Philly vs. the farmers: Why rural voters rule in Pennsylvania

The dominance of rural Republicans is bad news for Philadelphia.

Philadelphia has the population, but Pennsylvania’s farmers now have the power.

With Donald Trump winning the presidency, the question of a rural-urban split has developed at a national level. Here in Pennsylvania, similar disadvantages for cities exist within our state. Less populous rural counties have a disproportionate amount of influence, and urban centers like Philadelphia and its suburbs suffer — a disparity further diluted by gerrymandering and the bipartisanship that has risen in recent years between the rural mostly-Republicans and Philadelphia’s Democrats.

“We have this ideological change,” says Terry Madonna, a political science professor at Franklin & Marshall College, “that has made it impossible to do the compromises that were historically done.”   

Despite the numerous farms readily visible on a road trip through the middle of Pennsylvania, and the giant butter sculpture highlighted every January at the Farm Show, we do not live in a rural state. It’s not even close. According to 2010 Census data, about 79 percent of the state’s 12.7 million residents live in urban areas and the remaining 21 percent in rural areas.

But these urban and rural populations are not spread equally. Like the United States, with liberals clustered primarily on the coasts, the urban residents of Pennsylvania are mostly clustered near the borders of the state: think Philly and its surrounding counties, Lehigh County, Erie County and Allegheny County, for instance. The Census defines an urban person as someone who lives in a metropolitan area or in a concentration of at least 2,500 people. Rural populations live outside of those areas.

Of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties, 12 feature rural populations equal to or less than the 21 percent average for the entire state and urban populations of 79 percent or greater. Their total population is 6.9 million, more than half the entire state. With some exceptions, people in these counties are more likely to elect Democrats to state positions.

The other 55 have rural populations of greater than 21 percent, with 27 of those having rural populations of at least 40 percent. They’re more likely to vote Republican.    

For the most part, Pennsylvania’s minority Democratic House and Senate districts match the more urban areas in the corners of the state, the exceptions being a couple of seats in Central PA and Southwest PA that belong to Democrats and a few Republican House seats in urban areas like the Lehigh Valley and Bucks County.

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Wikimedia Commons
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Wikimedia Commons

Those 12 counties with higher urban bases and 55 counties with higher rural bases have about equal representation in the state House and Senate. But redistricting in 2010 set up the rural population for greater influence. The 113th session of Congress, the first to meet after 2011 redistricting led by Republicans, left eight of Pennsylvania’s 18 congressional districts with rural populations higher than the state average. In the 111th session of Congress, before the redistricting, seven districts had rural populations higher than the state average.    

In Harrisburg, the most important state senators are Republicans Joe Scarnati and Jake Corman. Scarnati, the President Pro Tempore, represents Tioga, Elk, Cameron, Potter, McKean, Clearfield, Jefferson and Clinton counties. Corman represents Centre, Juniata and Mifflin counties. They’re basically the bosses of Central and Northern Pa., where the rural residents comprise 55 percent of the population (Potter County, btw, has zero urban residents). On the House side, Speaker Mike Turzai represents urban Allegheny County, but Majority Leader Dave Reed leads 60-percent rural Indiana County. The Republican majority in the House has eight total leadership positions and six of them are filled by legislators representing rural counties.

Greater power in the more rural counties of Pennsylvania wouldn’t necessarily be significant if urban and rural residents agreed on what was good for the state. But differences between these populations are as stark as ever.  

“By definition,” said Susquehanna University political science professor Nick Clark, “the more Republican-leaning rural areas are going to have different priorities than the Democratic-learning urban areas.”

Aaron Renn, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, explained to the New York Times that the industries that drive success in cities “are what worries rural America: globalization, foreign trade, immigration.”

In Pennsylvania, Philadelphia has seen its share of difficulties in getting legislation passed for its benefit. The loud outcry over the exclusion of sexual orientation in hate crime legislation following the 2014 assault on a gay couple in Center City was muffled in Harrisburg. Attempts to enact a similar law statewide died quietly at the committee level.   

Another prolonged struggle involves the state’s tax uniformity clause. Philadelphia business and political leaders have wanted for years to increase taxes on commercial properties but not on residential properties, a move that would require a constitutional amendment and therefore passage through the state legislature two sessions in a row. That’s been no easy feat. It finally passed for the first time during this session, likely because of the person who sponsored the bill, Philadelphia Republican Rep. John Taylor. As of late September, Taylor had more of his bills passed this session, five, than all 23 of Philadelphia’s Democratic House members.   

City leadership is well aware of the difficulties facing Philadelphia. The Mayor’s Office routinely pays for lobbyists to represent it in Harrisburg, and for a time City Council was doing the same.

After this election, things likely won’t be getting better for Philadelphia and other cities. The state legislature is now as Republican as it has been since the 1950s, and the power lies not only with conservatives who generally favor policies less friendly to urban residents but conservatives like Corman, Scarnati and Reed who must appeal to rural voters.

“If there’s an issue unique to urban areas and it costs money,” Madonna said, “it’s going to be tough sledding.”

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