A Hunch About Republicans, Cities and “Voter Fraud”

There has been much alarm and amusement about the fact that apparently over 70% of Republicans think that the election could be “stolen” from Donald Trump. As Trump ratchets up the rhetoric claiming the election is “rigged” against him and the GOP continues to pound the “voter fraud” drum despite the evidence showing that it basically doesn’t exist, his loyal flock has followed suit. Visit any conservative forum like Free Republic and you’ll see that they take as gospel the notion that Democrats cheat at the ballot box. They never quite specify how, but it’s almost always a dark conspiracy about dead and fictitious people voting in urban precincts.

Simple racism is the easiest and most obvious explanation for such fears. The assumption is that Democratic puppetmasters are paying droves of indigent minorities to take on assumed identities and stuff ballot boxes in nefarious schemes. It’s all part of the implicit assumption that minority votes are inherently illegitimate and that the only way “those people” can win is by cheating and inflating their numbers.

But I think there’s an added component to it. I don’t have any data to back it up, but anecdotal evidence from my own upbringing as well as conservative relatives has always suggested to me that suburban and rural conservatives dramatically underestimate how many people live in urban areas. If you come from a rural or exurban, predominantly white neighborhood, chances are almost everyone you know is a conservative who votes for Republicans. Moreover, you generally believe that exurban and rural America is what most of America is made of.

I grew up on the outskirts of Riverside, CA, about an hour and a half drive east of Los Angeles in the Mojave desert. It has densified since, but in my childhood it was Republican horse country. To me, Los Angeles was a big and scary place–but in my mind the vast majority of America was like Riverside, not like Los Angeles or New York. Big cities were big, but they weren’t the norm for most people. As it turns out, over 62% of Americans live in incorporated cities. Obviously, not all of these are “big” cities with liberal culture, but that’s still an eye-popping number. This is an even bigger deal politically because big cities tend to be “bluer” than exurban areas are red–which is how even without gerrymandering the advantage would go to Republicans in the House, as overwhelmingly blue urban districts are surrounded by more heterogeneous plum-purple exurban areas.

When my Republican relatives come to the city, they see it as a strange and alien place. It’s alien to them not just from their own experience, but they see it as alien to America itself. And it’s inconceivable to them that the urban centers of the U.S. should not only dictate the culture of the nation, but actually also overwhelm them numerically.

Put simply, these folks have long believed they had a silent majority. And back in the days of Nixon and Reagan, they did. Suburban America was majority America.  But America is a very different place now, and they don’t quite realize what has happened. To them, the transformation has been cultural and to a certain extent demographic. But my hunch based on anecdotal evidence is that they simply don’t understand that they’re outnumbered.

More people live in cities than live outside of them. And we vote. Legally. Usually for Democrats. And exurban Republicans tend to dramatically underestimate just how many of us there are.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.