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Rural Population Analysis: Limited Attention Under the Status Quo

Authored by Katie Kelly // Published September 21, 2011

Some National Popular Vote plan opponents argue that rural voters will be ignored because campaign focus would shift to more populated areas of the country. They argue that the current “winner-take-all” system is advantageous to the general population and rural voters because the candidates have to visit small and rural states. It’s just not true.

Previous reports from FairVote have detailed the growing inequalities of our current, “winner-take-all” system (see our 2006 Presidential Inequality Report and our recent analysis of how different states have been competitive, showing that candidates are not visiting nor addressing the concerns of a vast majority of citizens and states). 

We’ve looked specifically into the rural population distribution of our country and its states. It turns out that most of our heavily rural states are ignored in presidential elections and that the majority of the rural population lives in clear, “spectator” states.

The Numbers

Results show that swing states, which generally receive almost all of a candidate’s attention and spending, typically have fewer rural voters. Of the nine swing states coming out of the 2008 elections (Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia), more than half contain a below average representation of rural voters. On the flip side, of the30 states in the nation with a rural population of 20% or more, only three are among the all-important swing states. Meanwhile, seven states (Wyoming, Vermont, Montana, Mississippi, North Dakota, South Dakota, West Virginia) have a rural population of 44% or higher – none of which are swing states. 

Not only are most of the heavily rural states not "swing" – they in fact are among the many “landslide states” that are least likely to have a chance of getting attention for years to come. 19 of the 30 most rural states in the country have a partisanship gap of more than 14%, meaning that, in a nationally competitive year, one party’s nominee is likely to win by more than 57% to 43% in that state. In other words, rural dwellers make up over 16% of the entire population in the United States, and almost 40 million of these 51 million people live in “safe” or “predictable” non-swing states. Since these states are not competitive, candidates have no incentive to cater to the vast amounts of rural voters in those states. 

Furthermore, of the 15 lowest populated states in the country (comprised of two million residents or less); only one state is represented in the “super swing” for the 2012 election and was seen as a battleground in 2008: New Hampshire. That means that 14 states and over 15 million people are ignored under the current Electoral College system simply because they are “predictable” and low in population (therefore offering few electoral votes); this secondarily leaves over six million rural voters ignored in these small states. The current system does not advantage small and rural states, as traditionally believed.

Contrast these numbers with a national popular vote for president. If we had a “swing nation” with every vote equal, 16% of the population living in rural areas would be a significant group of voters. A candidate would only dismiss their concerns at their peril – winning and keeping 51% in a competitive environment requires looking hard for votes wherever you can find them.

It’s clear that, like the majority of the voting population in general, the majority of the rural population is not helped by the current status quo in the same way they would be if every vote were equal. 

Below is a table containing the data for each state and a flash map, which displays each state’s rural population and partisanship numbers. You can also download a spreadsheet with more information.
States listed in yellow are swing states. Red lines indicate a state leaning Republican in the 2008 election. Blue lines indicate a state leaning Democrat in the 2008 election. 

State

Rural Population

Total Population

% Rural Population

2008

Votes Cast

Overall Partisanship (GOP Centric)

Alabama

1,364,306

4,779,136

28.55%

2,099,819

64.42%

Alaska

231,829

710,231

32.64%

326,197

64.40%

Arizona

677,662

6,392,017

10.60%

2,293,475

57.90%

Arkansas

1,158,551

2,915,918

39.73%

1,086,617

63.56%

California

845,229

37,253,956

2.27%

13,561,900

41.61%

Colorado

687,293

5,029,196

13.67%

2,401,462

49.16%

Connecticut

308,355

3,574,097

8.63%

1,646,797

42.45%

Delaware

197,145

897,934

21.96%

412,412

41.14%

District of Columbia

0

601,723

0.00%

265,853

10.67%

Florida

1,207,042

18,201,310

6.63%

8,390,744

52.23%

Georgia

1,839,995

9,687,653

18.99%

3,924,486

56.24%

Hawaii

407,094

1,360,301

29.93%

453,568

31.00%

Idaho

539,446

1,567,582

34.41%

655,122

66.35%

Illinois

1,679,801

12,830,632

13.09%

5,522,371

41.07%

Indiana

1,405,057

6,483,802

21.67%

2,751,054

53.12%

Iowa

1,324,641

3,046,355

43.48%

1,537,123

48.87%

Kansas

1,031,070

2,853,118

36.14%

1,235,872

61.12%

Kentucky

1,815,597

4,339,367

41.84%

1,826,620

61.75%

Louisiana

1,152,634

4,533,372

25.43%

1,960,761

62.95%

Maine

552,638

1,328,361

41.60%

731,163

44.98%

Maryland

310,365

5,773,552

5.38%

2,631,596

40.91%

Massachusetts

26,707

6,547,629

0.41%

3,080,985

40.73%

Michigan

1,850,574

9,883,640

18.72%

5,001,766

45.40%

Minnesota

1,429,114

5,303,925

26.94%

2,910,369

48.52%

Mississippi

1,636,272

2,967,297

55.14%

1,289,865

60.22%

Missouri

1,613,417

5,988,927

26.94%

2,925,205

53.70%

Montana

640,739

989,415

64.76%

490,302

54.77%

Nebraska

754,973

1,826,341

41.34%

801,281

61.10%

Nevada

268,591

2,431,960

11.04%

967,848

47.39%

New Hampshire

497,383

1,316,470

37.78%

710,970

48.83%

New Jersey

786,237

8,791,894

8.94%

3,868,237

45.85%

New Mexico

688,655

2,059,179

33.44%

830,158

46.07%

New York

1,563,219

19,378,102

8.07%

7,640,931

40.21%

North Carolina

2,831,125

9,535,483

29.69%

4,310,789

53.47%

North Dakota

347,173

672,591

51.62%

316,621

57.95%

Ohio

2,237,079

11,536,504

19.39%

5,708,350

51.34%

Oklahoma

1,344,013

3,751,351

35.83%

1,462,661

69.28%

Oregon

852,523

3,831,074

22.25%

1,827,864

45.46%

Pennsylvania

2,016,644

12,702,379

15.88%

6,013,272

48.48%

Rhode Island

137,818

1,052,567

13.09%

471,766

39.73%

South Carolina

1,089,270

4,625,364

23.55%

1,920,969

58.12%

South Dakota

445,138

814,180

54.67%

381,975

57.84%

Tennessee

1,686,343

6,346,105

26.57%

2,599,749

61.17%

Texas

3,060,392

25,145,561

12.17%

8,077,795

59.52%

Utah

314,923

2,763,885

11.39%

952,370

67.73%

Vermont

414,480

625,741

66.24%

325,046

35.13%

Virginia

1,113,515

8,001,024

13.92%

3,723,260

50.49%

Washington

824,155

6,724,540

12.26%

3,036,878

45.05%

West Virginia

820,244

1,852,994

44.27%

713,451

60.20%

Wisconsin

1,544,904

5,686,986

27.17%

2,983,417

46.68%

Wyoming

396,438

563,626

70.34%

254,658

69.75%