Surveying the Democratic wreckage after a disastrous 1952 campaign, Robert Taft, the typically taciturn Ohio Republican senator, made a bold prediction about the opposition. “The Democratic Party,” the one-time Senate majority leader asserted, “will never win another national election until it solves the problem of the suburbs.”
Taft wasn’t exactly right, but he wasn’t wrong either. The millions of voters fleeing overcrowded cities to seek the American dream would ultimately power Republicans to victory in six of the next nine presidential elections, and in the process, reshape the GOP’s post-war image as the party of the suburbs.
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But that Republican Party is now gone, and suburbia is no longer its trusted wingman. While Donald Trump managed to win the suburbs narrowly in 2016, 49 percent to Hillary Clinton’s 45 percent, a little over half of suburbia voted against him, according to exit polls. This marks the third presidential election in a row where the GOP nominee failed to crack 50 percent of the suburban vote.
Once the Republican Party’s stronghold, suburban America threatens now to become its nemesis. A combination of demographic change and cultural dissonance is gradually eroding its ability to compete across much of suburbia, putting entire areas of the country out of the GOP’s reach. It’s a bigger crisis than the party acknowledges, a reckoning that threatens Trump’s re-election and the next generation of Republican office-seekers.
Karen Handel’s Georgia special election victory Tuesday enabled the GOP to kick the can down the road, but not for long. The same Atlanta suburbs that once produced Republicans like Newt Gingrich voted for Clinton in November. They followed up a few months later by nearly sending a 30-year-old, first-time Democratic candidate to Congress. Republicans may be gloating now, but it’s an ominous sign for the 2018 midterm elections, when control of the House is likely to hinge on roughly two or three dozen suburban districts currently held by the GOP.
Trump won the 2016 election, of course, boosted by the margins he ran up in smaller cities and rural areas. But he lost the populous close-in suburbs of Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., home to the precincts that first heralded suburbia’s arrival as a political powerhouse. That wasn’t the real story, though. He was also defeated in other, later-blooming suburban giants, including Atlanta’s Cobb County and Southern California’s iconic Orange County, both one-time exporters of Sun Belt conservatism that occupy storied roles in the formation of the contemporary Republican Party.
There’s a reason Ronald Reagan once said Orange County was the place good Republicans go to die—before 2016, it had last voted Democratic for president more than 80 years ago. The symbolism of Trump’s defeat in one of the GOP’s holy places was apt: This was the election where the full extent of the party’s suburban rot was finally revealed.
Never mind the places he lost. He also barely squeaked by in traditional GOP stalwarts like Richmond’s Chesterfield County—the most populous in the state outside Northern Virginia— and Johnson County, the wealthy Kansas-side suburb of Kansas City. In many of the rock-ribbed Republican suburbs where Trump won easily—places like Waukesha County outside Milwaukee, and Hamilton County, on the outskirts of Indianapolis—he trailed well behind Mitt Romney’s 2012 pace.
Some of the erosion can be written off as a one-time reaction to Trump, a candidate uniquely ill-suited for the suburbs. His populist style—the bombast, belligerence and frank disregard for credentialed elites—sounded discordant notes in the more comfortable precincts, among the well-educated professionals who flocked to John Kasich and Marco Rubio during the GOP primary. So did Trump’s caustic or tin-eared statements on gender, race and ethnicity on a suburban landscape that bears little resemblance to the original lily-white version.
But the truth is that Trump arrived in what was already the twilight of the GOP’s suburban era.
In the decades following World War II, the suburbs formed the electoral backbone of the party, providing a reliable counterweight to big-city Democratic margins. The GOP was quick to grasp the new math in the 1950s, viewing the flight from the cities as an adrenaline shot for what was then a flat-lining party. Republicans celebrated the suburban way of life—and its consumption ethos—while Democrats, wedded to powerful big-city mayors and their machines, consistently derided it.
“Have you ever lived in the suburbs?” joked New York City Mayor Ed Koch in 1982. “It’s sterile. It’s nothing. It’s wasting your life.”
For suburbia, the GOP functioned not just as a validator of its lifestyle but as a guarantor. It was the party of growth, low taxes and law-and-order. Just as important, it served as a bulwark against racial integration and a vigorous critic of the big-city dysfunction that many suburban voters had fled. In return, the suburbs delivered a loyal and ever-expanding vote. By 1980, in a Frederick Jackson Turner-esque moment, the number of those living in the suburbs finally surpassed the number living in the central cities.
It wasn’t until the early 1990s that Democrats finally made a full-fledged, unqualified play for the suburban vote. Bill Clinton explicitly targeted the tax-sensitive suburban middle class, speaking of “personal responsibility,” pushing for welfare reform and calling for the abandonment of Democrats’ free-spending policies of the past. The Northeastern and Midwestern suburbs were the first to go wobbly on the GOP, turned off by the culture wars waged by an increasingly Southern and socially conservative party.
Other subtle but important changes began to loosen the GOP’s grip. As the suburbs aged, they began to experience more and more of the pathologies previously associated with the cities—among them increased crime, poverty and crumbling infrastructure. At the same time, America’s great cities began to return to relative health.
Together, those developments brought some equilibrium to the relationship. The politics of the bogeyman-next-door began to lose its potency. City limits—like 8 Mile Road in Detroit or City Line Avenue in Philadelphia—began to look less and less like political Maginot lines.
Perhaps the biggest change of all: The suburbs themselves grew far more diverse. Between 2000 and 2010, the number of racially diverse suburbs increased by 37 percent, growing at a faster clip than majority-white suburbs, according to one study.
The American Communities Project, which has developed a typology of counties, calls these kinds of wealthier and more diverse places “urban suburbs.” According to the ACP designation, there are 106 counties—with a combined population of 66.5 million—that include the near-in suburbs of most major cities that display many big-city characteristics. In 2016, Trump lost 89 of them. That’s a dramatic departure from Ronald Reagan’s 1984 performance in those places—he won 92 of those 106, including white-collar Oakland County outside Detroit; Long Island’s Nassau County; Chicagoland’s DuPage County and Riverside and San Bernardino counties in southern California. All of them are bigger than most major cities.
What happened in between Reagan and Trump? These suburbs gradually came into political alignment with their neighboring cities, moving the longtime antagonists toward something like a metropolitan alliance. At roughly the same time, the GOP largely gave up on competing among minorities and in the most densely populated areas.
The new GOP iteration differs in at least one important way from the one that dominated the suburbs in the Reagan years: It is now a conservative party that rejects metropolitan values, rather than a metropolitan party that embraces conservative values.
The threat to the party caused by the slow suburban bleed has gone all but unnoticed. Yet we’ve already gotten a glimpse of what the future could look like.
New York state stopped being competitive around the same time the populous New York City suburbs began going blue. The days when the GOP could carry Maryland ended when Baltimore County left the fold. Colorado and Virginia are likely to be the next dominoes to fall. Colorado’s Arapahoe and Jefferson counties, home to roughly 1.3 million residents, voted Republican in eight consecutive presidential elections through 2004. But since then, they’ve voted Democratic in the last three. In November, Trump bottomed out at 39 percent of the Arapahoe vote.
Pennsylvania is another state where GOP presidential fortunes hit a wall once the Philadelphia suburbs drifted away—that is, until last year. Trump’s great electoral accomplishment was to figure out a workaround to the GOP’s suburban erosion in places like Pennsylvania. He managed to overcome President Obama’s metropolitan Death Star with a patchwork alliance: forgotten and overlooked rural and small-town America, combined with smaller, whiter and less affluent suburbs. It wasn’t enough to win the national popular vote, but it did provide enough of a margin to carry several key states—namely Wisconsin and Pennsylvania—where the GOP nominee had been shut out for decades.
Trump’s coalition relied on several factors that won’t be easy to replicate going forward, though. First among them: Trump’s opponent. No matter the place designation—urban, suburban or rural—Clinton ran behind Obama’s pace, according to exit polls. And in the suburbs, she was outperformed by Obama, John Kerry and Al Gore.
Trump’s victory was also rooted in the strongest rural performance by a presidential nominee in decades—he won 61 percent amid a huge turnout. That’s where the GOP’s math problem comes in. To win re-election, Trump will need another gangbuster rural showing, and to improve or at least maintain his 2016 levels in the suburbs, where roughly half the vote was cast last year. There’s little margin for error: Amped-up turnout in just three big cities alone—Detroit, Milwaukee and Philadelphia—could have flipped the 2016 election.
Yet there are few signs that he’s improving his standing in suburbia—and some evidence it’s getting worse. The most recent POLITICO/Morning Consult poll puts the president’s approval ratings in the suburbs at just 42 percent, compared with 53 percent who disapprove. In the suburban Atlanta district that hosted Tuesday’s special election, Trump’s approval ratings were also underwater – 45 percent, according to one GOP poll.
One siren just sounded in a conservative suburban New York state legislative district that Trump carried by 23 points in November. In a stunning late May special election upset, the Democrat flipped the traditional script and won by 18—in a seat where no Democratic Assembly candidate had been competitive in the past two decades.
Three years is a long time, but it won’t be easy for Trump to win over his suburban detractors. Recent history suggests that once these big suburbs go blue, they don’t come back. Suburban Baltimore County, which once produced Spiro Agnew, went Democratic for president in 1992 and never returned. The same holds true for the big three Philadelphia suburban counties—Bucks, Delaware and Montgomery—all of which broke with habit to vote for Bill Clinton in 1992 and haven’t voted for a Republican nominee since.
The president need only gaze across the Potomac to get a close look at the problem. Northern Virginia’s suburban behemoth, Fairfax County, flipped in 2004—by 2016, Trump could manage only an anemic 29 percent there. In nearby Loudoun and Prince William counties, the tipping point came in 2008.
No Republican has won the presidency in the post-war era without winning the suburbs. Trump will put that to the test in 2020. And with that, the GOP’s suburban era may come full circle, with Republican leaders forced to offer some version of famed Chicago Democratic boss Jake Arvey’s 1952 post-election lament: “The suburbs were murder.”