Rick Santorum’s big wins in Alabama and Mississippi place the Republican Party in ever greater danger of becoming hostage to what has become its predominate geographic base: rural and small town America. This base, not so much conservatives per se, has kept Santorum’s unlikely campaign alive, from his early win in Iowa to triumphs in predominately rural and small-town dominated Kansas, Mississippi, North Dakota and Oklahoma. The small towns and rural communities of states such as Michigan and Ohio also sheltered the former Pennsylvania senator from total wipeouts in races he would otherwise have lost in a blowout.
If America was an exclusively urban or metropolitan country, Mitt Romney would be already ensconced as the GOP nominee and perhaps on his way towards a real shot at the White House. In virtually every major urban region — which means predominately suburbs — Romney has generally won easily. Mike Barone, arguably America’s most knowledgeable political analyst, observes that the cool, collected, educated Mitt does very well in affluent suburbs, confronting President Obama with a serious challenge in one of his electoral sweet spots.
Outside the Mormon belt from Arizona to Wyoming, however, sophisticated Mitt has been a consistent loser in the countryside. This divergence between rural and suburban/metro America, poses a fundamental challenge to the modern Republican Party. Rural America constitutes barely 16 percent of the country, down from 72 percent a century ago, but still constitutes the party’s most reliable geographic base. It resembles the small-town America of the 19th century, particularly in the South and West, that propelled Democratic Party of Nebraska’s William Jennings Bryan to three presidential nominations.
Yet like Bryan, who also lost all three times, what makes Santorum so appealing in the hinterlands may prove disastrous in the metropolitan regions which now dominate the country. Much of this is not so much particular positions beyond abortion, gay rights, women’s issues, now de rigueur in the GOP, but a kind of generalized sanctimoniousness that does not play well with the national electorate.
We can see this in the extraordinary difference in the religiosity between more rural states, particularly in the South, and the rest of country. Roughly half of all Protestants in Mississippi, Alabama and Oklahoma, according to the Pew Center on Religion and Public Life, are evangelicals, not including historically black churches. In contrast, evangelicals make up a quarter or less of Protestants nationally and less still in key upcoming primary states such as Pennsylvania, New York, California and Connecticut, where the percentages average closer to 10 percent.
Let me be clear: Urbanity is not the key issue here. Cities have become so lock-step Democratic as to be essentially irrelevant to the Republican Party. Instead it’s the suburbs — home to a record 51 percent of the population and growing overall more than 10 times as fast as urban areas — that matter the most. Much of the recent suburban growth has taken place in exurbs, where many formerly rural counties have been swallowed, essentially metropolitanizing the countryside.
What accounts for the divergence between the suburban areas and rural areas? A lot may turn on culture. Small towns and villages may be far from the isolated “idiocy of rural life” that Marx referred to, but rural areas still remain someone more isolated and still somewhat less “wired” in terms of broadband use than the rest of the country.
Despite the popularity of country music, rural residents do not have much influence on mainstream culture. Most Hollywood executives and many in New York still commute from leafy ‘burbs. Few of our cultural shapers and pundits actually live predominately in the countryside, even if they spend time in bucolic retreats such as Napa, Aspen or Jackson Hole.
Until the recent commodity boom, much of rural America was suffering. And even today, poverty tends to be higher overall in rural areas than in urban and especially suburban countries. Some areas, notably in North Dakota and much of the Plains, are doing very well, but rural poverty remains entrenched in a belt from Appalachia and the deep South to parts of west Texas, New Mexico and California’s Central Valley.
Rural areas generally do not have strong ties to the high-tech economy now leading much of metro growth. This remains a largely suburban phenomenon, urban only if you allow core cities to include their hinterlands. All the nation’s strongest tech clusters — Silicon Valley, Route 128, Austin, north Dallas, Redmond/Bellevue in Washington, Raleigh-Durham — are primarily suburban in form. High tech tends to nurture a consciousness among conservatives more libertarian than socially conservative and populist. Not surprisingly, libertarian Ron Paul often does best in these areas and among younger Republican voters.
Another key difference: a lack of ethnic diversity. There are now many Hispanics living in rural areas, but they are largely not citizens and most are recent arrivals, attracted by jobs in the oil fields, slaughterhouses and farms. Many small towns, unlike suburbs, remain more homogeneous than suburbs, emerging as the most heterogeneous of all American geographies. Ethnic cultural cross-pollination occurs regularly in metropolitan suburbs; this is not so common in rural America.
Equally important, environmental issues spin differently in rural areas than in suburbs. Energy development and agriculture drive many rural economies. In some areas, like Ohio and western Pennsylvania, shale oil and gas is bringing long moribund regions back to life. In the Dakotas, parts of Louisiana, Texas and Wyoming, it is ushering in a potentially long-term boom. In contrast, there aren’t many oil and gas wells located next to malls and big housing tracks.
This does not mean that suburban voters share the anti-fossil fuel green faith of the urban core. But for them “drill baby drill” represents more a matter of price at the pump than a life and death issue for the local economy. Suburbanites feel the energy issue, but do not live it the way more rural communities do. One of the great ironies of American life is that those who live closest to nature are often less ideologically “green” than those, particularly urbanites, residing in an environment of concrete, glass and steel.
Rural America, of course, is changing, with many areas, particularly in the Plains, getting richer and better educated. These areas are growing faster than the national average and attracting immigrants from abroad and people from other U.S. regions. Yet the influence of newcomers, new wealth and new technology is still nascent. The political pace in rural America today still is being set by an aging, overwhelmingly white and modestly educated demographic.
Until the Republican nomination fight is settled, the party’s pandering to the sensibilities of such conservatives in rural areas could prove fatal to its long-term prospects. A Santorum nomination almost guarantees a replay of the Bryan phenomena; no matter how many times he runs, he will prove unlikely to win, even against a vulnerable opponent. Even in losing, his preachy, divisive tone — on contraception, prayer, the separation of church and state — has opened a gap among suburban voters that Obama will no doubt exploit.
The suburbs, with its preponderance of white, middle income independent voters, gave the 2008 election to Obama, and that’s where the next contest will be decided. The countryside will rally to a GOP standard bearer like Romney, albeit somewhat reluctantly, for both economic and social reasons. The battle will then shift to the suburbs, including those urban areas, common in the vast cities of the South and West, that are predominately suburban in form.
Most of the urban core, meanwhile, will vote lockstep for Obama. But the president, as thoroughly a creature of urban tastes and prejudice as to ever sit in the White House, could prove vulnerable in the suburbs, if the Republicans can deliver a message that is palatable to that geography’s denizens.
This piece originally appeared in Forbes.com.
Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com and is a distinguished presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University, and contributing editor to the City Journal in New York. He is author of The City: A Global History. His newest book is The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, released in February, 2010.
Rick Santorum Image by Bigstockphoto.com.