That prospect has prompted pushback from some of the remaining rural Democrats against the idea that the party can, in effect, ignore the county map and focus solely on maximizing its advantage in the metro areas already trending toward it. “Basically what I’m saying is, Stop it,” says Heidi Heitkamp, the former Democratic senator from North Dakota who is a co-founder of the One Country Project, a group focused on rebuilding Democratic strength in rural America.
Trump’s fixation with the county map shows, not for the first time, how he equates geography with the size of his coalition. While counties that supported Trump accounted for fully 85 percent of the nation’s landmass, according to calculations by The New York Times, he won just less than 46 percent of the total votes cast in 2016. Clinton’s counties covered only 15 percent of the nation’s landmass, but she won 48 percent of the vote. In other words, despite Trump’s cartographic claims of political dominance, dirt doesn’t vote.
“Certainly, over time, a Republican Party that caters to nonurban areas is not going to win,” says Joshua D. Ambrosius, a political scientist at the University of Dayton who has studied the geography of presidential elections. “It is within this cultural backlash to the Obama presidency that Trump is seeing success with a mobilization of rural Americans. As the rural population becomes more Hispanic and the metropolitan population continues to increase, I don’t foresee that strategy working long-term.”
Yet that doesn’t mean the county map is irrelevant to 2020. From the inverse perspective, it illuminates the growing correlation between population density and political preference captured by the population map.
The tendency of Democrats to run better in places with more people per square mile has increased in each presidential election since 2000, according to calculations by the economist Jed Kolko. In 2016, the number of residents per square mile was an even better predictor of how a metro area voted than its total population, its income, its racial diversity, or its share of college graduates, according to an analysis by Richard Florida and his colleagues at the University of Toronto.
These dynamics produced a stark 2016 geographic alignment in which Clinton won 87 of the nation’s 100 largest counties (by a crushing combined margin of about 15 million votes), slightly outpaced Trump in the next 150 largest counties, but got walloped by him in more than 2,500 of the remaining 2,850 smaller counties.
In the 2018 midterm elections, how the parties performed in House races largely followed this pattern. Democrats made sweeping gains in the inner suburbs of large metropolitan areas from coast to coast—not only in traditional Democratic-leaning areas such as Philadelphia, Chicago, and Denver, but also around Sun Belt cities that had previously tilted toward the GOP, including Richmond, Charleston, Atlanta, Houston, and Dallas. But the party barely nudged the dominance over exurban, small-town, and rural districts that Republicans have enjoyed since their sweeping gains in 2010.