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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The rural-urban divide is the defining split in American elections, and that often disadvantages cities, even though they have more voters.

Why it matters: With Democrats clustered in cities and Republicans spread out among exurbs, suburbs are now critical battlegrounds. For example, Democrats swept Virginia's elections Tuesday night thanks in part to suburban voters.

The big picture: "American elections have come to be seen as high-stakes sectional battles pitting the interests and identities of cities and inner suburbs against those of exurbs and the rural periphery," Stanford political science professor Jonathan Rodden writes in his book "Why Cities Lose."

  • "In turn, this asymmetry between votes and seats only further fans the flames of urban-rural sectionalism...a trend that is worrisome for the stability and health of American Democracy regardless of one's partisan or idealogical perspective," Rodden writes.

Where it stands: Democrats overwhelmingly take majorities in city centers and inner suburbs, while Republicans' vote share increases as you move to the middle-ring suburbs, becoming more prevalent in distant exurbs and rural areas.

  • This dynamic pits cities against the rural peripheries.

Urban-rural polarization has, in many states, allowed Republicans to win more seats than their share of the votes — and that could be the case even without gerrymandering due to demographic patterns and voter behavior, Rodden writes.

  • In post-industrial cities in the Northeast and Midwest, groups concentrated in the urban core — minorities, young people, renters and low-income residents — are less likely to vote.
  • For example, less than half of registered voters in the Democratic precincts closest to the center of Cleveland voted in 2016. Turnout exceeded 75% in largely Republican exurbs.

What's next: Fast-growing Sunbelt cities, like Orlando and Houston, are more politically diverse.

  • Population movements are starting to mix Democrats and Republicans, Rodden said, as young people move to the suburbs and look for affordable housing in smaller cities.
  • "If Democrats just try to mobilize their based and urban voters, they'll have to really increase turnout in city centers," Rodden told Axios. "But even working to claw back some voters in rural areas, and mid-sized industrial towns in the Midwest, would make a big difference."

The bottom line: Winning in cities isn't enough for Democrats, and winning in exurbs isn't enough for Republicans.

Go deeper

1 hour ago - Politics & Policy

Manchin's massive means test

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) is offering progressives a trade: He'll vote for their cherished social programs if they accept strict income caps for the recipients, people familiar with the matter tell Axios.

Why it matters: Manchin’s plan to use so-called means-testing for everything from paid family medical leave to elder and disabled care would drastically shrink the size and scope of the programs. It also would bring a key moderate vote to the progressive cause.

The China whisperer

Nick Burns. Photo: Chen Mengtong/China News Service via Getty Images

President Biden's nominee for ambassador to China will face aggressive questioning Wednesday about the most important, and potentially perilous, bilateral relationship in the world.

Why it matters: While Nick Burns is an experienced diplomat with support on both sides of the aisle, lawmakers want to use his confirmation hearing to force the administration into some tough positions on China.

Jan. 6 committee recommends contempt charges against Bannon

Steve Bannon. Photo: Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

The House select committee investigating the deadly Jan. 6 Capitol riots unanimously approved a resolution Tuesday night recommending that former Trump aide Steve Bannon be held in contempt of Congress for refusing to comply with a subpoena.

Why it matters: The resolution sets up a House vote to refer Bannon for potential criminal prosecution, signaling that the committee will not tolerate attempts by former President Trump and his associates to stymie the investigation.