Of all the trends one can associate with Donald Trump’s election as president, one of the most obvious was his impressive performance among small-town and rural voters. According to one estimate, Trump won micropolitan communities (counties outside metropolitan areas that have a city with a population between 10,000 and 50,000) by a 62-33 margin, as compared to Romney’s 58-41 margin in 2012, and won rural areas (counties outside metropolitan areas with no town with over 10,000 people) by a 66-29 margin, as compared to Romney’s 60-38 margin.
Politico notes exit-poll data showing that the rural and small-town boost for Trump was particularly important in the “Clinton firewall” states where Trump achieved his electoral college breakthrough:
In Michigan, Trump appears to have won rural and small towns 57 percent to 38 percent, exit polls analyzed by NBC show, faring much better than Mitt Romney in 2012, who won the same group 53-46. In Pennsylvania, Trump blew Clinton out of the water among rural and small-town voters, 71-26 percent, according to exit polls. In 2012, Romney pulled 59 percent. In Wisconsin, Trump won the demographic 63-34 percent.
Many words have been written about how Trump’s politics of nostalgia and resentment has particularly resonated in majority-white communities that perceive themselves as being left behind in 21st-century America. But it remains a bit unclear how much of Trump’s appeal in non-urban, non-suburban parts of the country is economic and how much is cultural.
We may soon have an answer in rural communities that still largely depend on agriculture for jobs and income. While it did not get much, if any, national attention during the presidential general election, it may soon matter a lot that Trump is largely at odds with the farm lobby when it comes to two of his signature economic policy issues: his opposition to trade agreements and to comprehensive immigration reform. The American Farm Bureau has traditionally viewed trade agreements — particularly those with fast-growing Asian countries — as creating export opportunity for farmers and agribusinesses. It strongly supported the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement that Trump (and eventually Clinton) opposed. And it has also favored comprehensive immigration reform in order to stabilize the farm-labor supply and protect undocumented migrant farm workers.
Like any business lobby, of course, the Farm Lobby tends to align itself with Republican demands for lower taxes and regulations, especially environmental regulation. But Wall Street isn’t the only source of GOP support for trade deals and legalization of undocumented workers, and Trump will have to deal with significant “heartland” opposition to any radical steps in these areas. If push comes to shove, we may find out quickly whether it is the American Farm Bureau or Trump who is poorly aligned with the economic views of rural and small-town voters. That may indirectly tell us whether hostility to “liberal” and “multicultural” urban values is what is really driving these voters to Trump and the GOP — an affection for the culture of the 1950s more than a determination to bring back lost jobs and fading industries.