Even as much else about this election feels unprecedented, America’s urban-rural divide will be as strong as ever, continuing a decades-long process in which the two parties have sorted themselves ever more clearly by population density.

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Ronald Reagan visited the South Bronx in New York in the summer of 1980, when Charlotte Street was still lined with vacant lots and the rubble of toppling tenements. The place looked like London after the blitz, he said, and he wanted to do something about it.

The Republican candidate for president that year, Reagan was not merely mugging for the kind of photo op that unnerves white suburban voters. Earlier that day, he spoke to the National Urban League in New York. Then he flew to Chicago to meet with the editors of Ebony and Jet magazines, pillars of the black media, and The Rev. Jesse Jackson, the civil-rights leader.

He was not always greeted warmly, but it was the kind of campaign itinerary that is hard to imagine a Republican presidential candidate even contemplating in 2016. Reagan believed he could make a genuine play for urban voters in 1980. Today, his party has all but conceded them.

Only three of the 25 largest cities in America now have Republican mayors. In the House of Representatives, Republicans from dense urban congressional districts have become extinct. In the 2012 presidential election, the counties containing Manhattan, the Bronx, Brooklyn, Washington, San Francisco and Philadelphia each gave less than 20 percent of their vote to Republican Mitt Romney. In this coming election, Donald Trump is unlikely to do better — and may fare worse.

Even as much else about this election feels unprecedented, America’s urban-rural divide will be as strong as ever, continuing a decades-long process in which the two parties have sorted themselves ever more clearly by population density.

The pattern highlights a paradox about Trump: “He’s the most urban candidate in American history — he was born in Queens and lives in a skyscraper on Fifth Avenue,” said Aaron Renn, a senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute. And Trump’s personal fortunes have risen with the comeback of major American cities, with signature real-estate projects in New York, Washington and Chicago. But he has portrayed these same cities as dystopias.

Trump has elevated a strategy that is risky to the Republican Party in the long run. Not only have recent Republican candidates neglected cities, but they have also run against them, casting urban America as the foil to heartland voters.

Rick Santorum and Sarah Palin caricatured coastal cities as unmoored from the “real America.” Ted Cruz derided “New York values,” as if those values, whichever ones he meant, were alien. Trump has pre-emptively annulled the votes of Chicago, St. Louis and Philadelphia, cities where he warns the election will be rigged against him.

The history of how the GOP got here is partly about the ideological realignment of the two parties, and the disappearance of liberal Republicans like Jacob Javits, a senator from New York state, and John Lindsay, a mayor of New York City (a Republican who left the party, he said, when it left him). The party even moved away from conservative Republicans like Jack Kemp, the secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the George H.W. Bush administration, who spoke often about urban opportunity.

But this history is also about the physical realignment of voters, as the rise of suburbia enabled Democrats and Republicans to move, literally, farther apart.

In 1966, white voters in Chicago who had long supported the city’s Democratic machine began to bolt for the Republican Party. They were alarmed by urban riots, by civil-rights legislation in Congress and — much closer to home — by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s campaign in Chicago that year for “open housing.”

Pamphlets soon began to appear on the stoops of the city’s middle-class bungalows: “Your Home is your castle — Keep it that way by Voting STRAIGHT REPUBLICAN.”

Those newly converted Republicans in Chicago voted in 1968 for Richard Nixon.

“But these were the people, who largely would have left the city within 10 years,” said historian Rick Perlstein author of “Nixonland. ”

Those Chicago voters embody both trends — party realignment and white flight — that have remade political geography since then. In the 1950s, in presidential election results compiled by the Stanford political-scientist Jonathan Rodden, a county’s population density was a poor predictor of how its residents voted. Today, the pattern is remarkably consistent: The denser the county, the more overwhelmingly its residents vote Democratic.

“This story could be written in one word,” Perlstein said of that historical arc. “The one word would be ‘race.’ ”

In the early days of white flight, two federal policies — the construction of the interstate highway system and mortgage guarantees for the new suburbs — pulled whites out of cities even as they were getting pushed by racial tension, desegregation and school busing.

“The people who go to the suburbs are not a random selection,” said Jessica Trounstine, a political scientist at the University of California, Merced. They were the middle and upper class. They became homeowners. They prized neighborhoods of single-family houses. Those characteristics today all correlate with leaning Republican.

“These population shifts happen for reasons that are external to politics,” Trounstine said, “but politics is embedded in who goes.”

Metropolitan areas with more highway construction became more polarized over time between Democratic cities and Republican suburbs, according to research by Clayton Nall, a Stanford political scientist. Where highways were built, they helped sort people. Where they led, suburbs became more reliably Republican. They created entirely new places, he argues, with new politics.

In the 1980s, after Reagan’s election, the link between population density and partisanship tightened further. Rodden suspects the battles over moral values helped drive the trend. Issues like abortion with urban-rural divides in public opinion further widened the gap between the two groups.

In many ways, it was becoming clearer over this time what each party stood for, whether on race or cultural cleavages or transportation or poverty. The basic party infrastructure Republicans would need to win in cities, at any level, disintegrated. Even the average congressional district held by Republicans today has a quarter of the population density it did in 1950.

In party platforms, the Republican Party eventually tiptoed to an almost anti-urban stance. In 1988, the platform called for “special attention to urban residents” in the census to ensure their full federal representation. In 2000, the party still nodded toward support for transit. By 2012, it accused the Obama administration of “replacing civil engineering with social engineering as it pursues an exclusively urban vision of dense housing and government transit.”

Cities today come up in the platform when they are scolded for their immigration stands as “sanctuary cities.” They are mentioned for their “soaring” murder rates and the funds they siphon to mass transit that should be spent on highways instead. And that is about it.

The anti-city strategy works today because Democrats, with their tight clusters of urban support, are at a structural disadvantage in Congress.

“One of the most important implications of all this is that ignoring cities can be a winning strategy in House races,” Rodden said. “The mix of positions that the Republicans have taken has served them really well in winning the House. But it’s not working out so well in presidential elections.”