U.S. News

In rural-urban divide, U.S. voters are worlds apart

JANESVILLE, Wisc. (Reuters) - Semi-retired Wisconsin pig farmer John Lader does not think much of Donald Trump as a messenger, but voted for what he described as the Republican president-elect’s message of change and economic hope for America.

Voters cast their votes during the U.S. presidential election in Elyria, Ohio, U.S. November 8, 2016. REUTERS/Aaron Josefczyk/File Photo

“The last few years, there hasn’t been much optimism and hope among working people in rural areas in this country,” said Lader, 65, who lives in the farmland outside the southern Wisconsin city of Janesville.

Around 65 miles (105 km) to the northeast in the state’s biggest city of Milwaukee, Jose Boni, who cleans offices at a local university and rents out several homes, heard a different message: Trump’s plan to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexican border and vow to deport the estimated 11 million immigrants who are in the United States illegally, most of whom are Hispanic.

“He doesn’t care about our community or working people, he only cares about himself,” said Boni, 57, an Ecuador-born U.S. citizen.

The different worlds of Lader and Boni help illustrate the rural-urban divide that was critical to the outcome of Tuesday’s U.S. presidential election.

A country once defined by regional voting now is more clearly divided by the differences between rural and urban voters. The combination of a strong Trump turnout in the countryside and a weak showing by Democrat Clinton in the cities went a long way toward deciding the election.

Rural and small-town working-class white voters, who already tended to vote Republican, propelled Trump. Urban areas, where black and Hispanic voters are concentrated along with college-educated voters, already leaned toward the Democrats, but Clinton did not get the turnout from these groups that she needed. For instance, black voters did not show up in the same numbers they did for Barack Obama, the first black president, in 2008 and 2012.

Trump beat Clinton by 26 percentage points among voters who live in non-metropolitan areas, while Clinton bested Trump by about 7 percentage points in urban areas, according to the nationwide Reuters/Ipsos national Election Day poll.


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Steven Schier, a political science professor at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, said rural voters “feel they’ve lost something, that America is moving away from them.”

“Trump came up with the perfect slogan for them in ‘Make America Great Again’ because it hits them exactly where they live,” Schier said.

Democratic presidential candidates had won in Wisconsin in every election since 1988, until Trump’s victory on Tuesday.

In Wisconsin, overall turnout was lower than in the 2012 presidential election. Trump actually was a few hundred votes shy of 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s total in the state, but Clinton was around 240,000 votes short of Obama’s 2012 tally. She ended up around 24,000 votes behind Trump in the state.

“Those couple hundred thousand Democratic voters for whatever reason decided not to vote,” Mordecai Lee, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. “They stayed home, and Wisconsin went Republican. I think that was the pattern around the country.”

Turnout in Milwaukee’s Hispanic neighborhoods was down 9 percent versus 2012, while citywide turnout in Milwaukee fell 14 percent.

Clinton took 65.6 percent in Milwaukee County, which includes the city, to Trump’s 28.6 percent. But Trump won in rural counties, for example taking 59.9 percent to Clinton’s 33.6 percent in Fond du Lac County in the middle of the state and 71.4 percent to 25.1 percent in Florence County in the far north.

In Milwaukee, Election Day canvassers found Trump’s comments about immigrants were not enough to get people to the polls. Christine Neumann-Ortiz, director of community group Voces De La Frontera, said about 15 percent of the voters reached by the group in Milwaukee raised concerns about Clinton’s use of a private email server while secretary of state or were undecided.

“If we reached people, we were able to convince them to vote, but I don’t think we could ever have reached enough by ourselves to overcome Trump’s advantage with white working-class voters,” Neumann-Ortiz said.

The rural landscape was rich Trump territory, with people concerned about a slump in commodity prices and layoffs among manufacturers. Rural areas, especially in the Midwest and Northeast, have also seen a demographic shift in recent years with the arrival of Hispanic immigrants.

Demographer William Frey of the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington said census data from 2008 to 2015 showed Hispanic populations in non-metro counties in the Midwest rose 18 percent while the white population fell 9 percent.

The counties still are 84 percent white, but those voters are feeling the change, Frey said.

“They’re a little bit fearful of it, and if they’re being hit hard economically, that can add to it,” Frey added.

Austin Arndt, a beef cattle farmer and neighbor of John Lader outside Janesville, hometown of Republican speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Paul Ryan, said his vote was more against Clinton than for Trump.

He said his vote was based on Trump’s promise to cut taxes and repeal Obama’s signature 2010 healthcare law, which has enabled millions of previously uninsured Americans to gain medical coverage but is detested by conservatives as a government overreach.

“From the social point of view as candidates, they were both terrible people,” said Arndt, 33. “For me, it was all about the economics.”

Reporting by Nick Carey; Editing by Will Dunham