The Republican Dilemma: Shrinking Rural Population Base Driving Policy Decisions

Data should drive good decision making.  Whether in business or government, major decisions need to be based upon the needs and wants of a growing customer base.  In government, that customer base is voters.  Constituencies that support public officials also matter as they can create positive economic, health, education or other outcomes based upon sound public policy decisions. Today’s Post-Trump Republican Party is facing a crisis as public officials are focused on the perspective of a vocal minority from primarily rural communities over the objections of urban and suburban communities and the business community.

Of course, this conflict is about COVID 19. Rural communities across the United States have far lower COVID 19 vaccination rates than urban centers.

Rural vaccination rates are lower than metropolitan rates even though the current rural infection rate surpasses the urban rate in 38 states according to the Center for Disease Control.  The highest vaccination rates are in suburban communities.  A slim majority of rural voters do not believe the COVID 19 vaccine is needed.  That has translated into Republican state policy makers who overwhelming represent rural communities to be aligned with these voters opposing public health efforts to end the COVID 19 crisis.  In fact, recently, the Ohio General Assembly, over the strong objections of Ohio businesses, passed legislation trampling on the rights of employers to manage their companies through the COVID 19 crisis by limiting employer vaccine mandates.  The Republican Party from Abraham Lincoln through William McKinley onto Ronald Reagan has been politically aligned with the U.S. business leadership in the hopes that policies that support business growth and regulate business less create stronger companies and a higher standard of living—the result has made the United States the largest and most successful economy on the earth. COVID 19 is unraveling that partnership.  That unraveling of alliances between the Republicans and business leadership may not be the largest challenge Republicans face.  Republican alignment with this slim majority of rural voters links them to a voter group that gets smaller and smaller every year. Again, look at Ohio.

As the 2020 U.S. Census Bureau map outlines above, Republicans are aligning their political future with a region in the state that is losing its people.  59 Ohio counties actually lost population—most of them were rural—from 2010 to 2020. Central Ohio is massing people clearly from elsewhere in the state.  Urban Franklin County added 153,000 people from 2010-20.  Franklin County was the Republican center of the state but that has changed.  Democrats now dominate not only Ohio’s urban centers but many suburban communities in Hamilton (Cincinnati), Franklin (Columbus) and Cuyahoga (Cleveland) counties.  The new legislative districts drawn by the majority Republicans illustrate they understand the political challenge as rural districts have become bigger to capture the number of voters needed and the urban and suburban districts have become more plentiful and smaller—and more Democratic.  What is going to happen if the Democrats begin to dominate the high-growth ex-urban counties that have long been Republican centers of power that favor COVID 19 vaccinations?  The data tells you the answer—Democrats begin to take back Statehouses and the Congress.  Republican populism over the COVID 19 vaccine employer mandates are a dangerous step that alienates their strongest policy partner and suburban voters that will dictate their future.