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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Brownstein: Dems’ Sunbelt Momentum May Get Boost from GOP’s Failed Leadership vs. Pandemic

Ronald Brownstein, columnist for The Atlantic, explains why “The Sun Belt Spikes Could Be a Disaster for Trump: Democrats were already gaining ground in the region before the pandemic hit,” and observes:

The wildfire of coronavirus cases burning through the Sun Belt’s largest cities and suburbs could accelerate their movement away from President Donald Trump and the GOP—a dynamic with the potential to tip the balance in national elections not only in 2020, but for years to come.

Until the 2016 election, Republicans had maintained a consistent advantage in the region’s big metros—including Atlanta, Houston, Dallas, and Phoenix—even as Democrats took hold of comparable urban centers in other parts of the country. But under Trump, the GOP has lost ground in these diverse and economically thriving communities. And now, a ferocious upsurge of COVID-19 across the Sun Belt’s population hubs—including major cities in Florida and North Carolina where Democrats are already more competitive—is adding a new threat to the traditional Republican hold on these places.

“There’s a lag between the trends that we have seen in some of these big northern metropolitan areas and the southern metros,” Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University, told me. “But they are definitely going in that same direction.”

In 2016, Trump won all five of the large Sun Belt states that could be battlegrounds in November. But the improving Democratic performance in the big metros provides Joe Biden a beachhead to contest each of them. Polls consistently give the former vice president a lead in Arizona and Florida, show him and Trump locked closely in North Carolina, and provide the president only a small edge (at best) in Texas and Georgia. New York Times/Siena College polls released today give Biden solid leads in Arizona, Florida, and North Carolina, and commanding advantages in the major population centers of each state, including Phoenix, Miami, Charlotte, and Raleigh. Fox Newspolls also released today show Biden leading Trump narrowly in North Carolina, Georgia, and (even) Texas, while opening up a comfortable 9-point advantage in Florida. Among suburban voters, Biden led by 20 percentage points or more in each of those states except Texas, where suburbanites still preferred him by 9 points.

After winning one Arizona Senate seat in 2018, Democrats are also pressing to capture Republican-held Senate seats in Arizona, North Carolina, and Georgia, and more suburban House seats near Raleigh, Atlanta, Houston, Dallas, and Tampa, among others.

Brownstein quotes Republian pollster Whit Ayres, an expert on southern suburbs, who says, “The problem, of course, is that the Republicans are trading larger, faster-growing areas for smaller, slower-growing areas, and the math does not work out in the long run with that sort of trade.”

Brownstein also argues that the coronavirus explosion underway in the south, where governors have led the ‘reopening’ of public facilities, could feed the trend of southern voters moving away, not only from Trump, but also from his GOP enablers across the region.

Across almost all of the Sun Belt states, the spikes are exacerbating tensions between Republican governors who rely mostly on suburban and rural areas for their votes, and Democratic local officials in the most populous cities and counties. Taking cues from Trump, Republican Governors Ron DeSantis in Florida, Brian Kemp in Georgia, Greg Abbott in Texas, and Doug Ducey in Arizona have all moved aggressively to reopen their state economies; refused to deviate from that course as the caseloads have increased; and blocked municipal officials from reversing or even slowing the pace of the reopening…Very little polling is available to show how voters across these Sun Belt states are reacting to the surge in new cases or the determination of the GOP governors to plow forward despite them. Mike Noble, who polls for nonpartisan clients in Arizona, told me that in his surveys this year, most residents have consistently worried more about reopening too quickly than too slowly—though with a sharp partisan divide between Democrats and Republicans. He told me that he expects his next survey in early July to show heightened anxiety and diminished confidence in Ducey’s handling of the outbreak.

Much depends on the affects of the pandemic’s recent surge in southern states. As Brownstein writes, “The core political question in the large Sun Belt metro areas may be whether residents are grateful that their governors have given them more freedom to resume daily activities or resentful that they have put them at greater risk by reopening so widely. Ayres said the answer is likely some of both…For Trump and the GOP, an urban/suburban backlash against these Republican governors—combined with a broader negative verdict on the federal pandemic response—risks accelerating the trends reshaping metropolitan politics across the Sun Belt.”

It could also give dems tractiuon in senate races, especially if the already hospital-deficient rural southern communities are overwhelmed. Brownstein spotlights Georgia and Texas:

Take Gwinnett and Cobb counties, outside Atlanta. In 2014, Republican Senator David Perdue, who’s up for reelection in November, won comfortable margins of about 55 percent in each. In 2016, though, Hillary Clinton won both by relatively narrow margins against Trump, and in 2018, the Democratic gubernatorial nominee, Stacey Abrams, carried them more resoundingly. Abramowitz expects them to continue moving toward the Democrats in 2020, with margins sufficient enough to give Biden and Perdue’s Democratic opponent, Jon Ossoff, a competitive shot at the state, and also to flip an open U.S. House seat in Gwinnett.

In Texas, the arc looks similar. The University of Houston political scientist Richard Murray has charted a clear blue bend in voters’ political preferences in the 27 counties that comprise the state’s four huge metro areas—Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, and Austin—which together account for about 70 percent of the state’s votes and jobs. As recently as 2012, GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney won 55 percent of the vote across them. But in 2016, Trump fell just under 50 percent, the first GOP nominee to lose them since Barry Goldwater running against native son Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964. In 2018, Democratic Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke carried all four of those metros with 54 percent of the vote.

in addition, GOP prospects are declining in Arizona’s pivotal Maricopa County, where a “fearsome surge [is]vnow buffeting the area.” As Brownstein concludes, “Across the Sun Belt, November will test whether Trump’s base-first strategy can overcome the resistance that’s coalescing against him in the population centers now confronting the full force of the coronavirus outbreak.”

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