My closest neighbors live more than a mile away. My house is surrounded by wheat fields and pastures. The majority of people living in my tiny town farm for a living, depending on that year’s crop to support them. No one in my community is rich, even by rural standards. And almost all of my neighbors voted for Trump. For the past few years, this dichotomy has baffled me. Why would a relatively poor community throw their support behind an exploitative billionaire? This is not an isolated case either; many rich politicians throughout the US have gained the support of working class Amercicans, especially in the midwest. The extent of this domination can be seen by looking at the makeup of Congress: more than half of its members are millionaires.
There are a few factors out of voters’ control that help the wealthy get elected. Firstly, wealthy people are more likely to run for office. They typically have had a successful career and feel comfortable enough financially to take the risk of running for public office. The cost also plays a huge part; funding a campaign is expensive, costing upwards of 8 million dollars in the last election cycle. The average working class American can’t afford this hefty bill, which leads to the over saturation of wealth in congress. Finally, both Congress and the Senate have a high retention rate for candidates. The Congressional reelection rate has rarely dipped below 90%, and has been as high as 98% in some past election cycles. This means that changing the economic makeup of politicians might be hard, since the majority are millionaires, and they never lose.
However, once in a while the constituents have a chance to elect someone new, maybe even someone who is not a millionaire. For the midwest, it would seem like all the pieces are in place to elect someone with a different background. Midwesterners tend to like hard work and to not trust rich people. So why do we keep electing rich politicians, even when we have the opportunity to elect someone different?
The first key factor lies in rural perception of wealth. The majority of the midwest is Republican (for various reasons) and perceive wealth as a sign of hard work. Pew Research Center conducted a study in 2014 and again in 2018, asking about perceptions of wealth and power in our political system. Both times, Democrats thought that the system unfairly benefits the rich and powerful and that wealthy people had outside beneficial circumstances to achieve their prosperity. On the other hand, Republicans largely believe that the system is fair and that wealth is the outcome of hard work, not beneficial circumstances. In a personal interview with Kansas Senator Tom Hawk, he agreed that this mindset is a driving factor for elections. He believes that there are a few wedge issues that midwest voters typically look for—and vote on—and hard work is one of them. With that mindset, Republicans are more likely to elect rich people, because they are perceived as working hard. Poor people, on the other hand, are perceived as being lazy. Since hard work is so highly valued in midwest culture, it follows that the rich candidate will be elected.
A second key factor in why the midwest elects rich politicians is pure campaign exposure. In large elections—presidential, or even US Senate and House—candidates visit as many places as they can afford to gather as many votes as possible. Typically the candidates start with the most heavily populated areas and work their way out to the rural, unpopulated districts if they have extra resources. However, this shoots the poorer candidates in the foot. Rural Americans don’t trust politicians they’ve never seen, and having some contact with the constituents is immensely helpful for a candidate. For example, in the 2016 election President Trump made sure he visited many rural states and made them feel prioritized. This meant that those states overwhelmingly voted for him. But often, midwest states are overlooked. In fact, only 22 presidents ever came to Kansas during the entirety of their campaigns or presidencies. For many candidates, they don’t have the resources to visit these midwest states and focus on more heavily populated states. But since the electoral college gives rural states a heavy sway in the election, whoever has the money to campaign here typically wins.
Finally, rural voters may vote the way they do out of a misplaced confidence in their candidate. Many of the people living in rural America feel cheated. They feel that the major cities tax them heavily, and they don’t get anything back, no matter how hard they work. They feel that they just need someone who understands hard work to see them and pull them up out of poverty. When this rich (and therefore hard-working) candidate shows up, it’s like their prayers were answered. On the other hand, if they would elect a poor candidate, voters believe the candidate would be pushed around by the cities, and they wouldn’t gain anything. Therefore, rural Americans once again vote for the strong, hardworking, rich candidate.
Rural Americans have their hearts in the right place. They want a dedicated, powerful candidate who takes the time to really see them and their struggles. However, they have equated each of these qualities with being rich—a parallel that doesn’t always actually exist. By looking at each of these mindsets and behavioral patterns, we can start to understand the dichotomy of rural politics.
Elizabeth Miller is a freshman at Hastings College in Nebraska studying Business Management and Political Science. She fell in love with politics through years of high school speech and debate and as a result became involved with local politics as an election judge and volunteer. Elizabeth is excited to write for YIP as it combines writing and politics - two of her favorite things.