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The rural/suburban tradeoff

Martin Longman returns to a point he has been making about the way the vote shifted in the 2016 election.

Let’s try to be clear about what we mean. Hillary Clinton won a lot of votes in the suburbs from people who had voted for John McCain and Mitt Romney. She lost even more votes from folks in small towns and rural areas who had voted for Barack Obama.

So, if I understand what Jeet Heer and David Atkins are saying, it’s basically that the Democrats can’t make much more progress in the suburbs than they’ve already made and that the easier task is to win back Democrats that they’ve recently lost. Either that, or they’re just wrong about how likely Romney Republicans are/were to defect.

I don’t have a strong opinion on which would be the easier task. But I do know that so far this trade has not favored the Democrats. The left’s votes are already too concentrated and I can make this point clear fairly easily.

When suburban Chester County was voting 50-50 in the presidential elections of 2008 and 2012, it was possible for the Democrats to also win down ballot seats. And the Democrats have succeeded in electing representatives from Chester County to the state legislature. Gaining 25,000 votes at the top of the ticket helps, but the area is still competitive. But in many other counties in Pennsylvania, the Democrats went from winning 50 percent or 40 percent to winning only 30 percent or 20 percent. The result is that many more legislative seats became so lopsidedly red that downticket Democrats no longer have a fighting chance.

In this sense, not all votes are equal. It’s more valuable for the Democrats to add a voter in a rural area than one in a competitive suburb, and rural votes are definitely of more use than added votes in seats where Democrats are already winning by comfortable margins.

Longman confines his analysis to Pennsylvania, which is obviously a critical state in Presidential elections as well as one that has been greatly affected by strongly partisan gerrymanders. Be that as it may, I wanted to look at how this perspective applies to Texas. It’s been my perception that Texas’ rural legislative districts, which had already been strongly Republican at the federal level but which still elected Democrats to the State House, had become more and more hostile to Democrats since the 2010 election, when nearly all of those Democratic legislators from rural districts were wiped out. If that’s the case, then the increased redness of these districts, while problematic as a whole for statewide purposes, doesn’t change anything in terms of legislative opportunities. On the other hand, if the suburbs are becoming less red, that would open up new possibilities, both now and in the future as this is where much of the population growth is.

That’s my hypothesis, anyway. To check it, I took the electoral breakdown of the State House districts for the 2012 and 2016 elections from the Legislative Council, and put the results from the Presidential election into a new sheet. I also added the results from the Keasler/Burns (2016) and Keller/Hampton (2012) Court of Criminal Appeals races in there, to act as a more neutral comparison. I then sorted the spreadsheet by the Romney percentage for each district, in descending order, and grouped them by ranges. I calculated the change in R and D vote from 2012 to 2016 for each district in both the Presidential and CCA races, then summed them up for each of the ranges I defined. That’s a lot of words, so let’s see what this looks like, and I’ll explain it again from there:


Romney 70%+ (42 districts)

Trump     + 143,209    CCA R   + 267,069
Clinton   +  36,695    CCA D   -   8,330


Romney 60-70% (31 districts)

Trump     +  15,054    CCA R   + 135,280
Clinton   + 164,820    CCA D   + 116,534


Romney 50-60% (23 districts)

Trump     -  32,999    CCA R   +  69,230
Clinton   + 148,633    CCA D   + 101,215


Romney 40-50% (9 districts)

Trump     +   3,081    CCA R   +  16,418
Clinton   +  45,233    CCA D   +  39,721


Romney 30-40% (20 districts)

Trump     -   9,360    CCA R   +  17,429
Clinton   +  84,385    CCA D   +  69,785


Romney < 30% (25 districts)

Trump     -   3,485    CCA R   +  23,031
Clinton   +  90,251    CCA D   +  76,447

Let’s start at the top. There were 42 district in which Mitt Romney collected at least 70% of the vote in 2012. In those 42 districts, Donald Trump got 143,209 more votes than Romney did, while Hillary Clinton gained 36,695 more votes than Barack Obama. In the CCA races, Republicans gained 267,069 votes while Democrats lost 8,330 votes. Which tells us two things: The pro-Republican shift in these already very strong R districts was pronounced, but even here there were some people that refused to vote for Trump.

Now that doesn’t address the urban/suburban/rural divide. You get into some rhetorical issues here, because West Texas includes some decent-sized metro areas (Lubbock, Midland, Abilene, etc), but is still more rural in character than anything else, and some primarily suburban counties like Montgomery and Williamson include sizable tracts of farmland. Keeping that in mind, of the 42 counties in this group, I’d classify nine as urban/suburban, and the other 33 as rural. To be specific:


Dist  County      Romney   Trump   Obama  Clinton     Diff
==========================================================
015   Montgomery  57,601  56,038  16,348   24,253 D +9,468
016   Montgomery  45,347  52,784  10,229   12,666 R +5,000
020   Williamson  49,271  56,644  17,913   20,808 R +4,478
024   Galveston   49,564  51,967  16,936   20,895 D +1,556
033   Collin      51,437  56,093  18,860   27,128 D +3,612
063   Denton      50,485  53,127  18,471   24,600 D +3,487
098   Tarrant     58,406  57,917  18,355   25,246 D +7,390
128   Harris      40,567  40,656  14,907   17,165 D +2,347
130   Harris      53,020  55,187  15,928   22,668 D +4,583

These are urban/suburban districts among those were 70% or more for Mitt Romney. Hillary Clinton gained votes everywhere except in the two, with the two exceptions being the most rural among them; HD16 is the northernmost part of Montgomery County, including Conroe, while HD20 has most of its population in Georgetown and includes Burnet and Milam Counties as well. In the other 33 districts, all of which I’d classify as rural, Clinton did worse than Obama in all but three of them, CDs 82 (Midland County, Tom Craddick’s district, where she had a net gain of 16 – yes, 16 – votes), 81 (Ector County, which is Odessa and Brooks Landgraf’s district, net gain of 590 votes), and 06 (Smith County, home of Tyler and Matt Schaefer, net gain of 871).

I’ve thrown a lot of numbers at you here, so let me sum up: Hillary Clinton absolutely got blitzed in rural Texas, with the gap between her and Donald Trump increasing by well over 100,000 votes compared to the Obama/Romney difference. However, all of this was concentrated in legislative districts that were far and away he least competitive for Democrats to begin with. The net loss of potentially competitive legislative races in these parts of the state is exactly zero.

Everywhere else, Clinton gained on Obama. More to the point, everywhere else except the 60-70% Romney districts, downballot Democrats gained. Even in that group, there were big steps forward, with HDs 66 and 67 (both in Collin County, both held by Freedom Caucus types) going from over 60% for Romney to under 50% for Trump, while HD26 in Fort Bend went from nearly 63% for Romney to barely 50% for Trump. They’re still a challenge at lower levels, but they’re under 60% red and they’re the swing districts of the immediate future.

Now I want to be clear that losing the rural areas like this does have a cost for Democrats. The reason Dems came as close as they did to a majority in 2008 is because they held about a dozen seats in rural areas, all holdovers from the old days when nearly everyone was a Democrat. Those seats went away in 2010, and with the exception of the one that was centered on Waco, none of them are remotely competitive going forward. The end result of this is that the most optimistic scenario I can paint barely puts the Dems above 70 members, not enough for a majority. To have a real shot at getting a majority sometime in the next decade or two, Dems are going to have to figure out how to compete in smaller metro areas – Lubbock, Abilene, Tyler, Odessa, Midland, San Angelo, Amarillo, Wichita Falls, etc etc etc – all of which are a little bit urban and a little bit more rural. Some of these places have growing Latino populations, some of them are experiencing the same kinds of problems that the larger urban areas are facing. Becoming competitive in the suburbs is great, but there’s still a lot more to this very large state of ours.

Anyway. I can’t speak for places like Pennsylvania and Ohio, but in Texas I’d call the rural/suburban tradeoff we saw in 2016 to be a positive step. There are plenty more steps to take, but this was a good one to begin with.

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3 Comments

  1. neither here nor there says:

    A decade or two is too long, how about winning governor and Lt. Governor and start shafting the rural districts. They do it to the cities and about play is fair, but do it harder and kick them longer. Just my two cents.

  2. Marc Meyer says:

    I would say that you proved your point just using the Montgomery county districts. HD016 in the northern part of the county is much more rural in make up then HD015, which is The Woodlands and the associated suburban areas on the east side of I-45.now we need to run a Democrat in HD015 to see if it does help the down ballot Democrats. Thanks for sharing this analysis.

  3. asmith says:

    I agree with you kuff.

    Districts like HD105 and 107 now vote D downballot, and other GOP held seats in Dallas county voted for Clinton but still lean GOP downballot. I think 113 is the next closest if you look at downballot strength. I think we will field strong candidates in all of the GOP held state house districts in Dallas.

    Even in still red Collin County, HD66 and HD67 came within a few points of voting for Clinton, but the downballot Dems came up short. These areas haven’t voted for a Democrat for President since 1976 when Plano would have been called an exurb. There’s a big chunk of educated, soft republicans who could be up for grabs as long as Trump/Pence and Dan Patrick are in office. The transplants of today moving to Plano area from the suburbs LA (Toyota) or Chicago (State Farm) are far more moderate than the first wave back in the 1970s and 80s.

    I think some of the smaller metros could see some improvement like Lubbock or Odessa. Beto had a rally in Amarillo last week that had 500 people in attendance. We’ve got to reach out to everyone.

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