A pair of presidential aspirants gaining traction on the two-lane roads of rural America hardly fit the small-town profile.
One is a New York City billionaire famous for skyscrapers and exotic resorts bearing his name. The other is a Brooklyn-born New Englander who calls himself a democratic socialist.
Worlds apart politically, Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Bernie Sanders tend to draw higher percentages of voter support in small towns and rural counties than they do in cities, primary results in some states show.
Look no farther than Bates County in western Missouri, where the pattern held in the March 15 presidential primary.
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
“I’m not surprised,” said county commissioner Jim Wheatley. “Neither candidate is seen as an insider politician.”
Bates County is an outsider’s place: 850 square miles of rolling countryside, creeks, cows and a total human population that wouldn’t even fill Kansas City’s Sprint Center.
Many of them poor.
Here, Trump and Sanders prevailed in Missouri primary voting by margins much wider than the dead heats in which both candidates finished statewide.
In the county’s GOP contest Trump finished a comfortable 8 percentage points ahead of Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, 1,306 votes to 1,080.
Even less predictable: Democrats in Bates County favored Sanders over Hillary Clinton by a 10-point margin, 632 votes to Clinton’s 518. Clinton statewide edged Sanders by 0.2 percent, the same razor margin by which Trump claimed Missouri over Cruz.
In Kansas, Democratic caucus-goers chose Sanders. But Republicans picked Cruz in a landslide, which experts partly owed to Trump’s campaign lacking the party structure that caucus wins require. When voters cast ballots in primaries, however, Trump has generally done better in rural precincts.
Little research has been done on the rural strength of Trump and Sanders. Even national pollster Gallup says it hasn’t probed that question.
But you can ask the people of the Bates County seat of Butler — pop. 4,200, an hour’s drive south of Kansas City — what gives?
And they’re not sure.
You’ll find a couple dozen squeezed around nine tables at Gray’s Cafeteria every weekday at dawn. The sign out front reads only “Cafe.”
“I’d say in here you’ll come across more people joking about Donald Trump than supporting him,” said regular Bob Conley. Coffee mates Lonnie, Red and Fred agreed.
The ol’ boys klatch at the McDonald’s near the Interstate 49 ramps voiced the same.
Of a half-dozen recently gathered, most of them retirees of a coal mining company that closed a generation ago, only Raymond Kimminau said he’s leaning Trump. And just one other, Larry Foster, said he voted for Sanders in the primary.
“I may rethink that,” Foster said. “I wish he had stronger support from labor.”
In fact, random visits with Bates Countians suggest few care to gush about either Trump or Sanders. But residents theorize that’s because small-town people take seriously their right to keep political choices to themselves so as not to rile their neighbors.
Word gets around. You might laugh about one thing with co-workers over the Thursday fried chicken special at Gray’s, then vote your real mind when staring at a ballot.
“You have to be a little careful,” said Jana Droz, a Sanders supporter who lives at the end a meandering gravel road north of Rich Hill. “Bring up national politics with your neighbors and there’s at least a 50/50 chance they won’t agree.”
The curious Trump/Sanders hold on rural communities hasn’t proven to be true everywhere this primary season. But it’s revealed itself often enough to make analysts wonder.
Both candidates have generally been scoring “from four, five, six percentage points higher in small towns and rural areas,” said Bill Bishop, a contributor to the rural-interest website The Daily Yonder.
“It’s not a huge difference, but it appears to be consistent around the country.”
Sanders’ support in low-population areas enabled him to win the Michigan primary even though Clinton — former first lady, U.S. senator from New York and secretary of state — captured Detroit.
He romped in Oklahoma.
In Illinois, according to an analysis by Daily Yonder, downstate voters elevated Sanders to almost defeating Clinton in the state where she was raised. Her appeal in Chicago carried her.
Sanders himself represents a white, rural New England state where gun laws are among the most permissive in the nation. But his rural magic doesn’t seem to carry over to Southern states where many African-Americans, who poll well for Clinton, reside in rural areas.
With either candidate’s small-town attraction, “is it rural or class or race?” asked Bishop, who wrote “The Big Sort: How the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart.”
“Probably race trumps everything, but I’m just guessing.”
Speaking of what “trumps” what, Trump’s core support comes from the white, male working class, said Karlyn Bowman, who studies polls for the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
And those people are plentiful in Bates County.
No college exists here. Only 1 percent of the population is black. Although employment rates are good, the share of county residents on welfare is among the highest in Missouri, county officials said.
Even for full-time workers, the American Dream at some point fluttered away.
“That’s very much what’s going on with the appeal of Trump and Sanders” in rural America, said Princeton University sociologist Robert Wunthrow, who grew up in Lyons, Kan. “Voters are looking for that anti-establishment person.
“In a small town,” he said, “you kind of feel that you ought to be able to handle most things on your own. You know the sheriff, you know your neighbors, you support the schools. You see potholes and want to fix them.
“All that stuff doesn’t seem to work in the nation’s capital. Nothing gets fixed.”
Indeed, a recent survey of 750 U.S. crop growers and meat producers, conducted by the market-research group Agri-Pulse, found 78 percent to be dissatisfied with “the way things are going in this country.”
Jim Platt, Bates County’s Democratic treasurer, said a spreading global economy and trade deals that put American jobs at risk are well understood by the farmers and fragile small businesses around Butler.
The news makes them angry.
Sanders and Trump “most reflect provincialism” in their parties, Platt said. “Here, we make our own stuff. We try to buy local. You see a lot of Chevys and Fords out there.”
Platt also waxed philosophical on another trait of these people:
“We’re mostly Truman Democrats.”
Ancestors of plain-spoken Harry Truman lived in Bates County. Even today its electorate contends that it’s drawn to straight talk, not to fast talk or group-tested spin.
The voters like when candidates speak boldly in the face of criticism. Go ahead, step on toes, ruffle feathers. And don’t assume we’re all about farming and apple pie.
“They don’t want to hear what the politicians think they want to hear,” said commissioner Wheatley.
Anymore the turnout here has favored GOP candidates for national office. The March primary drew twice as many Republicans as Democrats.
But it hasn’t always been that way. And for local elections, it still isn’t.
Wheatley is the only elected Republican currently in Bates County government.
Some of the ol’ boys at McDonald’s switch parties at will, depending on the candidate. They’d prefer that this year’s presidential slate be wiped clean and replaced with a fresh crop of contenders.
Tom Taylor said he’ll likely support Clinton in November but suggested this may not be the best year to be a Democrat: “I’d probably go with my friend Jerry here and vote for (Ohio Gov. John) Kasich, Cruz and Trump, in that order. If I weren’t a Democrat.”
He said Sanders’ ideas, like universal health care and free tuition at state universities, would cost taxpayers too much.
“My 16-year-old grandson here in Butler says, ‘What about Sanders?’ That’s what all the kids are hearing in school,” Taylor said.
Across town on the Butler square, Rodger Koehn took a break from renovating an old red-brick building into a restaurant.
“Yeah, my 18-year-old daughter is feeling the Bern,” he said. “I’m not really feeling it for anyone. I think sometimes the answer to our problems is in the middle of the road.”
Jana Droz of Rich Hill is one of the county’s four Sanders delegates to the state convention, as is husband Jeff Droz. He founded Roof Power Solar, which installs solar panels for homes and businesses. Their own home is “off the grid,” an earth-contract house powered only by solar.
Jana Droz, 33, said Sanders is the first presidential candidate in which she’s taken an active interest. “We like that he’s liberal,” she said, unafraid to use the term.
And Tracy Patterson really likes Trump, though some pundits might say that 34-year-old women don’t reflect his base.
“You know when someone’s very blunt, a lot of people aren’t going to like it,” said Patterson, who works at Corner Hardware & Plumbing store on the brick-paved square around the courthouse in Butler.
“Me? If a friend asked, ‘How does my shirt look?’ and I thought not so good, I’d say it. I’m not rude, but I want to be honest.”
At Gray’s Cafeteria, Trump supporter Ron Dykman used language not suitable for publication in crediting the candidate for decrying what he thinks is wrong with America. But illegal immigration isn’t high on Dykman’s list as it is for Trump, Dykman said.
“The Mexicans, they come here to work,” he said. “They’re responsible for what you and I eat.”
For or against Trump, talking about him never gets boring around here.
Out at Don’s Tow and Recovery, where the proprietor is also Butler’s mayor, receptionist Kay Copsetta laughed out loud when asked if she, a Cruz person, could support the maverick billionaire.
“I wouldn’t vote for Donald Trump if he were my best friend,” she said.
The laughter continued.
“I’m sorry. This is a great town. I thoroughly love it…But I’m originally from New Jersey.”