AUGUSTA, Maine — Rural voters check the box for Republicans on Election Day. Urban ones vote for Democrats.
So goes the conventional political wisdom. But a report released Wednesday by a pair of researchers at the University of New Hampshire indicates that particular demographic chestnut misses the mark.
“Rural America is not the undifferentiated whole often depicted by commentators,” Dante Scala and Kenneth Johnson, the researchers behind the study, wrote. “Our research documents the recent political diversification of rural America, which has helped to create several new swing states that are now battlegrounds in presidential elections.”
The study, “ Red Rural, Blue Rural,” shows that, in general, Republican presidential candidates fare better in rural counties dominated by farming and Democratic presidential candidates perform significantly better in rural counties where the economy is focused on recreation and amenities.
Scala and Johnson’s analysis shows, for example, that President Barack Obama earned 42 percent of the vote in the nation’s rural-recreational counties in 2012 compared with just 26 percent of rural-farm counties.
(One caveat, from the study’s authors: “It is important to recognize that not all of rural America is dominated by farming and recreation. Nor is all farming and recreational activity limited to these county types. … But, recreational and farm counties represent two poles that serve to underscore the political differences within rural America.”)
The study considered presidential election trends dating back to 2000, Scala said in an interview Wednesday.
While it’s clear the GOP still holds an edge in rural America, the UNH professors show the edge is much slimmer in some rural counties than others.
How does Maine look? Recent election results fall in line with Scala and Johnson’s findings. Here’s how:
Maine has five metropolitan counties. Ignore them for a minute. County classifications set by the U.S. Office of Management and Budget are the gold standard for demographers looking to study this sort of thing. According to OMB, Penobscot, Androscoggin, Sagadahoc, Cumberland and York counties are metropolitan, with 18 of the state’s 20 most populous municipalities located within their borders.
Technically, Maine has no farm-dependent counties. That may surprise residents of Aroostook and Washington counties, where potatoes and blueberries, respectively, reign supreme. Together, those two counties account for nearly half of Maine’s agricultural sales, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Somerset — the only other significant farming county, with 11 percent of the state’s agricultural sales — ranks third. Rounding out the top five are Androscoggin and Penobscot, which aren’t considered rural counties at all — so, again, ignore them.
Regardless, “Red Rural, Blue Rural” depends on the USDA’s categorization for determining which counties are rural-farming. None of Maine’s meet the threshold to earn that designation, making a strict reading of how the state measures up to the reports analysis a bit tricky.
The state has several rural-recreation counties, and they generally leaned more heavily toward Democrats than the three rural counties that top the agricultural output list. You can thank Acadia National Park, the mountains and ski resorts of western Maine and the tourist towns in midcoast for making Hancock, Franklin, Oxford, Knox and Lincoln all rural-recreational counties, according to the USDA.
Each of those five counties went for Obama by much wider margins than Aroostook, Washington or Somerset. Knox County went for Obama by a 22 percent margin in 2008 and 2012, making it second only to metropolitan Cumberland County as a Democratic stronghold in both years.
The smallest Democratic lean in a rural-recreational county — excepting Piscataquis, but more on that in a moment — was in Lincoln County, which supported Obama by a 12-point margin in both elections when he was the Democratic nominee.
Compare that with Aroostook County, which had the biggest Democratic lean of the three top agricultural producers and went for Obama by 10 points in 2008 and 8 points in 2012.
In an interview Wednesday, Scala said rural-recreational counties lean more leftward than their farm-reliant counterparts because of a “one-two punch” of retiree migration from metropolitan areas and the ensuant migration of young service-sector workers that follow them.
“We’re seeing it here in New Hampshire,” he said. “[In] some of the northern counties, ancestral Yankee Republicans with plaid jackets, they’ve either moved to Florida or the hereafter. They’re being replaced by new retirees from places like New Jersey or New York, who bring their politics with them.
“They have needs, which they want satisfied in the local economy,” he added. “A service economy springs up around those migrants to provide the amenities they desire. … So it’s not just older people but younger people moving in because they see economic opportunities in providing those services.”
Piscataquis County is an outlier in Maine presidential politics. Of all the counties in Maine, only Piscataquis — a rural-recreational county that’s home to Baxter State Park — went for the GOP candidates in the past two presidential elections. Piscataquis voters favored U.S. Sen. John McCain, 51-47, in 2008 and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, 50-46, in 2012.
Piscataquis has a long history of going Republican even when the rest of Maine solidly is blue. Since 1968, the GOP presidential candidate has only lost the county twice — in 1992, when Ross Perot won a plurality, and in 1996, when Democrat Bill Clinton won.
While Piscataquis is an outlier in Maine, it more closely mirrors similar counties across the country. In Scala and Johnson’s findings, rural recreational counties still generally favor the GOP candidate in presidential races but by a smaller margin than rural-farming counties. Piscataquis’ four-point margin for Republican candidates in the last two cycles is well in line with those findings.
Apologies to Waldo and Kennebec counties. Neither factored into the analysis above.
Kennebec is classified as “nonmetro-micropolitan” by the OMB, the only county in the state to earn the designation, which is a sort of gray area between urban and rural counties. Those two municipalities out of the 20 most-populous in the state that aren’t in any of the five metropolitan counties? They’re Augusta and Waterville, both located in Kennebec County.
Waldo County is rural but, despite its outsize reputation for farming, it ranks just ninth in the state for agricultural sales.
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.