Over the past decade, it’s become conventional political wisdom that the central political divide is between urban and rural voters, given the widening divide in their behavior as close-in suburbs have been getting bluer and rural places redder. But has that trend overwhelmed the regional cultural differences that have been at the heart of American politics since before the states united in the 18th century? The 2022 midterms show the answer is “no,” as did the 2020, 2016, and 2012 presidential contests; the 2018 and 2014 midterms; and even off-year contests, as discussed here in 2013 and 2011. In most cases, rural and urban voters in a given U.S. region continue to support the same candidates, though, as has always been the case, by different margins.
First, you need to define “regions” correctly. As I laid out in my 2011 book American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America, our sectional differences and boundaries can be traced back to the rival colonizing projects that took hold on the eastern and southwestern rims of what is now the U.S. in the 17th and 18th centuries. These rival projects settled mutually exclusive strips of much of the continent, laying down cultural norms, attitudes toward authority, honor, diversity, government, individual liberty, communitarianism, identity, and belonging. These have shaped our history, our constitutional structure, and, of course, electoral politics—past and present. (I have written about its political implications previously in the Monthly, but for a more detailed summary, visit here.) The regions do not respect state or even international boundaries, as you can see from the map at the top of this post of what they look like today.
Current American politics features a “red coalition” of three nations, each with cultures that see freedom’s path lying almost exclusively with individual liberty and personal sovereignty. Greater Appalachia was founded by settlers from war-ravaged borderlands in the British Isles. They brought their warrior ethic and deep commitment to personal sovereignty into the U.S. The Deep South was established by oligarchic slave lords from the West Indies. Finally, in the Far West, environmental factors meant settlers depended on and were directed by the federal government and major corporations—powerful institutions that often exploited them.
But the U.S. also has “blue coalition” nations, which emphasize the common good more. Yankeedom, which constitutes much of the upper Midwest and New England, was settled by religious congregations that supported self-denial on behalf of the community. New Netherland, the modern-day New York metropolitan area, has a dedication to free expression and multiculturalism that stems from the 18th-century Dutch commitment to globalization. Finally, on the Left Coast, New Englanders and Appalachian settlers combined to create a culture with both Yankee utopianism and Appalachian individualism.
Over the past two decades, two would-be swing nations have joined the “blue” camp. El Norte, the far-flung borderlands of the Spanish American empire, has conservative bones but has shifted left because Republican ethnonationalism abhors the region’s cultural persistence. Tidewater, the product of younger sons of the southern English gentry, became safely Democratic because of in-migration driven by the federal government’s presence in D.C. and Hampton Roads.
This leaves just one true “swing nation”: The Midlands. Founded by English Quakers who believed in the inherent goodness of humans and welcomed people of many nations, the Midlands spawned the culture of Middle America, where ethnic and ideological purity have never been a priority, government has been seen as an unwelcome intrusion, and political opinion is generally moderate. It shares the Yankee belief that society should be organized to benefit ordinary people but rejects top-down government intervention.
Okay, so how did this play out in the 2022 midterms?
We crunched the numbers at Nationhood Lab, a new project I founded at the Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy at Salve Regina University, for a report we published this month. We found that voters behaved very differently based on these centuries-old cultural boundaries, regardless of whether they lived in rural or urban counties.
Consider the California U.S. Senate contest between Democrat Alex Padilla and Republican Mark Meuser. The overall result was never in doubt, as California is overwhelmingly Democratic these days, and Padilla prevailed 61 percent to 39. But California was effectively colonized by three separate colonial settlement movements dividing the state into El Norte, Left Coast, and Far West sections and accounting for the persistent efforts to break it into several states.
Padilla won the El Norte and Left Coast sections by wide margins: 21.5 and 48.5 percent, respectively. He won nearly every county in the Left Coast and El Norte, including the Left Coast’s rural counties, by almost 25 points. (California’s El Norte section has no rural counties as per the federal designation system we used in our analysis.) But he lost the Far West section by 5.3 percent, and if only urban counties had voted there, he would still have won by 4.1 percent.
It’s a similar story for Washington State, sharply divided between Left Coast and Far West, which have disagreed on everything from same-sex marriage to legalizing marijuana. There, incumbent Democrat Senator Patty Murray won the Left Coast by 23.5 points, but over the mountains in the Far West, she lost to Republican challenger Tiffany Smiley by nearly 22. Contrary to the urban-rural theory, Murray won the Left Coast’s rural counties by 0.68 percent, and Smiley won the Far West’s urban ones by 20.5.
Texas has always been divided into three big sections based on colonization history—El Norte, Deep South, and Greater Appalachia—plus a tiny slice of rural Midlanders in the far northern bit of its upper panhandle. Republican Governor Greg Abbott won his reelection fight against Democrat Beto O’Rourke by 11 points statewide. But O’Rourke trounced him by 9.3 points in the El Norte section, though he did lose this Spanish-colonized region’s rural counties by 15. To be sure, he did well in the core counties of the biggest Deep Southern and Greater Appalachian cities – Houston, Dallas, and Austin – but overall, he lost the urban counties of the Deep South section by 11.5 and those in Greater Appalachia by 5.9. There’s been a lot of attention paid to Texas’s big cities, but “turning Texas blue” will very much be about reversing the erosion of Democratic support in the El Norte section, especially rural El Norte, the only part of the country where former President Donald Trump massively grew his margin of support between the 2016 and 2020 elections.
Pennsylvania is a swing state precisely because it is divided between three substantial regional culture sections, including a large swingy Midlands one. As I’ve previously demonstrated, the Midlands is the country’s only region that really does have a stark rural/urban political divide. In every other region, rural and urban voters usually vote with the same party. We saw the same dynamic at work in both of 2022’s statewide contests in the Keystone State.
In the hotly contested Senate race between Democrat John Fetterman and Republican Mehmet Oz, Fetterman prevailed statewide by five points. He won the Midlands by 10.4 but lost Yankeedom by 9.7 and Greater Appalachia by 28. In the Midlands, there once again was a rural/urban split—Oz won rural counties by 25.2, and Fetterman won urban ones by 14.2—as seen in the 2016 and 2020 presidential contests. But Fetterman lost Greater Appalachia’s urban counties by 22.6! Ouch.
Pennsylvania’s gubernatorial contest provided a side-by-side taste test for how people feel about a conventional, Trump-compliant Republican like Oz compared with a conspiracy-mongering Christian nationalist election denier who helped bus insurrectionists to the Capitol on Jan. 6th, Republican gubernatorial nominee Doug Mastriano. Statewide, a slice of Oz voters switched to Democrat Josh Shapiro elsewhere on their ballot, causing Mastriano to underperform Oz by nearly 15 points. How did people react on a regional basis? About the same, as it turns out: Mastriano lagged Oz by 9 to 11 percent in each.
But here’s an interesting twist. Rural voters in all three regions preferred the radical right Mastriano to the less extreme Oz. In the rural counties of Greater Appalachia and the Midlands, Mastriano outperformed Oz by about 10 points and in Yankeedom by 6. By contrast, Mastriano underperformed 10 to 12 percent in urban counties in all three regions.
This, in conjunction with the increasing rural/urban polarization in races where Trump was a candidate, led me to offer this preliminary hypothesis: a novel urban/rural divide may indeed have been developing in U.S. politics over the past decade, but the rift isn’t between support for Republicans over Democrats or communitarianism over libertarianism. It’s over endorsing radical right ethnonational extremists (e.g., Mastriano, Trump, Marjorie Taylor Greene, or Lauren Boebert) over “ordinary” (but still pro-Trump) conservatives (Oz, Kevin McCarthy, or Mike Lee).
Now there’s a topic for further research.
Author: Colin Woodard