Urban-Rural Divide in State Political Parties

Zoe Nemerever (University of California, San Diego)

Abstract: The urban-rural divide in American politics typically is presented as a comprehensive explanation for electoral outcomes. Yet, no research directly examines variations in the urban-rural divide across the states. This project is the first to quantitatively measure meaningful political differences between rural and non-rural citizens, across states and within parties. I create new state-level measures of the urban-rural divide on social and economic policy by applying the Item Response Theory (IRT) model of Caughey, Warshaw, and Dunham (2018) to over 300,000 responses on the Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES) from 2006-2018. I select only questions that are relevant to state policy jurisdiction so that I may map preferences to state policy. This project improves on previous measures of mass state ideology by coding respondents on the urban-rural spectrum according to a holistic battery of four criteria. I find a clear ideological divide between rural and non-rural voters within each party that cannot be attributed to demographic or socioeconomic differences. I use these measures of mass social and economic liberalism to test a new theory of party representation in which rural voters are caught between the Democrat and Republican parties because neither party represents them on both social and economic issues. Specifically, the Democratic party alienates rural voters by taking far-left stances on salient social issues. In contrast, the Republican party pursues lower levels of spending and government intervention than what is desired by many rural voters. To test this theory, I apply the IRT model to over 7,000 state legislative candidates’ responses to Project Vote Smart’s National Political Aptitude Test from the same period as the CCES, 2006-2018. This approach captures the parties’ de facto ideology, as expressed by the candidates running under a party’s label, rather than the ideology of the official party platform, which entails institutional procedures that are heterogeneous across the states. Do state parties better represent the ideologies of rural or non-rural co-partisans? Analyses reveal that Republican parties are far more responsive to the preferences of rural co-partisans on social issues and moderately more responsive on economic issues. In contrast, Democratic parties are more responsive to non-rural co-partisans on both economic and social issues. Rural and non-rural co-partisans do not receive equal ideological representation by state parties. This finding merits future research on what conditions exacerbate or ameliorate this democratic deficit.

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