Rural and urban communities in Colorado and across the country were politically divided before the pandemic. MSU Denver experts weigh in on how and why the COVID-19 crisis is exacerbating the division.
Looming economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic could exacerbate feelings of resentment between rural and urban areas across the U.S. and in Colorado, political scientists say. And the frustration is growing, not among people the most affected by cases of the virus but instead among those affected the least.
Look at a map of COVID-19 cases in Colorado alongside one of political affiliation, and you’ll get a sense of what’s happening across the country, said Robert R. Preuhs, Ph.D., professor and chair of political science at Metropolitan State University of Denver.
“For most of the state, they overlap pretty consistently,” Preuhs said. “Where we have a high number of COVID-19 cases in the state, there also happen to be more Democrats residing there. Where we have a higher Republican population, we have fewer cases of COVID-19.”
Democratic-leaning areas with the most cases are in cities. Republican-leaning rural areas have experienced fewer cases while at the same time expressing “more pushback and resentment” toward economic shutdowns and restrictions that prevent people from working, Preuhs said.
That pushback was on display at the state Capitol in April, when hundreds of people protested the state’s stay-at-home order and business closures.
“The issue is that a blanket policy was imposed across the state that didn’t pass the cost-benefit test,” said Alex Padilla, Ph.D., an associate professor of economics at MSU Denver.
“There is no silver bullet that would fix the problem – we are talking about a virus,” Padilla said. “But circumstances vary across areas.”
Even before the pandemic, Americans in rural communities were more likely to say residents of other types of communities don’t understand their problems. Seventy percent said so in rural areas, 65% in urban areas and 52% in the suburbs, according to the 2018 report “What Unites and Divides Urban, Suburban and Rural Communities” by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center. Rural Americans were also less optimistic about their financial future: If they didn’t think they had enough money then, they were much less likely to think they ever would.
Meanwhile, as rural areas have become more Republican over the past decade, urban areas have become more Democratic, a situation that can further aggravate partisan feelings.
“A highly polarized political environment tends to influence individuals’ interpretations of reality,” Preuhs said. Colorado’s Democratic leadership placing restrictions on Republican-leaning areas with relatively fewer cases creates a sense of “Democrats telling Republicans what to do.
“You kind of heighten that tension between rural and urban interests, and it may make it that much harder for rural areas to accept,” Preuhs said.
While the state has started to ease restrictions and individual counties are deciding in certain cases how best to reopen, the lingering financial effects may be yet to peak. With more people in rural areas, on average, living in poverty than in urban areas, plus lower wages, fewer jobs that can be done remotely from home and fewer people in the workforce overall, rural Americans could be the most deeply affected financially in the long run.
On the other hand, as blanket restrictions or stay-at-home orders ease, rural communities with fewer cases of the virus may return to normal faster than urban areas, according to Padilla.
“Population density is what makes things tricky when it comes to COVID-19,” he said. “The denser the population, the more difficult it will be to return to normal.”
In any case, the economic fallout from the pandemic will deepen the political divide, according to Padilla, as elected leaders use the crisis for political gain and to criticize opponents.
“Instead of trying to listen to advice from scientists and economists, politicians on both side of the aisle have used this crisis as political tool to lead their campaigns,” he said. “The crisis has increased the divide between both parties, and unfortunately, Americans are paying the price for it, a very steep price.”
Colorado’s rural-vs.-urban political profile isn’t a perfect match for the country at large. Colorado has a slightly higher percentage of voters who aren’t affiliated with a political party, not to mention the remote ski-resort areas that lean Democratic. But even those unaffiliated voters tend to stick with a party, Preuhs said.
In terms of this November’s election, if people decide to vote for a different party, Preuhs thinks their decision will be based on the president’s overall performance and particularly how the country is doing in the six months leading up to the election.
“People aren’t going to change their minds on who they vote for because of COVID-19,” Preuhs says. “One thing that will have an effect is economic performance – where we are with the economy. How much will it change between now and November?”
He hopes the political frustration won’t spill over any further.
“If we don’t get another outbreak,” he said, “it may be that things will quiet down.”
Additional reporting by Matt Watson and John Arnold