JACKI LYDEN, host:
Across the country, Senator Obama didn't win among voters in rural areas, but he ran stronger than any Democrat since Bill Clinton. NPR's Howard Berkes took the pulse of rural America to find out why.
HOWARD BERKES: Republican John McCain won rural America by close to three million votes. And at 56 percent of that vote, he was close to a rural landslide. He has people like Neal Westhoff (ph) to thank for that, a Missouri dairy farmer reached on his cell phone in his truck as he returned from a calf sale.
Mr. NEAL WESTHOFF (Dairy Farmer, Missouri): You've got to vote pro-life because it's the number one issue, and all of the other issues, you can stack them all on top of each other, and it doesn't add up to the respect for life.
BERKES: Westhoff and other rural McCain supporters had plenty of other reasons for their choice. They didn't trust candidate Barack Obama. They thought he sounded like a socialist. They wanted a conservative in the White House. But more of their rural neighbors went Democratic in this election than in 2004. Samantha Bauman (ph) is a drugstore clerk in Moberly, Missouri who spoke on a windblown sidewalk Tuesday just after voting. She describes herself this way.
Ms. SAMANTHA BAUMAN: Republican more. But with this election, I've kind of started to think that maybe Democrats are not as wrong as I usually like to think.
BERKES: Bauman doesn't like the Republican push to drill for more oil and does like Senator Obama's talk about renewable energy. Other rural voters mention the poor economy and the war in Iraq as reasons they switched to a Democrat. Anna Greenberg is a Democratic pollster who has specialized in rural voting patterns.
Ms. ANNA GREENBERG (Senior Vice President, Greenberg Quinlan Rosner): Well, Obama was able to peel off the more conservative-leaning voters who just don't place a high priority on social issues like gay marriage and like abortion. McCain was able to hold on to the most conservative voters in this electorate.
BERKES: Senator Obama shaved the Republican support in rural areas by three percent. That rose to eight percent in some key battleground states and almost 12 percent in Indiana. The Obama campaign won't talk about its rural strategy, but one tactic was obvious to Bill Bishop, who edits an online rural newsletter called the Daily Yonder. He noticed some unusual Obama campaign stops.
Mr. BILL BISHOP (Editor, Daily Yonder): College campuses that were in rural areas. A week before the election, he went to Harrisonburg, Virginia, home of two universities.
(Soundbite of campaign speech)
Senator BARACK OBAMA: This is the first time I've been to James Madison. It's a gorgeous campus.
(Soundbite of applause)
Mr. BISHOP: He held a rally there, and on Tuesday, Harrisonburg, Virginia goes Democratic for the first time in more than 60 years. What he did do was look for those urban-style votes in rural areas, and then he went after them.
BERKES: What President-elect Obama did not do is unite the country. His bump in rural areas is nothing compared to his monumental gain in cities, a margin there of close to 13 million votes, up 10 percent from John Kerry's urban take. That makes the urban-rural political divide as big as ever. Seth McKee of the University of South Florida blames race.
Dr. SETH MCKEE (School of Political Science, University of South Florida): You must be seeing polarization. It looks like there's some serious racial polarization going on just by looking at the urban difference with the rural.
BERKES: That's especially true in the South, McKee says. But the divide could narrow if an Obama administration lives up to its own billing. If not, the disappointment will likely again strengthen the rural part of the Republican base. Howard Burkes, NPR News.
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