Rick Santorum’s Ugly Appeal to Rural Voters


Not all of them are “clinging to guns and religion,” as Barack Obama famously said in 2008, but Rick Santorum has catapulted to the top of the Republican field by connecting with a bitter streak among rural voters. This is bad news for the Republican party and for rural America, which in fact has some pretty good reasons to be optimistic.

Urbanites, Santorum told South Carolinians in January, have “a whole different value structure…They’re not going to be participating in small-town life. They’re not going to be connected to mainstream America or to God and his creation.”

Those voters have returned the contempt, with Mitt Romney consistently winning in larger metropolitan areas. Rick Santorum, by contrast, has from his campaign’s modest beginnings in the small towns of Iowa drawn the bulk of his support from the least-populated counties.

“I kept saying, you just stick with us, you go out and vote for your values and trust what you know,” Santorum said after his victory in the Kansas caucuses in March. “Because you don’t live in New York City. You don’t live in Los Angeles. You live like most Americans in between those two cities, and you know the values you believe in.”

Santorum—who last I checked lived in swank, suburban Washington—has become the candidate of rural and small-town inertia, representing the isolated, aging, often modestly educated and overwhelming white residents nostalgic for a fading past. The Santorum worldview, following a tradition that well precedes Sarah Palin, portrays a wholesome, small-town middle America fighting a desperate battle against corrupt coastal big-city “elites.”

The problem for the party if he somehow emerges as the Republican nominee is that most voters live in metropolitan areas. Just 16 percent of Americans live on farms, small hamlets, and villages. The problem for those rural Americans is that Santorum’s campaign of complaint appeals to and reinforces the worst stereotypes of rural life, while overlooking the brighter future already emerging in much of the hinterland.

Rural America, particularly the vast region known as the Great Plains, appears to be on the verge of an economic and cultural renaissance. I live in Los Angeles, but have witnessed a remarkable change in both on the ground reality and mood during numerous visits to and studies of rural areas over the past decade. When I first starting going to Fargo, North Dakota, it seemed just a listless prairie town; today it is full of high-tech firms and boasts a downtown bustling with a vibrant, youthful population of attractive, largely Nordic revelers.

To be sure, many small towns in the Plains and elsewhere are shrinking and some will disappear entirely in the coming decades. But larger towns like Fargo, Bismarck, Sioux Falls, Omaha, as well as many smaller ones, now boast the strongest economies in the country—with low unemployment and strong job and income growth. Most of these cities enjoy positive in-migration not only from the rural hinterland, but from the densely packed coastal areas. The Plains’ population growth is already outpacing the national average, and is even further ahead of the urban core cities so celebrated in the media.

Santorum seems to have missed something in his travels back in time. He may appeal to an imagined, largely self-contained rural Eden—but he’s mostly ignored the global economics that have fueled the rural resurgence.

Start with the basics: the production of food and fiber, which is fundamental not only to the Plains but to the Midwest, central California and the cotton-growing regions of the Southeast, Arizona, and west Texas. It’s the global demand for these products that has created good times in small towns. In 2011, the U.S. exported a record $135 billion in food and fiber, with a net positive balance of $47 billion, the highest in nominal dollars since the 1980s. Santorum as a senator opposed NAFTA and now talks about engaging in a trade “war” with China. Yet developing countries constitute rural America’s fastest-growing market. Many nations lack the water and land resources to feed themselves at a higher per-capita level of consumption; Beijing has acknowledged this by effectively dropping the old Maoist goal of self-sufficiency.

Foreign investment flows have also benefited rural communities, particularly in the Southeast and the Plains. Firms are investing in critical sectors such as manufacturing and energy that benefit rural communities. Industrial investment rose $30 billion just between 2009 and 2010, while investment in the energy sector more than tripled to $20 billion.

Japanese, German, and Korean manufacturers are primary players laying the foundation for a rural and small-town resurgence across the long-suffering rural Southeast.  Last year, Mercedes, whose largest U.S. plant is in Tuscaloosa, Ala., invested $350 million in the facility. Arch competitor Volkswagen last year announced it will build a new assembly plant in Chattanooga, Tenn. Nissan, Toyota and Kia have all announced major new plant openings or expansions in the region, mostly in small rural towns (and, it’s worth mentioning, in “right-to-work” states that don’t allow closed union shops). When Toyota recently announced plans to establish a plant for the Prius near Tupelo, Mississippi (the birthplace of Elvis), they received 35,000 applications for 1,300 positions.

At the same time, increased fossil-fuel demand in global markets has sparked energy giants from China, France, and Spain to take up stakes in fields in Ohio, Mississippi, Colorado, and Michigan. A smart, globally minded Republican would be pushing these investments, which are already creating boom from North Dakota to south Texas. President Obama’s urbane academician’s obsession with subsidizing renewable energy and barely disguised disdain for fossil fuels represents a threat to the continued prosperity of many rural communities and small towns.

Critically, Santorum’s regressive social views—his tone of resentment as much as the particulars—belies the kind of openness needed for a full-scale rural revival. In the real world, rural America is becoming increasing diverse and dependent on immigrant labor.

Plains towns like Grand Island, Nebraska, are filling up with Mexican or Honduran restaurants. The percentage of foreign-born Nebraskans has more than tripled since 1990. The GOP electorate in the Cornhusker State may be overwhelmingly white, but the demographic trends suggest this won’t always be the case—so long as the party can avoid alienating these new arrivals.

In many places Hispanics constitute the major counterforce to wholesale depopulation. Every county except one in the western half of Kansas suffered depopulation of non-Hispanic whites during the past decade, while Hispanics have offset or even exceeded the decline in white population—filling schools and opening businesses in the process. Hispanic residents have pushed from hubs like nearby Dodge City, Garden City, and Liberal into ever smaller communities, buying property on the cheap, enticed, many say, by the opportunity to live quiet lives in communities more similar to those in which they were raised. 

Of course many people—notably some of the older white voters flocking to Santorum—are hostile to these realities.  And in the short run, appealing to anti-immigrant sentiments may pay off in the Republican primary. But over time, if they are to survive, many rural communities will either adjust to diversity or simply disappear.

But perhaps the worst betrayal of rural America lies in denying the aspirations of these places to shed off the historic isolation and overdependence on natural resources that have long dogged them. Santorum may consider a college education “elitist,” and see public schools as akin to “factories,” but in many parts of the Great Plains and elsewhere excellent public schools are cherished by Republicans and Democrats alike. A core competitive advantage of many rural states lies in their surplus of  highly educated young people. Students in Nebraska, the Dakotas, Montana, and Idaho tend to perform better in school than those in more metropolitan ones (as measured by graduation rates, college attendance, and enrollment in upper-level science and education programs).

These educational advantages are being bolstered by in-migration now tilted toward younger families seeking opportunity, affordable housing, greater social cohesion and better schools. And with generally stronger fiscal balance sheets, due largely to the booming agriculture and energy sectors fueled by international demand, many rural states are expanding their public university systems even as states like California are cutting theirs.

By appealing to perceived deficiencies in rural communities, Rick Santorum downplays all these positive forces. Much of rural America is already booming, and, connected by the Internet, investment, and trade, can play an important role in the American future. Appealing to nostalgia about a past fading into history is not the way to get there.

This piece originally appeared in The Daily Beast.

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.

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.

Ugliness is in the ear of

Ugliness is in the ear of the hearer. I heard bias against whites and rural people in your post.

disappointing work

I'm usually an avid reader of your blog, but on this issue you are displaying entirely too much personal opinion. I grew up in a small town in the midwest before going to college and getting a masters at UCLA and then living in various cities including Seattle and NYC. So i've seen and lived all sides of the cultural spectrum.

Your main argument as to why Santorum could be "fatal" to the GOP are all anecdotal. You certainly do not state any facts to make your case, quite possibly because if you dug into the facts your suppositions would be inaccurate.

Each of your following arguments in explaining why rural area are different (otherworldly?) also apply to urban cores:
-do not have strong ties to the high-tech economy (aside from NY and SF, what urban area qualifies here?)
-a lack of ethnic diversity (urban areas very under-represented for whites)
-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 (this completely ignores the lower cost of living vs. urban areas)
-modestly educated demographic (same applies to urban core)

So given that on the above measures, urbanites are just as "different" to the rest of America as Rural residents are, lets examine the heart of your article as it applies to suburbanites:

Santorum - "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."

On this issue, rural residents "overlook" the such discussion much the same way urbanits "overlook" Obama division and preachy rhetoric on class warefare, phony/wasteful green energy agenda, faulty/disputed global warming pseudo-science, wealth re-distrubution, big-government nanny state, etc. So the question for you Joel, is are suburbanites somehow more sysmpathatic to Obama's preachy, divisive tone on these matters than of those which you state for Santorum?

Without having a study or data, I will not attempt to say which canditates "divisive" rhetoric is more offensive, but just point out that you are one-sided in analyzing such divisive rhetoric.

Next, your point that "The countryside will rally to a GOP standard bearer like Romney, albeit somewhat reluctantly, for both economic and social reasons." is probably true. But what rural votes will NOT do with a Romney candidancy is work the phones or encourage their neighbor to vote. So rural vote counts will be down, potentially a fatal blow for Romney.

Finally, and most dramatically weakening your argument about Santorum's "fatal" inelectibility is your complete lack of swing state analysis. What difference does it make if Romney just loses CA and NY by 45 to 55 instead of Santorum loss there 30 to 70 in those states? A loss is still a loss. But Santorum, who appeals much more to working class whites, would be much more likely to win Ohio and/or Michigan and/or Wisconsin and/or Indiana and/or Iowa than Romney would, meaning he will be more likely to get votes where they count, not in suburbs in NY/CA where they are useless anyway.

You usually do your homework Joel, but this is a very disappointing piece of work, filled with your personal opinions, totally lacking in factual analysis, and apparantly written with your end goal in mind before you did any analysis.

Agree with Darrell


I agree with Darrell. This is not up to your usual standards. Although you lean left and I lean right, I have been an avid consumer of your work ever since I found your first article in the DC City Journal several years ago. I read your book The Next 100 Million and recommended it to several friends. I will continue to read your articles as you do an excellent job of capturing and analyzing demographic and economic data.

I've lived in rural America, large cities on the east Coast and just about every place in between. Among the many reasons Santorum and Palin appeal to many of us because they push back against the "bitter clingers" of the cultural left. The cultural left inhabits coastal areas, university towns and major cities across this country. Their view of all of America (rural and urban) is stuck somewhere between 1936 and 1974. They see the boogie man of religious fundamentalism and unregulated polluting in every corner of red state America. Generally speaking, the cultural left hectors and lectures the rest of us (rural and urban) non stop on race, the environment, sexism, etc. They are impervious to evidence of progress and resolution to any of these issues. If you're looking for the source of the toxicity in political discourse, look no further than the cultural left and their unceasing dredging of these issues.

I am a person of faith. I, and the vast majority of people of faith, do not seek to impose our lifestyle on others. The vast majority of us are advocating for a drastic change of course in this country that would return us to an environment of MORE personal liberty accompanied by personal responsibility. This combination is the only hope for our capitalist system.

It is the cultural left that is consistently agitating on social issues in a toxic fashion. These folks come out of their ivory towers, think tanks and political operations and introduce ridiculous concepts like the "War on Women" and outlawing of contraception and then blame their adversaries on the right for their obsession with social issues! Most of us in flyover country (I now live in the Central Valley of CA) are busy trying to make a living. However, in doing so, we are constantly facing obstacles erected by the cultural left. You have very ably chronicled these in your excellent analysis of the positive impact of agriculture and energy on the Great Plains economy. The cultural left is incapable of constructively engaging on topics ranging from energy production to the breakdown of the family.

Sorry Joel, you swung and missed on this one.


sorry to disappoint, but I appreciate being called "left"...I wish all the Obama backers, greens and new urbanist see it as well!

i am sympathetic to many sentiments expressed by you but my sense is that "people of faith" need to have a more positive message.Santorum epitomizes the negative aspects --- for example on gay issues and demonizing urbanites --- than the positive. I do think conservative christians are in many ways a great national asset; i was particularly impressed with their role after Katrina in Houston, which I witnessed first hand.

i am strongly in support of families, and religious institutions and morals are very important there. but i do think attacks on whole categories of people --- such as gays --- are counter-productive and tilt against the greater tolerance of the younger generation.

Latest Rasmussen poll supports my arguement

Apparently, the good voters of Ohio, North Carolina, Virgina, and Florida (from all areas, large and small) view the "social views—his tone of resentment as much as the particulars" of Obama to be much more toxic than those of Santorum:

Rasmussen: March 16, 2012

Santorum leads the president 48% to 44% in the so-called Core Four states or NC,FL OH and VA
Obama remains ahead of Romney 46% to 42%.

Joel, it appears you don't know your suburban and city voters as well as you purport to!
By the way, the poll above is obviously done for all residents, including city and suburban voters, in these 4 swing states, not just rural voters.

Santorum is not "demonizing urbanites", but rather pointing out that most people don't want individual "urban elites" from the media to attempt to try and tell them the proper (leftward bias) way to think. If NBC/CBS/ABC/NYT were located on Mars instead of NYC, then conservative attack would be against the Martian elites, not the urban media elites. Big media just happens to be in urban areas. Aside from the traffic, most small-town residents like urban areas (Dallas, Houston, Atlanta, Denver, Seattle, San Diego, etc, are all cities most small-town residents like) that don't try to "preach" their left-wing dogma to them.

Come on Joel, lets get back to your usually good data analysis and away from your personal opinions, which, according to Rasmussen, are not in-line with the swing states that are going to decide this election


Joel I am not attacking you

I didn't expect you to be disappointed by being referred to as "left". I apologize for not clarifying that I do not see you as part of the cultural left. In fact, I wish we had more left of center folks like you and Micky Kaus who WILL constructively engage on the issues. I am a fan of your work because you let the facts lead you to some thought provoking conclusions as opposed to the dogmatic cultural left who seem incapable of rational discussion on the issues Darrell and I highlighted. Unfortunately, people such as yourself seem to be a vanishing breed. Maybe you can prove me wrong in a future post!

I get your point on the gay issue, but it cuts both ways. The demonization of cultural Christian conservatives as bigots is every bit as harsh and toxic as anything Santorum has said back the other way. I run in Catholic and Evangelical circles and I'm just not privy to any mainstream attempt to persecute gays. Too many of us have family members or friends that are gay. Once again, maybe we find common ground around existing legal protections for everyone gay or straight, black or white, liberal or conservative, Christian or otherwise. Just a thought.

Thanks for responding Joel. Again, I am a big fan. You made my day by engaging me in an online chat.