Did the trade war turn rural counties against Republicans?

Not as Republican as you think.
Not as Republican as you think.
Image: Reuters/Daniel Acker
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Blue wave—or periwinkle ripple? The debate about whether Democrats’ gains in the House of Representatives were better or worse than expected rages on. One narrative everyone seems to agree on, though, is the realignment of rural America into a bulwark of support for Donald Trump and his Republican party.

Except this doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny. According to exit polls conducted by CNN, 56% of rural voters chose a Republican candidate in 2018, compared to 61% who went for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton in 2016. This vote-share decline was larger in rural areas than it was in urban and suburban ones.

This isn’t just Trump-related data noise. The Republican share of the rural vote was also lower than the last midterm election, in 2014, though the decline was less than in cities and suburbs. In fact, the Republican advantage in rural areas, a margin of 14 percentage points over Democrats, is the smallest since 2008, according to CNN exit polls.

To see whether the exit poll trends held up, Quartz analyzed county-level voting results, calculating how the share of votes won by Republican candidates, out of total votes cast for Republican and Democrat candidates, changed from 2016 to 2018. (For the 2016 race, we used county-level results for presidential candidates, and House of Representatives results for the 2018 election. Our analysis includes only counties with more than 500 voters and a contested congressional election.)

In the median county nationwide the Republican vote share dropped 2.9% since 2016, according to our findings. And while the median decline was about 2.7% in both urban and suburban areas, it was 3.3% among the more than 1,200 counties that fit the US Census’ description of rural. (County voting data was collected on Nov. 8—more recent data including votes counted late might slightly change the results.)

What could explain rural America’s relatively sharper turn away from Republicans? One possibility is Trump’s trade war.

To evaluate this prospect we looked at data from the Brookings Institution that pinpoints the US counties in which people are most likely to work in industries hurt by the new tariffs—leaving them, in theory at least, most vulnerable to trade wars Trump has launched this year. The data show that rural jobs are more likely to be threatened. In the typical rural county, about 15% of all export-dependent jobs are impacted by the tariffs, compared to less than 10% in non-rural counties.

To further assess whether the trade war influenced voting patterns, we examined what happened in the rural counties most exposed to the trade. Though the relationship isn’t clear enough to be conclusive, what we found is a hint of evidence that vulnerable counties did turn against Trump and the Republicans. Of the 10 rural counties that the Brookings data indicates were hit hardest by the tariffs, support for Trump fell by an average of 6%—higher than in the rural areas overall.

The ten rural counties most exposed to new tariffs during the Trump administration, according to the Brooking Institution:

It’s possible this trend has gone unnoticed simply because, despite their drop in GOP support, these counties still voted overwhelmingly in favor of Republicans. Then again, these findings aren’t exactly out of the blue. In an August 2018 survey, around 54% of the 2,300 farmers polled said they would vote for Trump if the election were held tomorrow. By comparison, farmer support for Trump in 2016 was in the range of 70% to 80%, according to Farm Journal Media, which conducted the poll.

Of course, correlation is not causation; it’s possible that something else besides trade exposure explains the apparent dip in support for Republicans in 2018. And again, the counties most reliant on trade tend to be among the nation’s least populated—meaning the trend we’ve found reflects a reaction from only a tiny share of voters. But for a couple of reasons, the fact that trade did seem to matter in pockets of rural America is something worth paying attention to.

For one thing, while it’s true the vast majority of voters seemed to care little about trade policy in the 2018 elections, that may be simply because, so far, the economic toll has so far been highly concentrated—landing mostly on small farming communities in states like South Dakota and Montana often overlooked by national media. However, the reaction of farm country this election could signal a lower tolerance for the pain of protectionism than Trump and the Republicans might realize.

As the Trump administration imposes tariffs on more Chinese goods—and if a hike in tariff rates set to hit in January 2019 comes to pass—the impact will spread well beyond agriculture. Already, signs that some businesses are struggling with higher input costs related in part to tariffs are emerging. If firms start to pass on some of those expenses, consumers will start feeling the squeeze too. As China retaliates with more tariffs of its own, the suffering of US farmers will likely worsen.

And though rural voters are small in number, they wield disproportionate political clout—thanks to how the US electoral structure has failed to evolved with population growth.

The effects are most obvious in the Senate. For example, Wyoming’s 586,000 (mostly conservative) residents enjoy the same number of votes as California’s 39 million (overwhelmingly liberal) residents. This is true to only a slightly lesser extent in presidential elections. To use the same example, every 712,000 Californians get a single electoral vote for the president—the same as 195,000 Wyoming residents, according to a Washington Post analysis. (It’s thanks to this phenomenon that Clinton beat Trump by nearly 3 million votes in 2016 and yet lost the presidency.) Rural America’s undue political sway continues to be the greatest source of Republican power. If Trump intensifies his trade war, we may find out what it takes to turn that advantage into a vulnerability.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly indicated that the we examined the share of all jobs impacted by the tariffs, when the number is actually the share of all export-dependent jobs.