Economy

6 States Where Non-Wealthy Rural White People Actually Vote In Their Economic Interests Instead of Jamie Dimon's

White and rural often means far-right Republican. Not in these states.

Much has been written about rural, working-class whites in Kansas, Oklahoma, North Dakota and Nebraska (not to mention much of the Deep South) who vote Republican time and time again even though it is not in their economic interests to do so. Meanwhile, many of the whites who tend to be more liberal/progressive in their voting patterns or at least identify as centrist Blue Dog Democrats are more likely to live in densely populated urban areas than in small towns of the Bible Belt. Millions of whites (especially white women) voted for President Barack Obama in both 2008 and 2012 and they were more likely to live in densely populated areas like Boston, Chicago, Pittsburgh or the Silicon Valley than in small towns in Kansas. However, there are some interesting exceptions to that rule. In parts of New England, the Pacific Northwest and the Upper Midwest, one finds pockets of white, rural, blue-collar voters who lean to the left politically.

The reasons typically cited for a rural, predominantly white area having a significant liberal/progressive streak can vary. Some rural liberals might be former city dwellers who wanted a lower cost of living and made the transition from San Francisco or the Silicon Valley to small towns in the Pacific Northwest or from New York City or Boston to small towns in Maine or Vermont

Another reason typically offered is the influence of the U.S.’ more liberal neighbor to the north: Canada. Vermont, Washington, Maine and Minnesota are all close to the Canadian border (Vermont and Maine are just south of French-speaking Quebec, one of Canada’s most left-leaning provinces). Also, the fact that some northern states were staunchly Republican in the past doesn’t necessarily mean that they lacked progressive politics 60 or 70 years ago: in the 1940s and '50s, many northeastern Republicans were known for being way to the left of Democrats. 

Below are six “blue states” where one finds pockets of rural, working-class whites who realize that economically, they have a lot more in common with urban African-Americans and Latinos than they do with JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon and the rest of the 1%.

1. Vermont

If any New England state stands out as the poster child for being rural, predominantly white and generally liberal/progressive, it is Vermont—which is every bit as rural as any state in the Deep South yet has very different politics from Mississippi, Louisiana or Alabama. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Vermont is the least populous state in New England—its largest city, Burlington, has a population of just over 42,000—and is roughly 95% white. Yet Vermont is where Sen. Bernie Sanders, who proudly describes himself as a “socialist” and makes no bones about his left-of-center politics, was reelected with 71% of the vote in 2012. Sanders, an independent, often votes with Democrats in the U.S. Senate, but his politics are closer to the Green Party and some of the left-wing parties of Western Europe. In polling conducted by Public Policy Polling (PPP) in 2011, Sanders had an approval rating of 67% among Vermont residents.

Many commentators have noted that the Republican Party fared badly among African American, Hispanic and Asian voters in the 2012 presidential election and pointed out that Republican Mitt Romney’s strongest support came from rural whites. But in Vermont, the GOP is having a problem appealing to white, rural, blue-collar voters: a Republican hasn’t carried Vermont in a presidential election since George H.W. Bush, Sr.’s victory in 1988. And the GOP’s homophobic scare tactics are useless in Vermont, where gay marriage has been legal since 2009.

2. Oregon

Republicans love to point out that Baltimore, Detroit, Camden, NJ and other cities run by Democrats have a lot of poverty, yet they fail to mention that some of the most upscale, hyper-gentrified places in the U.S.—from New York City to San Francisco to Seattle to Santa Monica, California—are also dominated by Democrats. Republicans are having a hard time with both the urban poor and urban college-educated professionals, which is why the GOP needs rural working-class whites so desperately. And when a state has as many rural white liberals as Oregon, it’s never good news for the GOP.

Oregon, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, was 83% white in 2010—and that white population is economically diverse, ranging from all the college-educated professionals in Portland (which has a population of over half a million residents) to all the blue-collar workers in Oregon’s small towns and logging areas. Oregon is not devoid of conservatives by any means: eastern Oregon, generally speaking, tends to have more Republicans than western Oregon. Nonetheless, Oregon is known for having a lot of small towns that lean left both socially and economically, and not since Ronald Reagan’s landslide reelection in 1984 has a Republican carried Oregon in a presidential election. For many years, Oregon leaned Republican in presidential races (Richard Nixon carried Oregon in both 1968 and 1972). But it’s important to remember that the GOP of 40 or 50 years ago was much more diverse and nuanced than the GOP of today—Noam Chomsky calls Nixon America’s last liberal president—and the more the GOP moved to the extreme right, the more ground it lost in Oregon.  

3. Washington

Washington’s political and economic landscape is quite comparable to Oregon’s. Seattle epitomizes the ultra-gentrified side of Democratic America—the city is liberal, dominated by Democrats, full of college-educated tech workers and expensive as hell. But there’s much more to Washington State than Seattle, and while Washington has its conservative streak (the late Jim West, Spokane’s far-right Republican mayor from 2003-2005, was a rabid proponent of anti-gay legislation), there are many rural whites in Washington who lean liberal or at least centrist Democrat, especially in the western part of the state. And between Seattle on one hand and all the small towns and rural areas in western Washington that lean liberal, the state has become problematic for the GOP. Even when Democrat Michael Dukakis lost to Bush, Sr. in Vermont and California in 1988, he carried Washington State.

4. Minnesota

Political generalizations can be problematic because for every rule, there are major exceptions. Even though Minnesota is considered a generally liberal state, it is also where Republican wingnut and Tea Party favorite Michelle Bachmann has been serving in the U.S. House of Representatives since 2007. However, Minnesota also has a long tradition of rural liberalism, which some political commentators have attributed to its Scandinavian heritage. Minnesota was 85% white in 2010 (according to the U.S. Census Bureau), and apart from urban areas like Minneapolis/St. Paul and Duluth, it is sparsely populated. However, a Republican hasn’t carried Minnesota in a presidential race since Nixon’s landslide reelection in 1972 (even Ronald Reagan lost in Minnesota in 1980 and 1984), and Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader won 5% of the vote in Minnesota in 2000.

5. New Hampshire

Although not as left-leaning as Vermont, New Hampshire also fits the profile of a New England state that is largely white, rural and liberal or least centrist Blue Dog Democrat. Only one city in New Hampshire, Manchester, has a population that exceeds 100,000, and the state is 93% white. The Greater Manchester/Nashua Area has a total population of around 402,000, but much of New Hampshire is sparsely populated. With those demographics, New Hampshire should be predominantly Republican—and many years ago, it was. But that was back when the GOP had a strong northeastern “Rockefeller wing” that openly supported elements of the New Deal. Moving to the extreme right has caused the GOP to lose a lot of ground in New Hampshire, which has gone Democrat in five of the last six presidential elections. Even though George W. Bush, Jr. managed to carry New Hampshire in 2000, the fact that Democrat John Kerry won the state in 2004 was a repudiation of Bush’s policies on the part of New Hampshire’s white rural voters.

6. Maine

It isn’t hard to see why Maine is troubling to the Republican National Committee: the state is predominantly white (95% in 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau), sparsely populated apart from the Portland area, and has voted Democrat in the last six presidential elections. While anti-gay fear-mongering and pandering to the Christian Right can work for the GOP in Kansas, Texas or Oklahoma, it is a losing strategy in Maine, where in 2012, 53% of the voters favored a bill legalizing same-sex marriage statewide. None of that is to say that Maine is devoid of conservative politics. Republican wingnut Gov. Paul LePage, who is seeking reelection this year, received a lot of Tea Party support during his 2010 campaign, although the more moderate Sen. Susan Collins typifies the GOP’s shrinking “Rockefeller wing.” 

After Bush, Jr.’s victory over Kerry in 2004, Karl Rove spoke of a “permanent Republican majority” and described the Democratic Party as a shrinking, antiquated organization that was appealing only to the Northeast and the West Coast. It was pure fantasy on Rove’s part: Obama’s victories in 2008 and 2012 showed that the Democratic Party has a clear advantage among African American, Latino and Asian voters and attracts a lot of urban whites as well (especially white urban women). Republicans continue to enjoy their strongest support in the rural Bible Belt. But as Vermont, Oregon, Washington, Minnesota, Maine and New Hampshire demonstrate, there are some parts of the U.S. where even rural whites cannot be counted on to support the GOP.

Alex Henderson's work has appeared in the L.A. Weekly, Billboard, Spin, Creem, the Pasadena Weekly and many other publications. Follow him on Twitter @alexvhenderson.