Within the handful of swing states, the presidential election will come down to a handful of swing counties: namely the suburban voters who reside in about the last contested places in American politics.
Even in solid-red states, big cities tilt overwhelmingly toward President Obama and the Democrats, and even in solid-blue ones, the countryside tends to be solidly Republican.
What remains contested are the suburbs, which—despite the breathless talk in recent years of an urban revival—have accounted for 90 percent of metropolitan growth over the past decade.
But as the suburbs have grown—in large part by collecting families priced out of cities or seeking more space or better schools—they’ve shifted from reliably Republican territory to contested turf. Barack Obama won 50 percent of the suburban vote in 2008, a better performance than either Bill Clinton or John Kerry.
Obama’s success resulted from demographic changes sweeping the periphery of most major cities. Long derided by blue-state intellectuals as stultifying breeders of homogeneous white bread, the suburbs increasingly reflect and shape the country’s ethnic diversification. The majority of foreign-born Americans now live in suburbs, and many suburban towns—like Plano, Texas, outside Dallas; Cerritos, south of Los Angeles; and Bellevue, near Seattle—have become more ethnically diverse than their corresponding core cities. Among the metropolitan areas with the highest percentage of suburban minority growth are swing state regions Des Moines, Iowa; Milwaukee; and Allentown and Scranton, Pa.
Minorities, according to a recent Brookings study now represent 35 percent of suburban residents, similar to their share of overall U.S. population.
The suburbs of Las Vegas in hotly contested Nevada are now minority-majority, as the number of Latinos living there has shot up. Nationwide, well over 5 million Latinos moved to the suburbs during the past decade—and many more Latinos now live in suburbs than core cities. In the past, Hispanic suburbanites tended to vote somewhat more Republican than their urban counterparts. But this year, they appear to be solidly Democratic—as Latinos have been repelled by the GOP’s ugly embrace of nativism ,and drawn to Obama’s clever election-year move to offer effective amnesty to young illegal immigrants.
Asians—another group that’s strongly favored Obama—have moved even more quickly into the suburbs. While many immigrants hail from some of the world’s densest cities, few immigrants come to America dreaming of a small apartment near a transit stop.
“Many Asian immigrants today are bypassing the city entirely and going straight to suburban neighborhoods first to fulfill their version of the American dream,” says Thomas Tseng, a founding principal at New American Dimensions, a Los Angeles–based ethnic marketing and research firm.
Over the past decade the Asian population in suburbs has grown at nearly four times the rate of that in cities, with 2.7 million more Asians in suburbia compared to 770,000 in the core cities. In the northern Virginia suburbs around Richmond, the number of Asian suburbanites has doubled, as it has in the suburbs around Columbus and Cincinnati. The Asian suburban population nearly tripled in the Raleigh area and doubled around Charlotte. Even in Florida, there are now well more than 100,000 more Asians in the suburbs of the Sunshine State’s four major cities—Miami, Jacksonville, Orlando, and Tampa—than there were a decade ago.
Obama also will likely receive significant backing from white professionals, who tend to cluster in the suburbs of cities such as Columbus or around Washington, D.C. Virtually all the 10-best educated counties in America are suburban; seven are in the greater Washington area. The fact that many of these professionals work directly or indirectly for the federal government that Obama has expanded dramatically will only help him in his bid to remain in the White House.
So what about Romney? He’s clearly a product of the suburbs, growing up in the tony periphery of Detroit and now living in leafy Belmont, Mass., a comfy close-in commuter suburb that has seen little population growth since 1950.
In the primaries, Romney did well in suburbs, particularly upper-class ones, and those voters played a critical role in putting him over the top against Rick Santorum.
Romney continues to score roughly 50 percent support in polls with voters making at least $100,000, a group that tends to live in affluent commuter towns ringing cities. But to win, the Republican needs to reproduce his party’s wave of 2010, when they captured roughly 55 percent of the suburban vote on their way to retaking the House. But can Romney reach beyond his classic country-club GOP base to the middle- and working-class swing state suburban voters?
On paper, he should do well in lower density suburban areas, in large part because they tend to have far larger concentrations of married families with children, a group that tilts Republican. But despite his own family, he’s been overshadowed by Obama’s better-marketed, albeit far smaller, domestic unit.
Romney also may be missing a chance to appeal to suburbanites on the contentious issue of “smart growth.” Opposition to suburban housing has become a favorite cause among Democratic politicians, and widely praised by the Manhattan-centric national media.
But Romney, in his term as governor of Massachusetts, was a classic patrician corporate modernizer, showing a penchant for the kind of planning that uses strict growth controls to constrain suburban expansion.
In this sense Romney resembles other politicians from the gentry class—such as Al Gore, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and John Kerry—who, in the name of “rational” societal objectives, make it harder for middling-class people to achieve the suburban dream they’ve taken for themselves.
So while they represent the majority of the nation, suburban voters have no real champion in this election. Taken for granted by conservatives and betrayed by Wall Street, they have few friends in high places—except at election time. They are also increasingly detested by progressives, a long way from the days when Bill Clinton keyed in on “soccer moms.” Instead the suburbs have evolved into a shapeless political lump, divided by income and race, cultural conflict, and regional rivalries.
On balance, this all works to the president’s favor. If Obama can manage anything close to a split in suburbia, as he did in 2008, he will surely win a second term. Such a loss, at a time of economic hardship, may be enough to force even the dullards of the GOP back to the drawing board to confront their inability to win over enough of the suburban voters (homeowners, small businesspeople, parents of any races)—who should provide the GOP an electoral majority, but so far are not.