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Daily Journal

Exploring Politics in the Suburbs

Jan. 9th, 2007
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RALEIGH Ė Pardon me if I fail to express an opinion on politics today. Itís not mandatory in this space, you know.

In my defense, Iíve been up to my eyeballs in polling data and election returns, researching a piece for National Review on the role of suburban swing voters in the 2006 election cycle. Now that itís finished I feel compelled to empty my notebook. As I explain in the upcoming NR story, the notion that the Republican ascendancy of the 1990s was propelled by a growing and favorable suburban electorate is commonplace and oversimplified. That doesnít mean it isnít true.

While in a few Southern and Western states GOP candidates were able to win primarily by racking up huge majorities in rural areas and small towns to offset huge deficits in urban votes, the electoral math worked differently in most competitive states. Republican-leaning independents in burgeoning suburban and exurban communities comprised a pivotal element of winning coalitions in federal, state, and local offices from Washington to Florida. The suburbs contained the kinds of voters who had been gravitating to the GOP during the past two decades, such as entrepreneurs and married families with children. High rates of homeownership made suburban voters especially allergic to tax increases, a core Republican issue. And it was no coincidence that as Republican candidates increasingly traversed the suburbs looking for like-minded voters, they found themselves increasingly driving by, and often to, sprawling new shopping complexes and energetic (and sprawling) new churches.

Not surprisingly, then, Republicans have repeatedly outpolled Democrats in suburban precincts. Itís important not to oversell the point, though. According to the 2004 exit polls, for example, Republican candidates for U.S. House won just 51 percent of the suburban vote, while the two parties each won handily in their respective geographical bases Ė Democrats by 55-43 in urban precincts and Republicans by 54-44 in the rural ones. That was enough to swing the tight seats in the GOP direction.

Many of those seats swung the other way in 2006, as Democrats managed a slight edge (50-48) in the suburbs while also boosting their support in the cities and nearly overtaking GOP candidates in rural areas.

Suburban areas have been experiencing rapid population growth in most parts of the United States for decades. Just since the beginning of the decade, the share of the electorate voting in the suburbs has crept upward, from 43 percent in 2000 to 47 percent in 2006. The rural share dropped from 28 percent to 24 percent. The urban share didnít change much, at around 29-30 percent (due to rounding, the 2006 numbers add up to 101 percent).

The significance of suburban voters to winning GOP coalitions is even more pronounced when you look at state races. In 1994, 1998, and 2002, Republican candidates for governor in New York, Ohio, Massachusetts, and other non-Southern states typically won their victories by strong showings in the suburbs. In states that went blue in 2002, such as Pennsylvania and Michigan, successful Democratic candidates had erased or reversed the suburban-vote margins. By 2006, Democratic candidates for governor were able to crush Republicans in the suburbs of many of these states Ė by 57-40 in Ohio, for example, 59-41 in Pennsylvania, and an astounding 61-34 in Arizona. It is no exaggeration to say that the GOP is simply dead in the water in such places unless it regains its ability to attract suburban voters.

Oops, that was an opinion.

Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.