Article created by The Century Foundation.
In the aftermath of the 2004 elections, many argued that the exurban vote was central to Bush’s victory. But, as I pointed out at the time, such analyses typically shoehorned far more of the country into the exurbs than could possibly be justified by standard geographic criteria. Exurbs, properly understood, are fringe counties of metropolitan areas that border on being rural. They are not another name for any fast-growing county outside of a metro area’s urban core.
Recent county codes developed by Robert Lang and his colleagues at Virginia Tech’s Metropolitan Institute (MI) allow for a clear, geographically sound demonstration of the limited political importance of true exurbs. Analysis based on these codes also reveals that counties in another category—emerging suburbs—were much more important to Bush’s victory and are much more contestable by the Democrats.
The MI codes break down the 417 counties in the top 50 metro areas in the United States (where over half the total population lives) into five categories: core, inner suburbs, mature suburbs, emerging suburbs, and exurbs. Exurban counties are described as:
the most far flung [metropolitan] counties with the lowest—essentially rural—population densities. Large-scale suburbanization is just about to take hold in these places, as they offer even better bargains, and more land (but longer commutes) than emerging counties. Exurban counties are included in metropolitan areas by the census because they share a functional relationship with neighboring counties via commuting. But by appearance, these places are barely touched by urbanization.
These exurban counties voted for Bush over Kerry by 62 percent to 37 percent, a lop-sided result, to be sure, and a ten-point gain in GOP margin over 2000. But these counties only contributed 9 percent of Bush’s net vote gains between 2000 and 2004, mostly due to their relatively modest population sizes.
The emerging suburban counties were more consequential, though the actual numbers of exurban and emerging suburban counties are roughly equal in the MI typology. They are described as:
the new “it” county of today. They are mostly the fastest growing counties in the region, and are often found in even slow growing regions such as St. Louis (e.g., St Charles County, MO) and Cincinnati (e.g., Boone County, KY). Emerging suburbs are almost wholly products of the past two decades and are booming with both people and the beginnings of commerce (although they remain mostly commuter zones). Emerging suburbs are both upscale and downscale and may feature everything from McMansions to trailer parks. Residents in emerging suburbs typically see these places as bargains compared to mature suburbs. That is true for households that buy a McMansion over an older and smaller tract home in a mature suburb, or a first-time homebuyer that “drives to qualify” by finding a modest attached dwelling at the edge of the region.
The Bush–Kerry split here was less lop-sided (56 percent to 43 percent) and represented only a five-point gain in margin over 2000. But since these emerging suburban counties are much larger than exurban counties, they contributed 26 percent of Bush’s net vote gains between 2000 and 2004, dwarfing the exurban contribution.
Besides the relatively smaller GOP margin in these counties in 2004, note that the GOP margin in these counties in 2000 was only 52 percent to 44 percent and in 1996 a mere 45 percent to 44 percent. It’s clear that emerging suburban counties are not only far more important to Bush’s coalition than exurban counties, but also far more contestable by the Democrats, a political reality that should trouble the GOP.
Indeed, it already is. In the MI typology, Loudoun and Prince William counties in Virginia, where Democrat Timothy Kaine did so well against Republican Jerry Kilgore, are classified as emerging suburban counties, while Kilgore won easily in Fauquier and Stafford counties, which are classified as exurban. But since Loudoun and Prince William are so much more populous than Fauquier and Stafford, Kaine’s victory in the former counties counted for a great deal more than Kilgore’s victories in the latter counties.
Another way of thinking about the GOP’s emerging suburbs problem is provided by Ross Douthat’s and Reihan Salam’s article on Sam’s Club Republicans in the Weekly Standard. In this very interesting article, Douthat and Salam—Republicans and conservatives, themselves—remind the GOP that today their party is:
an increasingly working-class party, dependent for its power on supermajorities of the white working class vote, and a party whose constituents are surprisingly comfortable with bad-but-popular liberal ideas like raising the minimum wage, expanding clumsy environmental regulations, or hiking taxes on the wealthy to fund a health care entitlement. To borrow a phrase from Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, Republicans are now “the party of Sam’s Club, not just the country club.”
They define the white working class, as I do, as whites who lack a four year college degree. And who lives in emerging suburbs? As a close read of the MI description of emerging suburbs suggests, these areas, while they do have substantial communities of affluent McMansion dwellers, also are full of voters, overwhelmingly white, of much more modest means living in much more modest circumstances. Indeed, my analysis of Census data indicates that these emerging suburbs are 79 percent white nonhispanic and 74 percent non-college educated among those age twenty-five and older.
So, forget the exurbs. The battle for the Sam’s Club Republicans has begun and the emerging suburbs, not the exurbs, will be front and center in that battle. Judging from the most recent elections and polling data, progressives have a real shot at these voters, while Republicans will be fighting just to contain their losses.
In the last few weeks, Bush’s overall approval rating appears to have improved by several points. But that’s not because the public’s views on the Iraq situation have changed much and certainly not because they’re convinced Bush has the foggiest idea of what to do about that situation. Consider these data from the latest CBS News/New York Times Poll.
1. Do people think Bush has clearly explained what the U.S. goals are in Iraq? No, by 61 percent to 35 percent, they don’t think he has.
2. Do they think Bush has a clear plan for victory in Iraq? No, by 68 percent to 25 percent, they don’t think so.
3. Do they think Bush has a clear plan for getting American troops out of Iraq? No, by 70 percent to 25 percent, they don’t think so.
4. And do they believe Bush has clearly explained how long U.S. military forces will have to remain in Iraq? No, by an overwhelmingly 81 percent to 15 percent, they don’t believe he has.
5. When asked what the United States should do in Iraq right now, 60 percent want either to decrease the number of troops in Iraq (32 percent) or remove them all (28 percent).
6. When asked a very straightforward question—no qualifiers or positive and negative arguments—about whether “the United States should or should not set a time-table for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq,” 58 percent agree and just 39 percent disagree.
So what do many Democratic leaders do in this situation, which would appear to call for a clear plan (in contrast to Bush) for getting out of Iraq, including specific plans and a timetable for troop withdrawal? Wring their hands, worry about appearing “weak,” attack one another for being “irresponsible” and resolutely refuse to unite around the very kind of clear plan the public is so obviously looking for.
Weird. As E. J. Dionne put it in his December 13 column:
Democrats are so obsessed with not looking “weak” on defense that they end up making themselves look weak, period, by the way they respond to Republican attacks on their alleged weakness. Oh my gosh, many Democrats say, we can’t associate ourselves with the likes of Howard Dean or Nancy Pelosi, the House Democratic leader who recently called for a troop withdrawal within six months. Let’s knife them before Karl Rove gets around to knifing us. Talk about a recipe for retreat and defeat.
Indeed. If Democrats hope to “Iraq the vote” in the 2006 elections, a clear position on the issue will help a great deal more than the dithering and back-stabbing they’ve been indulging in lately. Otherwise, voters are likely to conclude that, while Bush doesn’t appear to know what he’s doing, neither do the Democrats. And that truly is a recipe for defeat.