UM CW Investigations

February 8, 2017

Blue Cities, Red States:
Was Trump’s Victory the Revenge of the Rural Voters?

By Bruce Cory

Donald Trump’s election as President rested on a narrow margin of fewer than 100,000 total votes in three states – Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania – each containing a broad mix of big-city, small-city, suburban, and rural voters. They’re states that had been widely expected, largely on the strength of urban turnouts, to add 46 key votes to a “blue wall” securing a Democratic majority in the Electoral College. When that didn’t happen, a post-election analysis by POLITICO proclaimed “the revenge of the rural voters” in these suddenly up-for-grabs states.

Since November, Maya Wiley, the Henry J. Cohen Professor of Urban Policy and Management at the Milano School of International Affairs, Management & Urban Policy, has been probing the cracks in the Democrats’ blue wall. She presented her work at The New School last week. Her “Election 2016: Race, Class and the Urban/Rural Divide in America” lecture ranged widely. She challenged exit polls purporting to show that Trump did better than expected among Latino voters. (His share of the Latino vote was no larger, she said, than Mitt Romney’s in 2012, but Hillary Clinton’s Latino vote was slightly less than President Obama’s that year.) She contrasted the effectiveness of Trump’s campaign rhetoric on jobs (“clear and simple”) with Clinton’s (“complicated and wonky”). And to critique shortcomings in Clinton’s get-out-the-vote effort, she name-checked Beyoncé (the Clinton team failed, she said, to “Get in Formation”). 

Using both statistical and anecdotal evidence, she also identified several key dynamics in delivering Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania to Trump, including:

Significant drop-offs in urban African American voter turnout. In Wisconsin, African American turnout declined more than 10% in Milwaukee and in other cities with big African American communities. While turnout fell in major African American communities across the nation, the drop-off nationally was far less; enforcement of Wisconsin’s stringent 2014 voter identification law may explain this at least in part. Turnout also fell more than 5% among African Americans in Michigan’s major urban areas, including Detroit. While African American turnout was up in Pennsylvania, that clearly wasn’t enough to offset a second factor.

 Source: Washington Post, Dec 16, 2016

Source: Washington Post, Dec 16, 2016


Heightened racial and economic anxiety in small, hard-pressed towns with increasing Hispanic populations. Wiley cited county-by-county data that identifies rapid growth in Hispanic population as a “key predictor” of Trump support in such areas. (Residential segregation, she added, is also particularly high in non-metropolitan areas with rapidly growing Hispanic communities.) A 2016 Pew Research Center survey of rural whites also found them highly pessimistic about finding jobs, convinced that immigrants hurt native-born workers, and anxious about the economic future of their children.


In addition, Wiley said, the ground for Trump’s success among white small-town and rural voters in these key states had been prepared by local political leaders who have stoked anti-immigrant sentiments in recent years. In 2006, for example, the northeast Pennsylvania city of Hazelton (population: 25,000) enacted a local ordinance imposing fines on private landlords who rented to undocumented immigrants and empowering City government to deny permits to businesses hiring undocumented workers. Although a Federal district court judge later struck down the ordinance as unconstitutional, the mayor who had proposed it subsequently won election to Congress and was an outspoken Trump supporter in the 2016 Republican Pennsylvania primary.

Trump’s insight, Wiley said, was that giving voice to such sentiments could be a winning electoral strategy. (In 2012, Obama carried Luzerne County, where Hazelton is located, by 12,000 votes; last November Trump won the county by 25,000 votes.) The 2016 election was, as a result, far more “racialized” that other recent Presidential races have been; Mitt Romney, by contrast, didn’t run on the kind of anti-immigrant platform that Trump did. A challenge Democrats now face in no-longer blue wall states, Wiley said, is convincing pessimistic native-born voters that they’re not locked in a zero-sum struggle for economic security with immigrants.

Bruce Cory is editorial advisor at The Center for New York City Affairs.

The bar graphs in this post were included in Professor Wiley's February 3 presentation, and were provided to us by her.