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NERDSCREEN: The Rural America Divide

Many in rural America are finding their social and political views at odds with this week's news on trade, same-sex marriage and the health care law.
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There are many divides in American politics. There's red and blue and black and white. But some of the starkest differences exist between rural and urban America. And events in the news this past week only highlighted the size of those divides.

On trade, the Affordable Care Act and same-sex marriage, rural America has different opinions than those who live in urban and suburban areas, according to polling data. And on each of those issues, the news out of Washington over the past few days has signaled a negative shift.

Consider Congress’s action Wednesday renewing presidential fast track trade authority, which happened thanks to Republican votes. The bill not only gave President Barack Obama a legislative victory (rural Americans are regularly the least supportive of the president), it also paves the way for the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal.

Americans are generally leery of trade deals, but those who live in rural areas are particularly skeptical. Nationally, 34% of Americans say free trade between the United States and foreign countries has hurt the United States, while 29% say it has helped. That's according to the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.

Nerdscreen Free Trade Graphic
NBC News

But in rural America, 50% say it has hurt and only 18% say it has helped. That’s a 32-point anti-trade difference.

Thursday’s 6-3 Supreme Court ruling upholding subsidies in the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare, also hit rural Americans particularly hard. Americans in general have mixed feelings about the ACA, 50% say it needs major overhauls or that it should be scrapped entirely according to the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.

But in rural America opinions aren’t divided. The numbers are much more sharply against the law, with 63% saying it should be completely overhauled or eliminated. Rural America also has the highest percentage of people saying the law should be eliminated, sitting at 34%. Nationally that figure is only 25%.

Friday’s ruling was the capper, a 5-4 decision from the Supreme Court legalizing same-sex marriage in all 50 states. Poll numbers on gay marriage have done a remarkable U-turn in recent years and the country has moved from opposition to support.

In the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, 57% of Americans said they wanted the Court to rule in favor of gay marriage, 37% opposed that outcome -- a 20-point gap in favor.

But the numbers were different in rural America. Only 46% said they wanted the Court to legalize gay marriage and 47% said they did not want the Court to do it. The great swing of public opinion has not moved the needle in rural places.

Nerdscreen Rural America Same-Sex Marriage Graphic
NBC News

The numbers here only emphasize that even if America is changing – a topic we wrote about recently – it is not changing uniformly or at the same pace everywhere. Rural America is increasingly a different place than the rest of the United States on major policy issues.

People there feel the political ground moving under them. The numbers suggest they feel more and more isolated and that has meaning for the upcoming presidential campaign.

Rural America is big base of votes for Republican candidates. In 2012, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney won 61% of the vote out of rural locales.

Whoever wins the Republican nomination in 2016 is going to have to find a way to inspire GOP’s rural base, while still trying to appeal tocrucial suburban swing voters. Weeks like this past one show how hard that may be.

Increasingly the urban-rural divide looks less like a political split and more like socio-economic and cultural chasm that looks very difficult to bridge.