The trend is already hindering Republicans. “Rep. Pat Ryan prevailed in a close race over his Republican opponent in an August special election in upstate New York,” POLITICO reported, “in part because rural voters came out to the polls at lower rates than voters in more populated places in his bellwether congressional district.”
The turning point in rural voters’s motivation appears to be the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision, which overturned Roe v Wade. “A POLITICO analysis of turnout data before and after Roe v. Wade was struck down in June shows that voters in rural counties were less motivated to cast ballots than those in more Democratic-leaning suburbs and cities after the Supreme Court decision.”
While the results of special elections should be taken with a grain of salt — they do not perfectly forecast upcoming elections — a slew of special election results clearly show the rural voter apathy trend. In New York, Nebraska, and Minnesota, “the portion of registered voters who cast ballots averaged 27 percent in suburban and urban counties, compared to 22 percent in rural counties,” POLITICO reported. Before the Dobbs decision, rural voters voted in numbers comparable to their suburban and urban counterparts, and in elections where rural turnout was suppressed, Democrats benefited, securing a higher percentage of the overall vote than they did during Biden’s 2020 campaign.
Multiple theories have been flouted to explain why rural voters are staying home. Some pundits believe that rural voters are satisfied with the Dobbs ruling – and no longer politically motivated as a result of landing their white whale, so to speak.
“A lot of rural voters, they’re more conservative religiously and they were very mobilized by abortion and now they think they’ve won,” Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster, said. “Whenever you see a kind of falling-off of pro-life voters because they’re less engaged, you’re going to see that particularly in rural areas.”
“Republicans have been doing a lot better in rural areas over these last few cycles. And they finally kind of caught the car bumper. Urban and rural folks didn’t necessarily think that Roe would be overturned or they’d work on a nationwide abortion ban. I think it’s suppressing some of the Republican interest in rural areas…in rural areas where access to affordable and quality health care is already challenged, when you turn around and say that you’ll have no reproductive health care in many states, I think that’s in part why we’re seeing what we’re seeing.”
Republicans are trying to diagnose suppressed rural turnout, too. Ryan Girdusky, a Republican political consultant, “blamed the results on messaging by the GOP that didn’t appeal to rural voters,” POLITICO reported. “Trump’s success in exciting those voters, he said, showed that they are motivated by issues such as crime, immigration, homelessness and education.”
Michael McAdams, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, is not concerned, however. McAdams doesn’t believe special election results are a reliable method for forecasting upcoming general elections. McAdams also believes that rural voters have plenty of incentive to vote in the upcoming election.
“You look at gas prices, that hurts rural voters the most. You look at what’s going on with inflation, rural voters tend to be less affluent, and inflation impacts people making less than $1000,000 far more than people who make over $100,000,” McAdams said.
John Couvillon, a Republican pollster, agrees. “Even though the special elections are giving the Democrats psychologically a little bit of a lift, to me it’s not the same test environment as, say, an all-party primary in Washington.”
All will be revealed come November.
Harrison Kass is the Senior Defense Editor at 19FortyFive. An attorney, pilot, guitarist, and minor pro hockey player, he joined the US Air Force as a Pilot Trainee but was medically discharged. Harrison holds a BA from Lake Forest College, a JD from the University of Oregon, and an MA from New York University. He lives in Oregon and listens to Dokken. Follow him on Twitter @harrison_kass.