Magazine | December 3, 2018, Issue

Losing the Suburbs

People listen at a town-hall meeting on health-care reform hosted by Rep. Mike Coffman. (Reuters/Rick Wilking)
The GOP failed to win a crucial category of voters

The Republican party suffered a massive defeat in the House of Representatives in the 2018 midterms, shedding about 40 seats and therefore control of the chamber to the Democrats. A striking reason for this loss was the party’s weak showing in the suburbs of the great American cities.

For nearly 60 years, the American suburbs have been the cornerstone of the Republican political coalition. After the Great Depression, the Democrats built a virtually insuperable alliance of southern farmers and northern workers, leaving Republicans with little more than the farmers of the Great Plains and the Evangelical voters of small towns in the North — hardly the foundation of a national majority, which is a big reason Democrats won five straight presidential elections from 1932 through 1948.

But the post-war economic boom was a political shot in the arm for the Republican party. A rising middle class, made up mainly of educated, professional workers, settled in the suburbs and had little interest in the “farmer-labor” politics of the New Deal. They helped the GOP rebuild its political standing in the North, creating a counterbalance to the Demo­cratic labor classes in cities such as Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Detroit, and Chicago. They also helped the GOP crack the once-“solid” South, as upscale suburbanites around fast-growing cities such as Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, and Miami were drawn to the Republican party, even as poor whites in the region continued to look on the GOP as the party of “northern aggression.” 

Suburban voters decisively backed Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956, delivered Richard Nixon a narrow victory in 1968 and a huge triumph in 1972, and strongly backed the GOP in 1980, 1984, and 1988. It was only with the triangulation of Bill Clinton — such as his studious moderation on cultural issues and his seeming support for balanced budgetsthat the Democrats struck back. Suburban voters in places such as Philadelphia and Columbus, Ohio, helped bring about a smashing Clinton win in 1996 and then close calls for Al Gore and John Kerry in 2000 and 2004, respectively. Barack Obama, riding a wave of voter anxiety over the Great Recession in 2008, did well in the suburbs that year, and he could reasonably claim to have ended the worst of the economic crisis four years later, when suburban support helped deliver him most of the crucial swing states.

In response to this, the “establishment” Republican strategy has been to make a stronger bid for suburban support — tone down the culture war, particularly on immigration, emphasize “kitchen table” issues such as health care and education, and above all focus on economic growth. In 2016, most of the serious presidential aspirants on the GOP side followed this approach.

Except Donald Trump, that is. He seemed to court a cultural conflict be­tween downscale white voters and “elites” of all sorts. That, combined with his brash speaking style, enabled him to stand out in a crowded field in the primary. The suburban vote fractured in several directions, and Trump cruised to an easy, if not overwhelming, primary victory. In the 2016 general election, rural voters returned to give Trump surprise victories in a series of northern bastions long held up as part of a post-Clinton “blue wall” — Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin.

As for suburban voters, they did not love Trump, but they did not much care for Hillary Clinton, either. Trump won just 49 percent of the suburban vote, according to the exit polls, compared with 52 percent for George W. Bush in 2004. However, Clinton won only 45 percent, compared with 47 percent for Kerry; in other words, both candidates lost ground, to the benefit of third parties. When Clinton’s failure to pick up Trump’s slack in the suburbs is combined with Trump’s smashing victory among rural voters (a 26-point margin, compared with a 15-point margin for Bush in 2004), his election makes a lot of sense.

But the large number of suburban voters who disliked both Trump and Clinton, including many who held their noses and voted for Trump, presented the Demo­crats an opportunity for 2018. Simply put, Clinton was no longer on the ballot. So if Democrats could run more palatable alternatives, they could stand to gain from the contrast against the demagogic, grating president.

This is exactly what they managed to do.

In the national House exit poll, suburban voters split evenly between Demo­crats and Republicans, 49 percent to 49 percent — a historically notable result comparable with Obama’s showing during the 2008 crisis, when the Democrat won a small victory in the suburbs. And without Trump on the ballot, rural voters were not as apt to support the GOP, breaking to the GOP by only a 14-point margin. The Democrats once more held the line in the cities, winning by a smashing 33 percent. That added up to a majority of Americans voting Demo­cratic this fall.

And this margin manifested itself in district after district. Democrat Jennifer Wexton defeated Republican representative Barbara Comstock in Virginia’s tenth congressional district, outside of Washington, D.C. Democrat Jason Crow defeated Republican representative Mike Coffman in Colorado’s sixth, outside of Denver. Democrat Sean Casten defeated Republican representative Peter Roskam in Illinois’s sixth, outside of Chicago. Democratic representative Conor Lamb defeated Republican representative Keith Rothfus in Pennsylvania’s 17th, near Pittsburgh. (The district was recently redrawn by the courts, thus the contest between two incumbents.) Democrat Lucy McBath defeated Republican representative Karen Handel in Georgia’s sixth, outside Atlanta. Democrats also picked up at least three, and probably more (votes are still being tabulated), seats in upscale, suburban districts in southern California — which was ground zero for the rebuilding of the post-war Republican party.

In the Senate, while Republicans held their own nationwide, picking up a net of two seats, a strong suburban vote powered Democratic pickups in both Nevada and Arizona. The latter is striking, for Democrat Kyrsten Sinema won the vote of Maricopa County, where Phoenix and its surroundings are located — long a Republican bastion. Most GOP pickups in the Senate — in Indiana, Missouri, and North Dakota — were in states so deeply Republican that a revolt among suburbanites was not sufficient to bolster the Democrats. Florida remains a standout for the GOP, perhaps because of the reputation that Republican governor Rick Scott has carved out for himself during his eight-year tenure.

While these are a good result for Democrats, it would be hasty to conclude that a “realignment” has taken place. To borrow the quip from economists, political scientists have predicted seven of the last zero realignments. The truth is that the United States is a big, diverse nation, and neither party can ever comfortably hold a majority of the electorate for a long time, barring some unexpected shock such as the Great Depression. Whether the suburbanites remain in the Democratic coalition or this is simply a brief stay to express their discontent with the Trump administration remains to be seen.

Similarly, it is far too soon to say what, if any, implications this suburban shift will have on 2020. After all, both Bill Clinton and Obama suffered historic defeats in their first midterms yet went on to win comfortable victories two years later. Much depends on the performance of the economy, and on whether the United States is still at peace when voters head to the polls next time. Also of importance will be the candidate that the Democrats nominate. Will they select a pragmatic moderate in the mold of Conor Lamb, or will they embrace their inner progressives and nominate Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren? That could matter enormously — many of these suburban voters bit their tongues and voted for Trump once before, or at least opted for a third party; they could do so again.

Caveats aside, it is not a good sign that Republicans are losing these voters. Historically speaking, suburbanites are the beating heart of the post-war GOP coalition, and given that they are largely educated and prosperous, they should be drawn to the party’s platform of low taxes and economic growth. Something is clearly wrong. And make no mistake: If these voters do not come back to the GOP in the future, the Democratic majority in the House that emerged on November 7 will be here to stay.

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