It probably shouldn’t be surprising that Iowa, one of the least urbanized states in the union, knocked off the one candidate who spoke to any extent about urban policy.
With former Baltimore mayor and Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley gone, the 2016 race loses the only candidate (not just in this race but in recent memory) to speak in detail about fair housing laws, the Low-Income Housing Tax Credits and Community Development Block Grants.
The remaining Democrats in the race have both discussed repairing America’s infrastructure, and while highways and bridges can be anywhere, mass transit—which gets treatment in both Sen. Bernie Sanders’ $1 trillion infrastructure plan and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s $275 billion capital program—has a distinctly urban impact.
So too, of course, do many of the issues being discussed in the race. Terrorists attack cities. Undocumented immigrants get sheltered in them. The incidents that have brought race and policing to the forefront of the national debate have mainly occurred in cities.
But that hasn’t translated into much direct discussion of urban affairs. That’s nothing new: The only time the word “cities” was used during the four general-election debates in 2012 was when Mitt Romney was discussing metropolitan areas in China. Both Clinton and Sanders, however, do have specific policy papers on rural America. Four in five U.S. residents lives in an urbanized area, according to the Census Bureau.
There are plenty of reasons for this skew. Customary campaign optics revolve around agrarian images, and “soccer moms” have been more valued voters than “subway sisters” or whatever shorthand pollsters have for urbanites. Central cities have enjoyed something of a renaissance in recent years, complicating the “failing cities” narrative that begs for policymaking, and many problems traditionally thought of as urban, like poverty and drug abuse, can now be found lots of places: According to the Atlantic, more poor people now live in the suburbs and meth and opioid abuse are as much rural problems as urban ones (maybe more so).
And let’s face it, central cities are Democratic territory: Barack Obama, by some measures, took 69 percent of the vote in cities with populations greater than 500,000 in 2012. That means Democrats can take cities for granted and Republicans don’t bother to challenge for them.
The Republican Party did map out a “growth and opportunity project” after 2012 to try to reverse the demographic tide moving against them. That strategy called for a more urban focus. But there’s little evidence of the project’s impact. Of the big three GOP finishers in Iowa, only Sen. Marco Rubio wades into this territory at all, and then only to decry “sanctuary cities,” demand an end to “eminent domain abuse” and call for phasing out the diversion of gas-tax revenues to pay for mass transit.
The primary calendar doesn’t help. As has long been noted, the early part of the presidential primary season is heavily weighted away from urban America. Iowa and New Hampshire are among the 10 least urbanized states. Iowa is smaller than Queens and Manhattan combined and has only two cities, Des Moines and Cedar Rapids, with more than 100,000 people. New Hampshire’s population could live in the Bronx: Its largest city, Manchester, is basically the size of the Riverdale section of that borough.
But that changes soon. Nevada has more than a million people living in cities with populations greater than 200,000. The March 2 Super Tuesday involves voting in nine of the 25 largest cities in the nation, including Dallas, Austin, Boston, Nashville and others.
Who knows whether the contest will be a live one by then, let alone by the time New York votes on April 19? One thing is certain: O’Malley’s exit means Sanders is now the only former mayor in the race. Only one mayor has been elected president (Grover Cleveland, briefly the mayor of Buffalo) though two, Andrew Johnson and Calvin Coolidge, succeeded from the vice presidency.