It is very, very clear the rural/urban divide that is growing in America became a chasm last year. Just read Politico’s enlightening piece here. If you can get past the hidden references to “resentment” rural Americans have but that urban dwellers don’t harbor similar feelings it is a great read.
Despite the massive margins Trump racked up in rural areas the real battle was in the suburbs. It is here where Trump won the election. Unheralded by many analysts is Trump’s significant five percent margin in the rapidly diversifying and grow meccas of America. This was a three point improvement on Romney’s two point victory and importantly was based in critical, non-coastal states.
The great demographic misnomer of America is that urban cores and cities are growing. But, census and voter data shows suburbs and exurbs are growing at a much more rapid rate. Case in point, Trump states enjoyed a net-migration of 1.45 million compared to states Clinton win. The common belief is that this migration automatically benefits Democrats but she barely improved on Obama’s performance in Georgia, barely nudged him in Arizona and lost Florida and North Carolina. These states are states Democrats have been certain would flip with a weak Republican nominee at the top of the ticket. Instead, they stayed Republican.
With rural/urban becoming increasingly polarized and fewer votes to be squeezed out of both locales, the parties will have to duke it out in the suburbs. Not all suburbs are the same. California and New York’s suburbs are a deep shade of blue while Wisconsin’s and increasingly Minnesota’s are a deep red. Since Obama was first elected “suburbs” as they are defined by exit polls have become increasing right leaning. Obama won them in 2008 only to fall to 48 percent in 2012 and Clinton scored a paltry 45 percent (even John Kerry did better in his losing bid).
Again, not all suburbs are the same. Clinton squeezed an additional 50,000 votes out of Philly’s Collar Counties, did better in suburban Denver as well as central Florida’s heavily Dominican I-4 Corridor. However, she unperformed in many, older Rust Belt suburbs such as Erie (NY), Lehigh (PA), Hamilton (OH) and Kenosha (WI).
A majority of suburbs supported Trump in the swing states. Some suburbs such as Araphoe (Denver) and Loudoun (DC) that did not support Trump still swung for Congressional Republicans.
Among the suburbs that put Trump over the top was suburban Detroit. These old, sprawling suburbs supported Obama four years earlier but this time only Wayne County (Detroit) and Oakland went to Trump. The remaining four counties including historic Macomb County went heavily his way.
A similar state, Pennsylvania, followed the same pattern. Clinton garnered an additional 13,000 votes from Philly and about 50,000 more votes from Philly’s Collar Counties but Trump improved in industrial, suburban areas such as Berks and Lancaster Counties in the Southeast and Butler and Westmoreland, anchored by urban Pittsburgh. Trump even won historically blue Erie County anchored by suburban NYC by three points. Obama carried it by 16 points in 2012.
Wisconsin, Iowa’s and Ohio’s suburban counties swung the strongest to Trump. Trumbull and Lake in Ohio, Kenosha and Racine in Wisconsin and Dubuque in Iowa, all went for Trump by crushing margins. Clinton had no chance winning even with massive margins in the cities.
This tells us that the political battleground of the future will be the suburbs. The road to recovery for Democrats, thus, is to improve in the suburbs Trump did well in. Democrats will have to expand their message beyond a social issues driven, post-national borders ideology and focus on economic issues impacting more down-scale and while locales.
This will be difficult with increased Democratic unity in urban areas. Indeed, Clinton improved on Obama’s performance in many of the most populous counties in America. But, racking up such huge margins in the cities is not a consistent, winning strategy and as a result a new course is needed.
By a quirk of geography and environment many urban areas have lost their abilities to swing the Electoral College. With rural “resentment” growing due to liberal policies calling them everything from racist to fat the suburbs are the only place Democrats really have a chance to grow. Yet, they have been losing ground there since 2008.
By contrast, the GOP coalition assembled by Donald Trump showed remarkable resiliency compared to urban, dense enclaves. These places and their electoral power are not going away any time soon. Consider that areas outside million plus metropolitan areas constituted 100 percent of the vote in Iowa, 61 percent in Michigan, 47 percent in Michigan and 44 percent in Ohio. Minnesota would have probably flipped if not for 50 percent of its vote coming from the heavily Democratic Twin Cities.
The liberal talking point that Millennials and retirees will flock to urban areas is counteracted by the balance of the evidence. Indeed, many suburbs have been growing largely at the expense of denser, more urban cores. Between 2010-2015, suburban counties of major metropolitan areas added 825,000 net domestic migrants, while the urban core counties lost nearly 600,000. The evidence is mixed on whether these migrants will return the suburbs to a centrist 50/50 state or make them more traditionally conservative. Atlanta’s, Denver’s and Philly’s experience suggests the former while Ohio and Florida suggest the latter.
The defining split in suburbs may not be geography, but rather density. Closer suburbs to urban cores are becoming extensions of their big brothers and sisters while further out exurbs are mimicking the voting patterns of their rural neighbors. You can see this exhibited all across the political landscape where Trump lost dense, inner precincts but recovered by winning smaller but more numerous, exurban areas.
Fortunately for Republicans, exurban areas seem to be growing more than urban suburbs. To lock in their power Republicans should finally try to appeal to diversifying segments of the suburban electorate via school choice and infrastructure spending. Democrats need to craft a message that appeals beyond their urban core. We will see if they will.