U.S. Economy

Rural America Went All In for a City Boy

Demographic and economic trends simply aren't in their favor.

Not generally their scene.

Photographer: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

Today, a man who has spent most of his life in the very heart of the nation’s most populous and economically important 1  metropolitan area was inaugurated as president in the very heart of its sixth-most populous and fifth-most economically important metro area.

Who put Donald Trump there? People who don’t live anywhere near the heart of populous, economically important metropolitan areas.

That’s an oversimplification -- as are all explanations of why people win elections. But it’s not the worst one, especially since it reflects a trend that’s playing out in other countries, too. Here’s Jonn Elledge, writing in the U.K.’s New Statesman:

Across the Western world, cities are opting for progressive or establishment causes while the provinces vote for extremist or populist candidates. In Britain’s referendum on EU membership last June, most cities were markedly more pro-European than their hinterlands. The far-right presidential candidate Norbert Hofer won majorities in the Austrian countryside while the pro-Green Alexander Van der Bellen triumphed in Vienna, Salzburg and Linz. And polls suggest that, should the Front National’s Marine Le Pen win in France, it will be thanks to la France profonde.

It’s not quite as simple as city versus country. Elledge points out that struggling, smallish industrial cities lean extremist/populist, while affluent suburbs and college towns lean progressive/establishment. He cites a University of Southampton scholar who favors the terms “cosmopolitan” versus “shrinking.” In the U.S., Mark Muro and Sifan Liu of the Brookings Institution figured out that the counties that voted for Trump account for only 36 percent of U.S. gross domestic product, and described the electoral divide as “high-output America” versus “low-output America.”

Remember, these are descriptions of where voters live, not their personal attributes. Nov. 8 exit polls indicated that Trump voters were on the whole modestly higher-output (that is, their incomes were higher) than Hillary Clinton voters. Still, cosmopolitan/shrinking and high-output/low-output inevitably do sound a bit like personal value judgments. Not quite “sophisticates” versus “rubes,” but getting there.

So … back to city versus country. This divide has actually been apparent in American politics for quite a while now. Here’s somebody not known for breaking new ground in electoral-trends analysis (me) writing in Fortune in 2004:

Since 1932, the nation has been governed by two durable, geographically diverse partisan majorities: The Democratic Roosevelt alliance of city-dwellers and Southerners, and the Republican Nixon-Reagan coalition of suburbanites and Southerners. Now, though, the dividing line between the two parties is this: The more rural your place of residence, the more likely you are to vote Republican. The more urban, the more likely you are to vote Democratic.

This new arrangement coexisted with some still-strong regional differences: In Southern metro areas, the Democrat/Republican dividing line was a lot closer to downtown than in the West and Northeast. But the Trump-Clinton choice appears to have diminished those differences. For example, Gwinnett County, Georgia -- home to a bunch of mostly affluent Atlanta suburbs -- went from a George Bush landslide in 2004 to a solid Clinton victory in 2016. Meanwhile, rural and exurban counties across the Midwest and even parts of the Northeast shifted strongly toward Trump, as this lovely Bloomberg News chart shows:

City boy Trump was able to get this rural support mainly by harnessing discontent that is present almost everywhere but generally stronger the farther you get from a big, thriving metropolitan area.

There are lots of reasons for that discontent, but I can't help but focus on the economics. And ... they really don't look good for rural and small-town America. All the trends that have been driving growth toward metropolitan areas -- and wealth toward the heart of those metropolitan areas -- look set to continue. I'm coming around to the idea that those metropolitan areas don't have to be gigantic, expensive, overcrowded ones along the coasts. But they do generally have to have at least 500,000 people and a state capital or a university (or both) to draw in more.

When Andrew Jackson -- the historical president whose anti-establishment tone was probably most similar to Trump's -- stormed into office in 1829 on a huge wave of Western and Southern support, he was also riding a huge wave of Western and Southern economic growth that continued throughout his eight years in the White House. Trump more or less backed into office on a wave of support from areas that have been receding economically for years and will almost certainly continue to do so. Different federal policies on mining and oil and gas drilling may provide a boost to parts of the West and Appalachia, which isn't nothing, but there doesn't seem to be anything else on the horizon that will suddenly shift growth away from metropolitan America and back toward the hinterlands.

None of this is a political forecast. Politics has a habit of surprising people (like me) who focus on demographic and economic trends. But demographic and economic trends also have a habit of thwarting the sometimes unrealistic yearnings of voters.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

  1. As measured by gross domestic product.

To contact the author of this story:
Justin Fox at justinfox@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net

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