With the arrival of the winter political primary season and a presidential election coming in the fall, Colby government professors Nicholas F. Jacobs and Daniel M. Shea have authored a timely nonpartisan book that attempts to explain—with reams of fresh data—the widening gulf between rural and urban communities.
The Rural Voter: The Politics of Place and the Disuniting of America, published by Columbia University Press, identifies the causes of the gulf and creates context around the rising power and influence of rural voters on all levels of government across the United States. Based on research they have conducted with assistance from two dozen Colby students over the past four years, the book combines historical perspectives with the largest survey of rural voters ever conducted.
Rural voters are a vital bloc, comprising approximately 20 percent of the overall electorate. Democratic politicians used to reliably count rural voters as part of their base, but the Republican Party has dominated rural America for several election cycles, shifting long-held trends and changing the course of U.S. politics. As the authors write in the early pages of the book, “the change is unprecedented in American history.”
The question is, why?
It’s not about a single politician, party affiliation, age, racial attitudes, or even policy positions, the professors said. It’s about community pride, a sense of place, and being heard. According to the research of Jacobs and Shea, rural voters feel disenfranchised and left behind, and they worry their way of life is threatened. Further, policies that benefit rural voters and address those fears likely won’t change their feelings.
“Rural voters think Democrats don’t care about them or their way of life,” Shea said. “Some might challenge this notion, but in politics, perceptions matter.”
Jacobs, an assistant professor, and Shea, a professor of government, are drawing national attention because their research offers unique insight into critically important cultural and political trends, debunks commonly held stereotypes, and concludes with a warning: The divisions between rural and urban communities are becoming more pronounced and won’t be bridged by simply dumping money into rural areas, or fine-tuning candidate rhetoric.
That means the Democratic Party will have to do more than push legislation that helps communities in rural America if it hopes to regain its historic relevance with voters who live there. In other words, delivering high-speed internet and other infrastructure investments to rural America might improve lives and commerce, but it probably won’t deliver votes on election day.
“Elections are not always about policies. Not everyone is privileged enough to vote on policies,” Jacobs said. “There is something more fundamental about the ways in which the Democratic Party, the Democratic elite, and left-leaning institutions are viewed in rural America that has a long story disassociated from policy.”
Fundamentally, it comes down to trust.
“It’s just bedrock trust—a long memory of how you have been treated by a certain group of people and whether those people authentically understand who you are, the values that are important to you, and your way of life as an individual,” he said.
The Rural Voter Survey
From fall 2020 to summer 2022, Jacobs and Shea fielded the largest, most detailed set of surveys of rural voters ever conducted. Combined, their sample of 14,000 U.S. residents included 10,000 who live in rural areas. They merged this individual-level data with a massive county-level aggregate data set, boasting election and census information back to 1824.
All told, Colby’s Rural Voter Survey resulted in one of the largest geopolitical data sets in existence. Their goal has been to offer a granular, data-driven understanding of rural voter trends. In collaboration with a dozen other scholars of rural politics around the country, they will conduct another survey of 10,000 rural voters in February, and soon they will announce the results of an early-January survey of 2,500 rural voters related to the spring presidential primaries and the November general election.
On March 7-8, with support from the President’s Office, the Government Department, the Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs, and the Center for the Arts and Humanities, Colby will host an interdisciplinary conference, Rethinking Rural, which will explore rural culture, economics, and politics with scholars, policymakers, journalists, pundits, and others. The research of Jacobs and Shea will be at the center of conference discussions.
Among their other conclusions: The current divide between rural and non-rural voters is unprecedented, and rural voters are a more important part of the current Republican coalition than Black or young voters are to Democrats. They’re part of a new political identity that combines a sense of place with a nationalized set of concerns, and they are fiercely loyal to Republicans.
They are not, however, political zealots, or what Jacobs and Shea describe as “rural rabble-rousers.” Only 10 percent of rural residents exhibit political fervor, but the media tend to elevate the voices of the rabble-rousers, creating stereotypes and inaccurate perceptions about rural residents. With the exception of gun policy, the vast majority of rural residents hold mainstream values and positions aligned with the rest of the country, according to the research.
Getting attention for their work
Jacobs and Shea have discussed their book with a range of media, including Bloomberg, Roll Call, and the Wall Street Journal. They’ve been quoted in or written for The Hill and Barron’s, they received a high-profile, positive review in the Daily Yonder, and they recently appeared on Sorry Not Sorry, the podcast of actor, singer, and producer Alyssa Milano.
The interest among mainstream media outlets and pop-culture celebrities like Milano affirms both the importance of their research and its timeliness, the professors said. The Hollywood and media elite are often accused of ignoring and being uncaring toward rural communities, but they are paying attention to the book and the Colby research. They expect more attention will follow as the primary season continues in New Hampshire and across the country leading up to Super Tuesday, March 5.
“We’re pulling back the curtain on a poorly understood historical development, and we’re opening a lot of eyes. It’s an important book, but it’s also good for Colby. We want to spread the word that faculty at Colby are doing cutting-edge, timely research,” Shea said.
They believe Colby is the logical home for this research and an ideal setting for a continuing detailed, long-term examination of rural voting trends with recurring research, surveys, and convenings. Colby is situated in a rural region of the one of most rural states in the country, and Jacobs and Shea both live in rural communities outside of Waterville. “Our eyes are not on Washington, D.C., and Boston. Our eyes are on rural America. We live here. We’re part of the rural communities we write about,” Shea said. “We understand the issues and what’s at stake.”
Throughout the process, Jacobs and Shea relied heavily on the help of Colby students. Each semester and during the summer, Government Department students collected reams of historical election results, coded open-ended survey responses, gathered and sorted prior scholarship, copy-edited pages, and helped fine-tune survey instruments. “We have a lot of sharp students at Colby, and this massive undertaking would not have been possible without their help,” Jacobs said.
They wrote their book with the goal of making it relatable to academics and non-academics alike. They were certain it would resonate with scholars who study rural politics and with politicians and policymakers whose livelihoods revolve around them. But they wanted it to be accessible and interesting to everyday readers. They were pleased that one reviewer noted its humor.
They also wrote it with the goal of being nonpartisan. As scholars, they do not take sides, pass judgment, or offer advice—though the book is full of lessons for politicians from both major political parties. They received reviews praising the book’s balanced approach to a complex problem from politicians and pundits representing diverse political viewpoints.
“This is an issue that Democrats need to care about and that Republicans need to care about, not because it’s going to dictate who wins the next election,” Jacobs said. “They need to care because this issue is truly at the heart of the most pressing political problems we have, which is whether people have faith in our political system.”