Elections and Rural Bias

Every four years, America's chief politicians make a pilgrimage to Iowa and New Hampshire, two states that in to a large extent influence who will be America's two presidential nominees. Iowa and New Hampshire, of course, don't have the most delegates of any state, but the media coverage, money and momentum that candidates receive from high finishes in these first two states often makes them unbeatable (the 2008 election was unique in this regard, with both primaries competitive well past Super Tuesday). In 2007, Brown economists Brian Knight and Nathan Schiff set out to quantify exactly how much more influence voters in Iowa and New Hampshire had in the 2004 Democratic primary than voters in other states. Knight and Schiff noted that anecdotal correlations between candidates who win Iowa or New Hampshire and those who win the nomination are too simplistic because those correlations could reflect underlying candidate strength and examined changes in polling data in late states as a response to the outcomes of primaries in early states. In short, they found primary voters and caucus goers in the earliest states had eight times the influence of those in the latest states.

It's not just the nomination system that biases American policy toward rural areas. States with small populations (which tend, of course, to be rural) are overrepresented in the Senate and Electoral College. To take the most extreme case, a citizen of Wyoming has 69 times the influence in the United States Senate as a citizen of California (that is to say, Wyoming's 544000 residents have the same representation as California's 37 million) and 3.7 times the influence in the Presidential election (three electoral votes per 544000 residents versus 55 per 37 million residents).

David Leonhardt in the New York Times argues that these systems of unequal representation have profound policy consequences. He notes that early-voting states are more likely to receive pork than late-voting ones if they supported the winning candidate, and that the Iowa caucuses have turned ethanol subsidies into an untouchable third rail despite little evidence they contribute much to solving the climate crisis. Most of all, he argues that America has an "anti-urban policy bias," focusing on the issues important to rural and small-town voters even though he believes that "national prosperity depends on urban prosperity."

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