With a population density of 0.1058 inhabitants/km², Garfield County in Montana can almost claim to be the most sparsely populated place in America. Only one county in Texas (Loving) and one county in Nevada (Esmerelda) have fewer people per square kilometer. Garfield County can also make a pretty good claim on being the most Republican county in the United States.
The last Democratic Presidential candidate to carry the county was Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940. In the last five Presidential elections no Democratic candidate has managed to receive more than 16%. In the 2000 presidential election Republican George W. Bush won 89% of the vote to Democrat Al Gore’s 7%. In the 2004 presidential election, Garfield County gave 92.08% of its votes to President George W. Bush, with John Kerry receiving 6.21% of the vote. In the 2008 presidential election, Senator John McCain received 87.2% with Senator Barack Obama receiving 9.1%. In the 2012 presidential election, Governor Mitt Romney received 90.2% of the vote with president Barack Obama receiving only 6.4% of the vote. In the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump received 91.20% of the vote while Hillary Clinton got 4.75% of the vote.
Garfield County is also Republican at a local level. Democratic governor Brian Schweitzer has never received more than 28% of the county’s vote and no Democratic gubernatorial candidate has carried the county in decades.
After they counted the votes from the special election last night, it turned out that Garfield County went for the Republican by a 90.2% to 5.4% margin. Only 29 citizens of Garfield County cast their ballot for the Democrat, Rob Quist. The Libertarian candidate got 24 votes.
That the Democrats are basically a third-party in Garfield County can be seen from the fact that Bill Clinton only carried 14.3% to Ross Perot’s 9.2% in the 1996 election. But notice that Al Gore got less than half of that percentage four years later (when the true third party vote dropped to 4.3%), and that Hillary Clinton got barely more than a third of that last November (when the third party vote was also 4.3%).
There aren’t enough votes in Garfield County to matter a whole lot, but when Democrats do this badly you see things like Trump netting 619 votes out of a county that only cast 718, and Greg Gianforte netting 457 votes when the county only cast 539. To understand the import of this, consider that Rob Quist carried Hill County, Montana last night where almost 5,000 votes were cast, but it only netted him 17 votes. Quist would have had to carry 26 Hill Counties to match his losses in Garfield.
If Garfield County were an isolated incident, it would just be a bizarrely Republican place with almost no people. But it’s actually an extreme example of what has happened in many counties in Montana over the last twenty years, and particularly in the last eight. And it’s not just Montana. Erosion of Democratic support in sparsely populated areas has been going on all across the country, and most fatally in the Upper Midwest in the last election. Even if the Democrats were never going to win some of these counties, the size of their losses add up and matter a lot. There are a lot of counties where Democrats used to be very competitive and win local races and send people to the state legislatures but where they no longer have even a puncher’s chance.
Montana’s taking a lot of abuse this morning because they just elected a guy who has been charged with misdemeanor assault for body-slamming and punching a reporter without really any provocation at all. But it shouldn’t surprise us that there are areas that are willing to overlook that and give more than nine out of ten of their votes to the criminal. If these areas respected reporters and newspapers, they would have been influenced by the fact that almost no editorial board in the country endorsed Donald Trump for president. Instead, these areas gave a much higher percentage of their vote to Trump than they had to Romney or McCain. Most of the movement to Trump actually came from folks who had voted for Obama rather than from newly engaged folks or from folks abandoning right-wing third parties.
There are a lot of things to worry us in these facts and figures, but one of them is that we can see what happens when these communities don’t have a left-wing alternative to Republicanism. They turn harsh and uncharitable, and the way they express their populist sentiments becomes indistinguishable from fascism. In the recent past, the Blue Dog model of centrism did well enough to win in some places and blunt the losses in others allowing for the party to compete statewide. But that model has collapsed and can’t be revived. These folks need an actual left-wing alternative and what we’ve been offering them has been driving them away in droves. For a while, it was thought that it wouldn’t matter. This was best expressed by Chuck Schumer in 2016 when he predicted, “For every blue-collar Democrat we lose in western Pennsylvania, we will pick up two moderate Republicans in the suburbs in Philadelphia, and you can repeat that in Ohio and Illinois and Wisconsin.” When the results came in, the truth was that nearly the exact opposite happened. And I want to emphasize that it was primarily Democrats who were lost.
Now, the news from last night wasn’t all bad, as you can see by looking at how the results compared to the most recent elections in Montana.
MT-AL in 2016: Ryan Zinke 56%, Denise Juneau 40% (R+16)
MT in 2016 (presidential results): Trump 57%, Clinton 36% (R+21)
MT-AL in 2017: Gianforte 50%, Quist 44% — with 98% reporting (R+6)
Quist clearly improved on Juneau and Clinton’s performance and there are a lot of districts where that degree of improvement will be enough to bring victory. If trends continue, it’s very possible that the Democrats can win back control of the House of Representatives next year. But they haven’t solved their rural problem, and it’s a problem that must be understood in all its ramifications. The Democrats will not win back control of state legislatures if they can’t even compete in most counties in the country. They will continue to lose governors races in places like Maryland and Vermont and New Hampshire and Massachusetts that are still blue in presidential elections. They’ll discover that they can’t expand their Electoral College map and have to play defense in places like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania and Iowa where they had been consistently winning. Republicans will continue to feel more threatened by primaries than general elections, pushing them ever further to the right, and even when their candidates assault reporters or murder people on Fifth Avenue, they’ll still win elections. A virulent form of right-wing populism will grow and perhaps metastasize into something violent.
There are consequences to this realignment, and none of them are good for the Democrats or the nation.
So, it won’t do to cast all these folks as deplorables and wait from them to die off. It’s simply not true that none of them were ever going to vote for the Democrats no matter what because a lot of them voted for Barack Obama once if not twice. They have problems in their communities and right now the only party offering them something they’re willing to hear is the Republican Party. They need a left-wing alternative that isn’t complacent about their difficulties.
There are two assumptions that interfere with the Democrats accepting these facts. The first is that these folks are beyond reach and that the only way to appeal to them is to adopt right-wing attitudes about cultural issues. This would be selling out the party base as well as principles that should not be violated. The second assumption is that they can be reached, but only with the kind of economic populism proposed by Bernie Sanders. Both assumptions are wrong, and their flaws are compounded by a lack of understanding that the Democrats don’t need to win a majority in these areas, but only to reverse the trend away from them.
I have a piece in the upcoming issue of the Washington Monthly on how the Democrats can do better in rural areas without compromising their principles. Keep your eye out for it, because I’m hoping to kickstart this conversation and get it out of the well-worn ruts its been trapped in since Donald Trump inexplicably won the election.