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Analysis | Trump wasn’t just a rural phenomenon. Most of his supporters come from cities and suburbs.


After all, the United States is overwhelmingly urban and suburban. Only 14 percent of Americans lived in rural counties as of 2018, Census Bureau figures show. The electoral college gives rural voters an outsize influence, but they make up the majority in only six states: Wyoming, Vermont, Montana, South Dakota, Mississippi and North Dakota, in that order.

And because most Trump voters are urban, that means the places that the outgoing president has repeatedly blasted as crime-ridden Democratic cities are also home to millions of his voters. The 11 largest metropolitan areas in the United States gave Trump more total votes than all of rural America combined. In order of population, they are New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, D.C., Miami, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Boston and Phoenix.

Consider Los Angeles County, the most populous county in the nation and home to a town Trump said “looks like a third-world city.” That one deep-blue county in a deep-blue state gave Trump 1.1 million votes. Los Angeles County accounts for as much of Trump’s share of the popular vote as the 633 most-rural counties combined.

Of course, those maps consider only Republican support. Rural voters also delivered millions of votes to President-elect Joe Biden. But the Black, Native American and Hispanic voters who helped increase the Democrat’s rural margin in some states have not yet received as much attention as urban voters who swung the other way.

Just look at the rural areas where Biden performed the strongest. He won 90 percent of the two-party vote in Oglala Lakota County, S.D., part of the vast Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and home to a slice of the South Dakota Badlands. In the Mississippi Delta counties of Jefferson and Claiborne, rural areas where Black Americans make up a larger share of the population than they do almost anywhere else in the country, he won 86 percent of the vote.

Yes, despite these outposts of strong Democrat support, Trump exposed an urban-rural divide. But it seems narrow-minded to say that without acknowledging the 4 in 5 Trump voters who live in cities and suburbs. Biden won a bit more than half of the urban vote, but it wasn’t a blowout victory — Trump had urban majorities in 21 states.

Many people who live in cities and suburbs still think of themselves as living in a rural area, according to a Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll conducted in 2017. About 6 in 10 adults who say they live in a rural area actually live in a city or suburb, the poll found, as do about 3 in 4 who say they live in a small town.

But that’s under the most common definition, which regards anything outside a federally defined Metropolitan Statistical Area as rural. That’s pretty broad. We can learn more by looking at a gradient of population density.

When we break down votes by density, we notice an obvious trend: Trump’s vote share decreases rapidly as a county gets more densely populated. But when you compare it to 2016, some variation emerges.

Trump lost ground in the middle half of the country — the suburbs and midsize towns that sit between rural areas and towering metropolitan hubs. But he actually gained vote share in the largest cities.

Trump did best in rural areas that didn’t include any town of more than 10,000 residents, University of New Hampshire researchers Ken Johnson and Dante Scala found in a recent report. Those areas often have the lowest population density. Trump’s support among areas classified as urban also maps closely to density, Johnson found. Voters in the suburbs of smaller metropolitan areas vote much the same as their rural counterparts — 2 to 1 for Trump — while Biden won a majority of the vote in the suburbs of larger metros, Johnson found.

“Trump got the vast majority of the rural vote. But not to the same extent everywhere,” Johnson said. “And, the fact that Biden got a little more of the vote in every non-metro county type as well as in every metro county type — is the difference between victory and defeat in 2020, just as it was in 2016.”

It lines up with what reporters such as Christine Zhang and John Burn-Murdoch of the Financial Times have found: a shift toward Trump in urban centers was offset by Biden’s strength in the suburbs.

There is a divide geographically in the United States, yet rural America is a small part of it. Urban America is split as well, and that’s where most of the votes are.


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