Like every year right before Thanksgiving in the U.S., you can’t miss the headlines this week about “the busiest travel day of the year.” They’re a good reminder just how connected Americans are to transportation issues — and they highlight something that’s been largely missing from the 2016 presidential election.
We haven’t heard the candidates talking very much about jammed highways for commuters, orange constructions cones closing lanes, potholes busting up the front-end struts on the car, and late (and often overstuffed) buses and trains. Or how the country needs to spend about $2 trillion on U.S. highways, rail networks and air transportations systems to get them close to functional.
Even though these transportation issues can be solved (theoretically) with political solutions, part of the reason that visionary transportation spending and planning hasn’t been front and center can be found in the politics of rural vs. urban America. The early primary states that are dominating the campaign discussions at this point — Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina — are decidedly less urban than the nation as whole.
The numbers back this up in very clear terms. According to the latest census figures, the nation is split urban/rural by an 80/20 percentage. And those three states are decidedly less urban: Iowa is 64/36, New Hampshire is 60/40, and South Carolina is 66/34. Since Republicans are stronger in rural areas than in urban, and because the national campaign debate is more on the Republican side due to more candidates and a closer race, a lot of the national issues being discussed are ones that appeal to rural voters in those three states.
But the number breakdown is even more striking when you dive a little deeper into the census numbers. The census splits the urban number into “urban areas” (UA), and “urban clusters” (UC). UA are the large city metro areas above 50,000. UC areas are basically small towns that have between 2,500 and 50,000 people.
The 2010 census reports that 71 percent of Americans live in urban areas, 29 percent in rural areas and small towns. The disparity of difference in those three states get remarkably away from the national urban/rural averages when you figure their rural and small town populations added together. Iowa is 58 percent rural and small town, New Hampshire is 53 percent, and South Carolina is 44 percent.
This is not to say the people of Des Moines and Charleston do not have issues they think appropriate and want to have candidates discuss; it just says that the talking points in this campaign are geared toward Republican voters in rural and small town America. Even though only about 30 percent of the country lives in those areas.
Take the issue of immigration reform. The central points of the debate right now are: Should we build a 1,954-mile fence along the U.S./Mexico border, and should we reject the Obama Administration’s plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees next year, up from the 500 per year the U.S. has accepted during the past four years. These points are emphasized because rural/small-town America doesn’t have many immigrants, and so serious discussion of the many facets of immigration reform gets less traction among those voters.
That’s why you don’t hear much about how nine out of 10 of the 40 million foreign-born people in the U.S. live in urban areas. About how many cities see the influx of immigrants as a good economic development strategy, especially when innovation and new ideas are needed in a global marketplace. And that absorbing new immigrants into cities can be good and bad in many respects, but good policy and planning on the federal level is needed to make the system work better.
So the discussion centers more on how a rancher in southern Arizona has to deal with a few hundred people crossing his property occasionally, rather than how cities like Nashville and Indianapolis are not only trying to absorb this new foreign-born population, but to also use them to an advantage for good growth.
And again, part of the reason these deeper issues are not being discussed is that these early primary states do not have large foreign-born populations. About 13 percent of the U.S. population was born in another country, but the three primary states each have less than half the national average (Iowa, 4.6 percent; New Hampshire, 5.3 percent; South Carolina, 4.7 percent).
Thus, the political discussion gets very slanted toward a voter group that doesn’t really represent what is now mainstream, urban-dwelling America. We hear little about targeted visas for specific regions of the country that might want more immigrants, how healthcare reform is vital to inner-city stabilization, how cuts in federal block grant funds might affect urban capital improvement projects, or whether the federal gas tax should be raised or lowered or reformulated to pay for better roads and bridges and highways.
Don’t expect a big change of topics, as the primary schedule unfolds with Iowa and New Hampshire and South Carolina (plus Nevada, which is somewhat of an outlier, being very urban and low-density at the same time). By the time the state primaries start rolling one after another starting in March, much of the national debate will be entrenched, with the discussion centered on whether we should increase the number of Syrian refugees by a few thousand, rather than how 21 metropolitan areas gained at least 100,000 immigrants between 2000 and 2010 and how those cities handled that growth.
Of course, the system allows the presidential candidates to not talk about much that has pros and cons, with some debate attached. And they usually like it that way.
Daniel J. McGraw is a writer living in Lakewood, Ohio.