At this late date in the primary season, we’re used to the broad differences between the Hillary and Bernie voters. Hillary gets the older voters, Bernie the younger; Bernie gets the more educated voters, Hillary the less educated; Hillary gets older women, Bernie gets the younger, Hillary gets minorities, Bernie gets whites. But there’s something else going on that hasn’t gotten as much attention: Hillary gets the cities and suburbs and Bernie gets the rural areas. How does this make sense?
I first noticed the pattern in the New York primary, where Clinton won big by sweeping the New York City metro area, plus Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse, while Sanders won all other counties. The pattern was repeated in Pennsylvania, where Clinton carried Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Scranton, Wilkes-Barre, Erie, Allentown and Harrisburg, along with a significant number of other counties, while Sanders’ wins were all in more rural counties. In Maryland, Sanders’ one-third of the vote only captured three rural counties, two in the mountainous western end of the state. In Connecticut, Clinton won Hartford, New Haven and the New York suburbs in the southwest; Sanders won most of the rest of the towns. In Massachusetts, Clinton won the Boston metro area, plus Worcester, Springfield, Fall River and New Bedford, while Sanders prevailed in most of the smaller towns.
There’s something else going on that hasn’t gotten as much attention: Hillary gets the cities and suburbs and Bernie gets the rural areas. How does this make sense?
Outside the Northeast, the pattern was also evident in Sanders’ victories in Michigan and Wisconsin, as well as Clinton’s wins in Ohio and Illinois. Clinton’s narrow win in Missouri was built on carrying St. Louis and Kansas City. But the pattern is not evident in caucus states, nor in the South. So the pattern is real, but limited to primary states in the East and Midwest.
I have not found any polls that focus on this dimension, so I have the luxury of speculating. But before doing that I got out the geographic microscope to focus on my home county, Union County, Pennsylvania. Like most rural counties, Union has a pronounced Republican tilt of about two-to-one. There were just over 3100 votes cast in the Democratic primary, while around 6300 Republican votes were cast. The county seat, Lewisburg, is also the home of Bucknell University and a federal prison. With its surrounding suburban townships, it has about 40 percent of the county population, roughly 16000. The other big town, Mifflinburg, has about half the population of Lewisburg. The rest of the county is small towns and farm country. Racial minorities are a growing but still small part of the population.
The larger towns (Lewisburg and Mifflinburg) voted for Sanders, while the Lewisburg suburbs largely voted for Clinton and carried her to a narrow victory countywide (Clinton, 1548; Sanders, 1519). The more sparsely populated townships were mostly for Sanders. So it was basically the prosperous suburbs against a coalition of the college town with the rural areas. Mifflinburg, the anomaly, has close ties with its rural hinterland, as well as a significant population of people who work in Lewisburg.
A cynical interpretation would be that Sanders benefited from an almost completely white electorate, negating one of Clinton’s strengths. But race has played no role in Sanders’ campaign. In contrast to Trump’s repeated dog-whistle appeals to whites on the Republican side, there has been no sign of true racial antagonism among the Democrats.
It is more plausible to speculate that the Sanders voters in the rural parts of the county feel the truth of Bernie’s main theme: that while the rich are getting richer, the rest of us are getting nowhere. Indeed, a solid majority of Republican voters in the county also voted for a candidate—Donald Trump—who portrays the system as rigged against the little man.
The Lewisburg voters, on the other hand, are relatively affluent as well as being highly educated. They may not feel the truth of Sanders’ appeal in their material lives like their rural counterparts, but they are part of an academic culture that has recognized and supported Sanders’ arguments. There has been some spatial sorting in recent years, as those who prioritize traditional suburban values like space and security have moved to the suburban townships, while a more cosmopolitan and progressive subset have opted to live in Lewisburg Borough’s more urban setting. The result is that the political balance in Lewisburg was clearly for Sanders, while in the suburban townships the balance was strongly enough for Clinton to carry the county.
What enabled Sanders to come close in Union County was his rural support. People who might be expected to be more conservative instead responded to Bernie’s radicalism. Sanders did lose Union County and Pennsylvania, and is losing nationally. But Hillary Clinton should not ignore these unheralded rural radicals.