ROCKY FORD, Colo. — Peggy Sheahan’s rural Otero County is steadily losing population. Middle-class jobs vanished years ago as pickling and packing plants closed. She’s had to cut back on her business repairing broken windshields to help nurse her husband after a series of farm accidents, culminating in his breaking his neck falling from a bale of hay.
She collects newspaper clippings on stabbings and killings in the area — one woman’s body was found in a field near Sheahan’s farm — as heroin use rises.
“We are so worse off, it’s unbelievable,” said Sheahan, 65, who plans to vote for Donald Trump.
“We are so worse off, it’s unbelievable.”
In Denver, 175 miles to the northwest, things are going better for Andrea Pacheco. Thanks to the Supreme Court, the 36-year-old could finally marry her partner, Jen Winters, in June. After months navigating Denver’s superheated housing market, they snapped up a bungalow at the edge of town. Pacheco supports Hillary Clinton to build on President Barack Obama’s legacy.
“There’s a lot of positive things that happened — obviously the upswing in the economy,” said Pacheco, a 36-year-old fundraiser for nonprofits. “We were in a pretty rough place when he started out and I don’t know anyone who isn’t better off eight years later.”
Great divide between rural and urban places
There are few divides in the United States greater than that between rural and urban places. Town and country represent not just the poles of the nation’s two political parties, but different economic realities that are transforming the 2016 presidential election.
Cities are trending Democratic and are on an upward economic shift, with growing populations and rising property values. Rural areas are increasingly Republican, shedding population and suffering economically as commodity and energy prices drop.
The split: Rural vs. urban
“The urban-rural split this year is larger than anything we’ve ever seen,” said Scott Reed, a political strategist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce who has advised previous GOP campaigns.
While plenty of cities still struggle with endemic poverty and joblessness, a report from the Washington-based Economic Innovation Group found that half of new business growth in the past four years has been concentrated in 20 populous counties.
“More and more economic activity is happening in cities as we move to higher-value services playing a bigger role in the economy,” said Ross Devol, chief researcher at the Milken Institute, an independent economic think tank. “As economies advance, economic activity just tends to concentrate in fewer and fewer places.”
That concentration has brought a whole host of new urban problems — rising inequality, traffic and worries that the basics of city life are increasingly out of the reach of the middle class. Those fears inform Democrats’ emphasis on income inequality, wages and pay equity in contrast to the general anxiety about economic collapse that comes from Republicans who represent an increasingly desperate rural America.
These two different economic worlds are writ large in Colorado. It is among the states with the greatest economic gap between urban and rural areas, according to an Associated Press review of EIG data.
The state’s sprawling metropolitan areas from Denver to Colorado Springs is known as the Front Range. As it has grown to include nearly 90 percent of the state’s population, it has trended Democratic. Rural areas, which have become more Republican, resent Denver’s clout. In 2013, a rural swath of the state unsuccessfully tried to secede to create its own state of Northern Colorado after the Democratic-controlled statehouse passed new gun control measures and required rural areas to use renewably generated electricity.
In Denver, City Councilman Rafael Espinoza elected to Denver’s last year as part of a group of candidates questioning the value of Denver’s runaway growth. Espinoza has seen his neighborhood of modest bungalows occupied by largely Latino families transformed into a collection of condominiums housing affluent professionals.
“Money just drives the discussion. In the presidential, Bernie Sanders was my guy for that one reason,” Espinoza said.
In contrast, Bill Hendren is desperate for money. He has about $4 in coins in a plastic cup he keeps in the cottage on a small farm where he lives, rent-free. Hendren’s truck was stolen 18 months ago and he was unable to travel to perform the odd jobs in Otero County that kept him afloat. He’s now functionally homeless and a Trump backer.
AP Photo / Brennan Linsley
“I don’t ever see a president caring about anyone who’s living paycheck to paycheck — if they did they’d have put the construction people back to work,” Hendren said. “Trump’s got the elite scared because he doesn’t belong to them.”
“I don’t ever see a president caring about anyone who’s living paycheck to paycheck.”
If bad luck and geography conspired to impoverish Bill Hendren, it’s an excess of money that’s to blame for Robin Sam’s plight. Sam, 62, left one apartment counting on moving into another one being built in the rapidly-gentrifying and historically black neighborhood where he grew up. But that facility raised its rent over the threshold of Sam’s $1,055 Section 8 voucher, and he’s been living in a homeless shelter all year, unable to find a new place in Denver’s fiercely competitive housing market.
“I feel like I’m being pushed out,” said Sam, who is black. He recalls houses and apartments being barred to blacks in his youth decades ago, but senses something else at play now.
“It’s money — and money changes everything,” he said.
Associated Press reporter Julie Bykowicz in Washington, D.C., and data journalist Angeliki Kastanis in Los Angeles contributed to this report.