NEW GEOGRAPHY--The fate of the 2020 election, whether for Congress or the White House, will be decided in the suburbs.
Neither the pro-Trump countryside nor the intensely anti-Trump urban core have enough voters to put their preferred candidates in office.
It’s the suburbs that are home to the majority of all voters and over 80 percent of residents of the major metropolitan areas.
During the heady early Obama years, some progressives saw the suburbs as outdated, rejected by millennials and major businesses. Dense urban America was the future, and it was solidly Democratic. Yet that future never arrived.
The country’s three biggest core cities – New York, Los Angeles and Chicago – are now once again losing population. Nor are these cities, as some imagine, gaining over suburbs economically. Indeed, a new Harvard study demonstrates that between 1970 and 2010, suburban areas have overall steadily increased their economic advantages: The share of suburbs making up the top ranks of all urban and suburban neighborhoods (measured as the top quartile) went from roughly two-thirds in 1970 to almost three-quarters by 2010.
GOP’s weakening hand in suburbs.
Historically the suburbs have tilted to the right and constituted a core part of the successful GOP coalition. But this assumption is no longer valid. In 2016, the suburbs voted 50 to 45 for Trump but two years later the suburban electorate tilted blue, going Democratic by 52 percent, effectively handing the House back to the Democrats. The GOP losses were most profound in two fast growing suburban archetypes: highly educated communities and those dominated by minority groups and immigrants.
This anti-Trump suburban pushback was most evident in large metro areas such as Southern California, where many immigrants have settled. But now suburbs even in the less diverse and deepest red states seem capable of turning.
In 2019, Democrats swept suburban districts in GOP-leaning, overwhelmingly non-immigrant states like Kentucky and Louisiana as well as Virginia. The losses were most notable when candidates, like Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin, mimicked the crude political style of President Trump, and played mostly to the “base”, which may also be the focus of his re-election campaign. The Democrats, smelling blood, are targeting suburban voters in the coming election as well.
Can the Republicans return to suburban supremacy?
The Republican road to recovery in suburbia lies in shifting away from the Trump model so effective in large swaths of small town and rural America. This is not to say that they shouldn’t embrace the remarkable economic record of the last four years; income and employment growth are easily the party’s best defining issue. But even if Trump manages to get away with his “no Mr. Nice Guy” shtick, his would be imitators may not.
Suburban middle-class families may enjoy Republican prosperity, but they are also concerned about issues like schools, guns and basic infrastructure. Nominating Trumpettes is not the way to build a suburban majority. Some GOP leaders, like Georgia’s Governor Brian Kemp, seem to have learned this lesson by appointing to the Senate a conservative but presentable businesswoman, Kelly Loeffler, instead of the rabid Trumpista Rep. Doug Collins.
Most critical of all may be the issue of race. Once largely white, the suburbs are increasingly diverse, and home to most of all ethnic groups. Republican losses in places like north Dallas, west Houston, northern Virginia and Orange County were at least in part a reaction against the fulminations of Trump, particularly against immigrants.
Yet there are some effective ways to swing some of these voters back. Suburban ethnic voters tend to be socially moderate but may not like seeing their local governments and schools, often the main reason for moving there, turned into progressive re-education camps. This is particularly true of Asians, a now largely suburban population, who may discover that Democratic leveling policies are not in sync with their achievement-oriented worldview.
Democrats to the rescue?
If Republicans are cursed with their reactionary countryside fringe, the Democrats are burdened by the increasingly extremism of their own dense urban base. Democrats from Roosevelt to Clinton embraced suburbanization as a move up for the working and middle classes, but the party’s fervently pro-density intellectual core has longed disdained America’s predominant geography.
Some advocate radical measures such as siphoning tax revenues from suburbs to keep them from “cannibalizing” jobs and retail sales while others fantasize about carving up the suburban carcass, envisioning three-car garages “subdivided into rental units with street front cafés, shops and other local businesses” while abandoned pools would become skateboard parks.
In recent years the anti-suburban mentality has crystalized around efforts to eliminate the single-family zoned community. In California, Oregon, Minneapolis and even Charlotte, progressives have put in place policies that seek to forcibly densify, often against their will, bucolic suburban communities.
This drive for forced density, notes Mother Jones’ Kevin Drum, could prove “political suicide” for the Democrats. “The whole point of living in the suburbs is that it’s not the big city, “he suggests. “This means that trying to convince suburbanites to become more like big cities is simply hopeless. They will fight you in the streets, fight you in the fields, fight you on the beaches, etc. They will never surrender.”
Density may appeal to the wealthy, well-educated and childless but not so much the middle income, less super-educated families. The optics are not good when Harvard professor Elizabeth Warren, able to afford an expensive private school for her offspring and a $2.4 million house in a pricey part of Cambridge, or multi-billionaire Michael Bloomberg , with his huge Manhattan townhouse, sprawling getaway in Bermuda as well as numerous other abodes, start telling people to live small for the benefit of society, or the planet.
California, of course, is second to none when it comes to gentry hypocrisy. Gavin Newsom, who before taking office lived in a $6 million Marin estate, last year, decided not to occupy the official Governor’s mansion downtown. Instead he made Sacramento’s highest priced house purchase, the $3.7 million 12,000-square-foot, six-bedroom house in suburban Fair Oaks, a half hour from the statehouse, a residence far more lavish than the mostly far smaller suburban homes his planning minions largely seek to eliminate.
Ahead: Trench warfare in suburbia
Given both parties’ vulnerabilities, we can expect the 2020 campaign to be hotly contested in suburban areas. In contrast to the image of house-to-house urban battles, the next election will more resemble World War One style trench warfare, a grinding contest across a vast periphery. As one analyst put it: “Suburbs are the new Florida.”
The party most likely to win will be the one who finds candidates that fit their districts best. For example, the GOP should be loath to nominate fire breathing Trumpistas in contestable districts while Democrats should avoid running Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren clones in marginal districts. Democrats, in particular, also need to careful about holding up dense urban areas as a model for the future; downtown LA’s or San Francisco’s emerging dystopia, which many residents, including millennials, are ready to leave, does not represent the future most would like to see.
Suburbs tend to vote for pragmatists oriented to local concerns and basic kitchen table issues. Even bluish suburban areas tend to not endorse the class warfare politics so popular among progressive while red-leading ones may still favor more public spending, notably on schools and roads often opposed by conservative ideologues. If they modulate this message and appeal to pragmatism, Republican can win even in places like Maryland and Massachusetts just as Democrats, with a similar approach, manage in deep red Kentucky and even Alabama.
Dissed by the left, their concerns largely ignored by ideologues of the right, the suburban voter represents the last large repository of moderation and the ultimate decider of our political future.
If they exercise their power in a conscious way, and look to their own interests, they could return common sense to our now deeply flawed, and increasingly manic, politics.
This piece first appeared on The Orange County Register.
(Joel Kotkin is the R.C. Hobbs Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University in Orange and executive director of the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism. He is a CityWatch contributor.)