The rural-urban divide is still the big story of American politics

Democrats increasingly dominate dense places.
Democrats increasingly dominate dense places.
Image: Reuters/Mike Segar
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There is a lot we still don’t know about 2020 US presidential election. One thing we do know is that the rural-urban divide continues be a huge part of what separates the country politically.  People in the the densest parts of the US went strongly for Democrats and rural areas overwhelming for Republicans.

The chart below shows Joe Biden’s vote share in each of the roughly 2,200 counties in which all precincts have reported and where there are more votes in 2020 than there were in 2016 as of 3pm US eastern time on Nov. 5. (This is meant to ensure the analysis only scoops up counties where the vast majority of votes have been counted.) The data show that in nearly half of the counties with less than 100 people per square mile, Joe Biden won about 30% of the vote on average. In the 170 counties with more than 2,000 people per square mile, he won about 55% on average.1 Lucky for Biden, there are, of course, a lot more people in those densely populated places.

While the overall pattern didn’t change much from 2016 to 2020, it does appear that Biden made progress in counties that were neither very dense or very rural. In the nearly 150 counties with between 2,000-5,000 people per square mile, Biden increased the average Democratic vote share by about two percentage points. Places with this level of density usually include mid-sized cities and the suburbs of large cities, such as Gwinnett County in Georgia, a part of suburban Atlanta that moved six percentage points toward Biden, and Johnson County in Kansas, where Biden gained over five percentage points. Pima County, which includes the city of Tucson, moved almost four percentage points to Biden.

William Frey, a demographer with the Brookings Institution, tells Quartz that the urban preference for Democrats comes down largely to views on religion and diversity. Urbanites of all incomes tend to be more secular and pro-choice. They are also more likely to be people of color, or know other people of color, says Frey, and believe in the importance of promoting diversity through programs like affirmative action. In counties where over 90% of the population identifies as white, the GOP averaged 70% of the vote in 2016, compared to 43% in counties where whites were a minority.

Rural Americans tend to be more religious, anti-abortion, and pro-gun rights, and are less likely to believe racism is a major problem in the US. The Republican party platform is a better fit for those views. It’s a reminder that it’s not just Trump that divides America, but actual beliefs on policy.