Right after the 2004 election, I posted about the widening electoral gap between metropolitan voters and those in rural or exurban counties, in the context of the evangelical vote. Two presidential elections later, this urban/rural split has not only persisted, it has intensified.
I observed in that original post
that, while Missouri’s
rural areas have been more Republican in presidential elections than
metropolitan areas for years, recent elections have markedly
increased the spread. In the 11 presidential elections from
1952-1992, this spread averaged about seven percentage points. The
difference was never greater than the 14-point spread in the 1960
religious war centered on the first Catholic president, John F.
Kennedy, and the spread virtually disappeared in the 1976 election
involving born-again Christian Jimmy Carter, but seven points was a
pretty typical spread.
Then, a realignment of voters began
during the 1990s, in which rural evangelicals disgusted by the
Clinton sex scandals switched from voting Democrat to Republican,
followed by a counter-shift of
“old money” aristocrats and
suburban “soccer moms” who were uncomfortable with the social
conservatism of the new party members. The urban/rural spread crept
up to 12 points in Clinton’s 1996 re-election, and exploded at the
start of the 21st Century. In both 2000 and 2004, the
metropolitan vote went more Democratic than before, and the exurban and rural vote
went more Republican. In 2008, both areas trended Democratic, but
metropolitan areas did it more. In 2012 both areas trended
Republican, but rural areas did it more. The common thread was the
increase in the spread, from 12 points in 1996 to 16 points in 2000,
21 in 2004, 23 in 2008 and up to 25 points in 2012.
County-by-county election returns
demonstrate this realignment. Prior to the Clinton years, many
Missouri rural counties (especially in eastern Missouri) had been
Democratic since the Civil War. Democrats won both houses of the
Missouri legislature every time from 1956 through 2000. As recently
as 1988, when George H.W. Bush defeated Michael Dukakis in Missouri,
52-48, Dukakis won 33 rural counties. By 2004, when George W. Bush
defeated John Kerry in Missouri, 53-46 (fairly similar to the elder Bush's 1988 margin), Kerry lost every rural county except one. A
Democratic wave in 2008 helped Obama win six rural/exurban counties,
but in 2012 he too could carry only one. And the lone Democrat
holdout in 2012 was Boone, whose electorate is disproportionately
influenced by a large liberal academic community.
Meanwhile, St. Louis County flipped the
other way. After voting reliably Republican for many years, including
the Bush-Dukakis contest in 1988, the county went for Clinton in 1992
and for every Democratic presidential nominee since then. The
suburban part of the realignment mentioned above has been evident in
“old money” areas of St. Louis County, like Clayton, Ladue and
Webster Groves, but the Democrat takeover of the county was magnified
by a major, non-realignment factor, the migration into the county of
African American Democrats.
In Missouri, the rural/suburban
trade-off has benefited Republicans. The state's congressional
delegation was 6-3 Democratic when Clinton won in 1992. Today
Republicans hold a 6-2 advantage. Similarly, Democrats maintained
control of both houses of the Missouri legislature until 2002, and
Republicans have controlled both houses ever since.