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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

How Well Do Democrats Navigate the New ‘Burbs?

Daniel McGraw ponders “What Even Are the Suburbs Nowadays, Anyway? If you want to understand American politics, you need to understand how suburbia has changed in the last half-century” at The Bulwark. As McGraw writes,

The suburban voters in the 2024 election are thought to be key to who will be voted in as the next president, and some analysts are treating this large segment of the population as comparable to the national voter mix (40 R / 40 D / 20 independent), and not much differentiating between suburbs in different states and around different urban areas.

“Time for a reality check,” writes Ruy Teixeira, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and well-respected political demographer and commentator. “Start with the demographic contours of the suburban vote. The idea seems to be that the suburbs are full of liberal, highly-educated voters who are likely to be permanent recruits to the anti-MAGA army. There are certainly some, but actually-existing suburban voters are quite different—and more complex—than this caricature.”

So what is suburbia really in 2023, how has it changed, and how should we think about it politically?

First, the old suburbs in the Northeast and Midwest (both of which regions are losing population) are nothing like the newer ones in the West and South.

Second, the hub-and-spoke model of central cities and suburbs that surround them has been blown apart in recent decades, especially in places like Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Atlanta.

And third, though the suburban demographics are very different nowadays, the issues that matter are still, as they always have been, at the top of the lists of what suburban voters care about: education, public safety, affordable housing, transportation, fair pay. What’s not up there, at least based on the polls: the Big Lie, climate change, gentrification, and voting changes. Which suggests that in the 2024 cycle, “What have you done for me lately?” political thinking will likely predominate over matters of ideological identity.

As for the political ramifications of the transformation of the ‘burbs, McGraw explains:

Moreover, the suburban population has changed quite a bit, becoming more racially diverse and educationally inclusive. According to William H. Frey, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who keeps an eye on the ever-changing suburbs, the suburban population is “more racially diverse than the rest of the country as a whole,” with suburbs in the South and the West being more racially diverse than those of the Midwest and Northeast suburbs. “Black flight” has overtaken white flight in these growth areas.

Frey’s data breakdown of the metro areas shows how this diversity of the suburban population might have a big influence on the 2024 election. The suburbanites in the old swing states’ metro areas are majority white: Philadelphia (68 percent white), Detroit (73 percent), and Milwaukee (83 percent). By contrast, the metro areas that will be the presidential kingmakers this time around are not so much: Atlanta (44 percent white), Las Vegas (34 percent), and Phoenix (60 percent). These are three of the fastest growing metro areas in the country.

If you want to win the Electoral College votes of Georgia, Nevada, and Arizona in 2024, you’ll have to win those three suburbs—after all, the Atlanta area has 56 percent of the entire Georgia population, Las Vegas is 72 percent of Nevada, and Phoenix is 67 percent of Arizona, and those metro areas tend to be about two-thirds suburban.

Phoenix is a good example. Maricopa County voted for Mitt Romney over Barack Obama by 54-44 in 2012, went for Donald Trump narrowly (46-44) in 2016, and gave Biden the win (50-48) in 2020. In the recent runoff Senate election in Georgia, Sen. Raphael Warnock won the eleven-county (mostly suburban) Atlanta metro area by about 500,000 votes. Republican candidate Herschel Walker won the rest of the state by 410,000. The voting math of suburban Atlanta is front and center.

McGraw adds, “The ability to tweak political messaging is hugely important, and in 2024, calibrating the message for the suburbs will be huge….So which party is better positioning itself for success in the suburbs in 2024?” Further,

Republicans are playing the “We won’t fund anything and we’ll investigate everyone” game. That never plays well in the long term.

As for the Democrats, going into 2024, the Atlanta, Phoenix, and Las Vegas metro areas will all be getting their share of the trillion-dollar infrastructure investment, pandemic relief, and economic stimulus cash cow that the Biden administration dropped. Those areas’ suburban voters are going to see shovel-ready projects begun, electric vehicle battery plants open, and chip and semiconductor manufacturing plants opening as well, as well as clean-energy job creation taking place. Already, the Biden administration is targeting such job creation in Georgia, Arizona, and Nevada. Because in the end, the American people like to eat and buy clothes and drive their cars.

Democrats certainly hope that will help. Traditionally, however, Democrats have put more energy into publicizing what they say they are are going to do, rather than getting credit for the things they actually accomplish.  Much depends on how persuasively the Democrats ‘brand’ the shovel-ready, clean-energy and other job-creation projects after they are up and running.

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