returned to the polls to repudiate the agenda of a liberal controlled Democratic Congress. In 2012 it is likely they will do so again.
In Wisconsin they have. In GOP Governor Scott Walker’s historic recall election on June 5th the Governor ran way with the usually swing Wisconsin rural electorate. The issue at stake, union wages and benefits being slashed by Walker, did not faze them and they overwhelmingly backed Walker. Democratic interests are intertwined with unions but rural voters (many not even conservative but moderate independents) are not.
Romney’s Midwest, rural bus tour reflects his campaign may finally be realizing this. The rural vote of the country has always leaned Republican. That lean however has been overemphasized nationally because in the South and West the rural vote is far more conservative than the Northeast or the upper Midwest.
The upper Midwest’s rural vote, especially in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Iowa, Minnesota and Michigan is far less right leaning then the national rural vote. This despite the fact that the majority of voters in these counties are older, white and thus should favor the GOP. At least on paper. But the upper Midwest has dynamics that have played into its elections that separate it from the rest of the nation.
In both Wisconsin and Michigan the rural vote is more moderate because of the power of the unions. However 2010 and the 2012 WI recall gubernatorial results show that even the rural vote in these counties is echoing the national movement of rural, majority-white counties to the GOP. Even in Ohio the power of unions allows them to limit their losses in rural areas. The dynamics of these three states can be summed up thusly. In WI, MI and OH the GOP’s base is not the rural but the suburban vote. The Democratic base is urban areas and the swing vote is moderate rural and suburban voters.
In Appalachian Pennsylvanian counties, as well as other states counties that share cultural affinity to Appalachia these voters have always shared a partisan identification with the Democratic party. Appalachian voters in Pennsylvania have been slower than their Democratic counterparts in the South to move to the GOP but now the issues and the party’s shifting coalitions are moving them faster into the GOP fold. The suburbs in PA are where the battle for statewide races are decided. Only in a few large rural counties do the unions have a substantial presence.
Minnesota and Iowa do not share the same union presence of WI, MI, OH or Appalachian cultural dynamics as the rest of the Upper Midwest. But they both have hugely conservative and liberal contingents. In Iowa, a continual swing state the conservative vote is the rural evangelical vote. In Minnesota the liberal vote is consolidated in both the urban and suburban areas while the rural vote is fairly moderate. This explains why the GOP has not won Minnesota since 1972. The swing vote in Iowa is the suburban vote which is centered almost solely around Des Moines.
But upper Midwest aside there are other counties that could help Romney. In the possible battleground state of North Carolina, John McCain beat Bush’s 2004 margins in many rural counties. But just like in many other states Obama’s turnout among suburban and urban voters overshadowed this fact. McCain particularly under-performed in Ohio’s and Iowa’s rural areas, something Romney is unlikely to do.
It is ironic that Romney’s greatest strength and electoral key to victory may come from the rural, socially conservative and moderate voters the media said he would struggle with in November because he did in the primary. But these counties are spread all across a number of battleground states and their voters appear fed up with the President and a liberal agenda (Wisconsin anybody). These voters helped fuel the Tea Party’s victory in 2010. In Wisconsin on June 5th they fueled Scott Walker’s recall victory. In November 2012 if Romney can successfully court their concerns over the economy he can ride the wave they create for him to the presidency.