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The Rural Vote in the 2020 Election
It Was Better and More Important for the Democrats Than You Think
The general take on the rural vote in 2020 has been that, despite Biden’s presumed appeal to these voters, it didn’t really pan out for the Democrats. That isn’t quite right. Sure, Trump got more raw votes out of rural areas—of course he did! It was a high turnout election and there was less third party voting. But when you look at shifts in voter preference, it is apparent that Biden actually made important progress in these areas.
This can be seen by consulting the sadly neglected detailed spreadsheet that Catalist released along with their public report on 2020 voting trends. The spreadsheet is where the real data gold is. The spreadsheet shows that Biden improved Democrats’ (two-party) margin by just under 3 points relative to 2016 in rural areas, not that far off the roughly 5 points Biden gained in suburban areas. (Catalist appears to use a strict population density based measure to classify rural/urban/suburban, which is a solid choice.)
Drilling down a bit further, the Catalist data show that rural whites moved in Biden’s direction by 4 points, compared to 8 points among suburban whites. In contrast, rural and suburban nonwhites each moved around 9 points toward Trump.
The Catalist data also provide a further break by education. These data show that even white noncollege rural voters, presumed to be the most immovable for the Democrats, moved toward Biden by 2 points. It is worth adding here that suburban white working class voters moved toward Biden by over 5 points and that suburban white working class voters are almost a quarter of all voters and over half of the overall white noncollege vote. This makes quite a contrast to nonwhite working class voters overall who moved over 12 points against Biden and toward Trump (rural/urban/suburban breakdown by education not available).
Finally, a breakdown by age shows, intriguingly, rural 18-29 year olds moving more toward Biden (9 points) than suburban 18-29 year olds (3 points).
These data show that Biden did indeed have some success moving rural voters in his direction, including among rural whites. It will be interesting to see Catalist’s breakdown of trends in swing states if/when they release such data. However, inspection of county-level results from various states does seem consistent with these overall trends. Considering that Trump was counting on improving his margins in rural and small town America to achieve re-election, Biden’s success at moving the needle in his direction in these areas was of the utmost importance. And it gives the lie to those who do not believe the Democrats can compete in these areas and must rely instead on fanciful structural fixes to the electoral system.