When Politics Override Place: How Thinking About Political Affiliation Affects Rural Identity
by Asher Smith and Thomas Hershewe
Over the past 50 years, people in rural areas have become more likely to vote Republican, and areas in and around big cities have become more likely to vote Democratic. Undeniably, there is an observable relationship between living in a rural area and voting republican. Our research examines that relationship on a more individual level. Does being a Republican make one feel inclined to identify as rural? Does being a Democrat make one feel inclined to not identify as rural?
Certainly, the conventional political wisdom is that yes, people do make a connection between rural-ness and Republican-ness. Republican campaign rhetoric often channels feelings of rural identity as a strategy to appeal to rural voters and rural identity does seem to overlap with conservative ideology and Republican partisanship. Additionally, we know that one’s partisan identity can change seemingly fixed personal identities, such as sexuality and evangelical affiliation. Is rural identity similarly affected by politics?
As part of the Tufts Public Opinion Lab poll from October 2022, we ran a survey experiment that aimed to answer these questions. If partisan and place-based identities were indeed related, we would expect that having respondents think about their partisan affiliations would change how they responded to questions about their rural affiliation.
After requesting demographic information, we asked half of the respondents to write a few words describing how they feel about Democrats and Republicans, aiming to ‘prime’ them to think about their partisan affiliations. The other half of our sample did not perform this task and therefore were not primed in the same way. Next, we asked all respondents three multiple choice questions that aimed to quantify their rural identification and how important that rural identity was to them. The three questions were:
- To what extent do you think of yourself as being a small town or rural resident?
- How important is being a small town or rural resident to you?
- When talking about small town or rural residents, how often do you use “we” instead of “they?”
Answers to the questions were placed on a numerical scale with 5 being the most rural and 1 being the least rural. These numbers are then added together for each respondent to arrive at a rural identity score between 3 and 15, with higher being more rural. We predicted that Republicans who were asked about the political parties would express more rural identity, and that Democrats who were asked about the political parties would express less rural identity.
Ultimately, seeing the question asking about political parties did not have a significant effect on Republicans’ rural identification, regardless of whether the respondents were from rural or urban areas. For Democrats, the results differed based on where the respondents lived. Democrats who live in suburban or urban areas did not report different levels of rural identity after being asked about the political parties. However, rural and small town Democrats report lower levels of rural identity after being asked about the political parties–with levels of rural identity falling to a similar level as suburban and urban respondents.
So why do rural/small town democrats express a lower level of rural identity when primed to be thinking about the political parties? Our hypothesis is that simultaneously holding “contradicting” identities — like being a rural person and Democrat — makes someone more likely to have different responses based on whether they are subconsciously thinking about being a Democrat. That is, when a rural Democrat is primed to think in a partisan mindset, their identity of “Democrat” becomes more salient than it would be otherwise. This shift leaves respondents’ original rural identity less salient, resulting in rural identity responses in line with urban respondents. In other words, the respondents’ rural identity is overridden by their Democratic identity when they are thinking about politics.
For more information on our research and the relationship between rural and partisan identities, take a look at our working paper posted on the Tufts Public Opinion Lab website.