The suburban puzzle

In 1950, a quarter of America’s population lived in the suburbs. In 1960, a third of the country was suburban, a third urban, and a third rural. By 1990, nearly half of the country lived in the suburbs. Whether for safety, space, or schools, the second half of the 20th century shows continuous suburban growth. A Census study by Todd Gardner of movement in the country’s 100 largest metropolitan areas to the suburbs from 1955 to 2000 is illuminating. By 1960, Gardner says, “A majority of the white population lived in suburbs . . . while most of the Black non-Hispanic population lived in urban core areas as late as 2000. The Hispanic and Asian populations went from majority urban to majority suburban during this period.” Today, a majority of blacks live in the suburbs. Given the size of the suburbs, it’s clear that winning them is a big political prize. But they are a complicated prize nonetheless.

There is an old adage in demography: Density equals Democrats. Central cities are substantially Democratic, and they have become more so over time. As you move farther out to the suburbs, and then to rural America, the country becomes more Republican. In 2016, according to the exit poll consortium, Trump won 34 percent of urban voters, 49 percent of suburban voters, and 61 percent of rural voters. In the early August Fox News poll of registered voters, Trump was winning 37 percent of the urban vote, 38 percent of the suburban vote, and 52 percent of the rural vote. 

Via Twenty20

Looking at registered voters in the suburbs over time provides a sense of how competitive the suburbs are overall. When the Pew Research Center looked at the political identification of registered voters who lived in the suburbs in 1998, 47 percent were Democrats and 42 percent were Republicans. Twenty years later in 2018, those responses were 47 and 45 percent, respectively. The suburbs were a pretty even mix of Democrats and Republicans throughout this 20 year period. Underlining their competitive nature, Joel Kotkin reminded us recently in a column in New Geography that “Of the 41 congressional districts that flipped from Republican to Democratic in 2018, 38 were suburban.”

It is also important to differentiate the suburbs. Generally, inner suburbs closer to central cities are more Democratic, and outer suburbs are more Republican. In The Wall Street Journal this week, Dante Chinni and Aaron Zitner, two of the country’s best demographic reporters, looked at the suburban complexity. Using Wall Street Journal/NBC polls’ cumulative data from January through August and the American Community Project at George Washington University’s classification schemes of suburbs, they found that urban suburbs “look like cities in terms of racial and economic diversity and density,” and that they were solidly Democratic. The exurban counties were more rural and less diverse, and they leaned Republican. The third county type, working-class suburbs, were evenly divided. Their demographic profile is less racially diverse. They have more manufacturing jobs than the nation as a whole. These counties are important to watch, the authors say, “because they provided lopsided vote margins for Mr. Trump.”

Here’s another related development. We
recently looked at how suburban men and women have voted over time. The trend
parallels the changes in male and female voting generally. In the exit
polls, two-thirds of suburban men and women voted for Richard Nixon in
1972. But by 1980, a gender gap emerged with suburban women voting more
Democratic than suburban men. In 2000, 41 percent of suburban men voted
for Al Gore, but 52 percent of suburban women did. In 2016, 55 percent of
suburban men voted for Trump; 44 percent of suburban women did. In the new Fox
News poll, 35 percent of suburban women indicated were voting for Trump.

In a new article, our AEI colleague Sam Abrams debunked some stereotypes about the suburbs with data from the AEI’s Survey on Community and Society. Abrams concludes that most people who live in the suburbs are highly satisfied with living there and have a sense of community. Suburbia has more political clout than in the past, and understanding its complexity has become a political imperative.

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