Why the 2020 Election Will Be Decided in Suburbia

American politics is increasingly about dueling geographies. Democrats have become the party of the nation’s cities, while the Republican Party finds its base in rural, small town and low-density exurban America, places of less extreme class divisions than the big cities, but also with less diversity and a smaller share of the population.

Yet the political fulcrum of 2020 won’t be found in these competing universes — but in suburbia.

Since 2012, suburbs and exurbs account for about 90% of all metropolitan-area growth. Home to over 80% of residents of the nation’s 53 largest metro areas, the suburbs have nearly half of all voters. Florida has long been the ultimate swing state. As one political analyst put it: “Suburbs are the new Florida.”

In recent years, both cities and rural areas have become more politically monolithic. In 2008, Barack Obama won nearly one quarter of the country’s non-metro counties. Eight years later, Hillary Clinton won barely 10%.

At the same time, voters in big cities have become more rigidly Democratic. In 1984, for example, Ronald Reagan won 31% of the vote in San Francisco and 27.4% in Manhattan. In 2016, Donald Trump won only 10% of the vote in San Francisco and Manhattan.

In sharp contrast, suburban areas remain remarkably well-divided. For the past 20 years the Republican-leaning suburban voters have held steady at 47%, with Democratic leaners at 45%. Successful presidential candidates need to win the suburbs. In 2008, Obama, with many suburbanites under water from the financial crisis, won the suburban vote and the election.

Though suburban voters are evenly split, they can also be fickle, sensitive to immediate economic challenges and less politically ideological. Of the 41 congressional districts that flipped from Republican to Democratic in 2018, 38 were suburban, fueled by a rejection of Trump’s policies such as harsh immigration rules and limiting deductions on taxes — particularly important in diverse high-cost states like California — as well as his personal behavior.

Joe Biden currently holds a big edge with suburban voters, including in key states like Ohio. But there’s time for Trump to shift those voters to his side with pragmatic policies that speak to their needs. Instead, he is using the suburbs as a mythical backdrop for a white suburban identity, even as the suburbs become more racially and economically diverse.

So, he has called out to “the Suburban Housewives of America,“ telling them that “Biden will destroy your neighborhood and your American Dream. I will preserve it, and make it even better!” To show that he has a suburban-centered policy, he recently repealed a 2015 Obama-era regulation, created under the 1968 Fair Housing Act, directing local governments to look for patterns of de facto discrimination or segregation in housing and address them. For that, Trump is casting himself as a defender of the suburbs from an invasion of low-income people.

Trump’s instinct to exploit fear and anxiety is usually quite effective. But that alone is unlikely to win back suburban women, who are abandoning the GOP as never before. One recent national poll found that 68% of suburban women disapproved of the job Trump is doing overall, and 55% said they “strongly” disapprove.

One trouble with Trump is that he’s clueless about who lives in the suburbs now — they are not “housewives” for the most part. This blindness makes it hard for him to come up with policies that actual suburbanites would embrace. But he is right about one thing: The Democrats aren’t necessarily addressing those desires either.

First of all, many people moving into suburbs are millennials, those in their mid-20s to late 30s, who were ditching big metro areas even before the pandemic. Since the coronavirus outbreak, less dense areas, like the suburbs, are growing much faster than denser ones, according to a forecast report from the American Enterprise Institute. And millennials seem increasingly to have the housing preferences of their parents.

Secondly, the suburbs are more diverse now than ever. From 1990 to 2010, the white share of suburbanites fell from 81% to 65%, according to Brookings. More than a third of the 13.3 million new suburbanites between 2000 and 2010 were Hispanic, with whites accounting for a mere fifth of suburban growth. The share of Black residents living in the suburbs of large metro areas rose from 37% in 1990, to 44% in 2000, to 51% in 2010.

People seek out the suburbs because they are relatively affordable, compared with housing in bigger cities, and offer more space, better schools or less crime. Even suburbanites who are “woke” on issues of the environment, race or gender still have economic and family interests, and prefer to control their own communities.

The real issues for suburbanites are those neither party seems capable of addressing — such as improving public education (not simply less or more money), promoting housing programs that would appeal to families eager for single-family developments and affordable homeownership, encouraging remote work and creating economic incentives that could draw higher paying jobs to suburbs, which would in turn reduce long-distance commutes.

For Democrats, the conflict between the desires of millennials for space and safety and the urban-centric policy goals of many party leaders could prove troublesome.

Progressives in California, Oregon and Minnesota have pushed bans on single-family zoning, with many on the left arguing that single-family zoning promotes racial segregation, worsens the housing shortage and increases traffic and pollution.

This drive for density, however, as Kevin Drum of Mother Jones argues, could prove “political suicide” for the Democrats. “The whole point of living in the suburbs is that it’s not the big city,” he notes. “This means that trying to convince suburbanites to become more like big cities is simply hopeless.”

These policies could threaten long-term suburban gains for Democrats — even while millennials, who tend to have very liberal views on race, gender and climate issues, settle into the suburbs. These voters do not react as well as their country cousins to Trumpism’s nativism and were widely considered the cause of the 2018 Republican losses in places like northern Virginia, Orange County and the suburbs outside Houston.

To keep a grip on the suburbs, Democrats cannot count on conservative cluelessness forever, nor can Republicans think that racial dog whistles will bring in the voters on the periphery. Today, both parties still fail to understand the changing demographics and fundamental appeal of the suburbs. Ultimately, the party that best figures out what suburbanites want — and do not want — will likely be the one that prevails in the decades ahead.

This piece first appeared on the Los Angeles Times.

Joel Kotkin is the author of The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class. He is the Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and Executive Director for Urban Reform Institute. Learn more at joelkotkin.com and follow him on Twitter @joelkotkin.

Podcast Episode 8: Making Sense of Urban Density, Death Rates & Dispersion with Wendell Cox

In this episode of the Feudal Future podcast, urban policy expert and noted demographer Wendell Cox joins hosts Joel and Marshall for a conversation on the COVID-19 pandemic, death rates, and public policy.

The Heartland’s Revival

For roughly the past half century, the middle swath of America has been widely written off as reactionary, backward, and des­tined for unceasing decline. CNBC recently ranked the “worst states” to live in, and almost all were in what is typically defined as the Heartland.1 Paul Krugman of the New York Times sees the region populated by “jobless men in their prime working years, with many suffering ‘deaths of despair’ by drugs, alcohol or suicide.”

Another Times article describes much of the small-town and rural areas as home to “the left behind”—Trumpian knuckle-draggers at war with modernity. This coastal contempt for the interior is nothing new, going back to celebrated figures such as Sinclair Lewis and H. L. Mencken, who dismissed it as hopelessly “backward if not reactionary.”2 Two New Jersey academics have even proposed, with the ap­proval of much of the national media, that large parts of the Great Plains be evacuated to make way for an expansive “Buffalo Commons.”3 One progressive publication suggested that the country should send “reparations” to the region, as if it were incapable of devising its own recovery.

Yet in reality, the Heartland—a region of twenty states between the Appalachians and the Rockies—has remained a critical part of our country. In 2016, this area generated nearly $5 trillion in goods and services.4 As of 2015, it was also home to nearly 60 percent of the U.S. population,5 a percentage that is likely to increase as both the North­east and coastal California are projected to grow less than the national average between 2010 and 2030.6

To be sure, the Midwest and the less urbanized South have lagged behind, but the Heartland now also boasts some of the fastest-grow­ing large metros. This revival reprises the critical role of the vast inte­rior in providing what Japanese political scientist Fuji Kamiya de­scribed as sokojikara, or “reserve power,” the unique combination of Ameri­ca’s vast fertility, its openness to change, and innovative spirit.7 Through­out its history, America’s continental mass has been a key element of our economic, social, and demographic strength. Abraham Lincoln described it as constituting “the great body of the Republic.”8

The New Demography

Those pontificating about Heartland decline from Manhattan, Wash­ington, Los Angeles, and San Francisco might consider looking more closely at demographic trends, which even before the pandemic were working in favor of much of the Heartland. In contrast, the great “urban renaissance” of the first decade of this century had a shorter run time than many anticipated.

New York epitomizes these trends. In the years right after the Great Recession, New York was gaining as much as fifty to eighty thousand people per year. By 2018, it was losing some forty thousand annually. Over the last several years, Chicago and the Los Angeles area have also lost population, both to surrounding suburbs and from people leaving the region entirely, notes Bill Frey of the Brookings Institution.

As both Frey’s research and a recent study from Heartland For­ward demonstrate, outside of Florida and the southeast coast, the cities growing fastest have been in the Heartland—Dallas–Fort Worth, Houston, Austin, Nashville, Columbus, Indianapolis, and Des Moines. More remarkable—or unexpected—has been the demo­graphic resur­gence of some even smaller regions, such as the Fayetteville-Benton­ville-Rogers-Springdale area in northwestern Arkansas; Fargo, North Dakota; Madison, Wisconsin; and Grand Rapids, Mich­igan.

These are not entirely new trends. Dispersion of both jobs and people started taking place as early as the 1970s, well before the cur­rent upsurge.9 Looking back, Frey suggests that the big city growth en­joyed in the period after the Great Recession represented something of “an aberration of historical patterns.” The old demographic normal has simply become the new normal again.

The shift to Heartland cities is driven by the migration of both immigrants and millennials. Today the South and increasingly the Midwest have emerged as primary destinations for immigrants, both directly and from the coasts. Similarly, much of the recent migration from Puerto Rico has been concentrated in the Midwest. Immigrants are particularly prominent as Main Street entrepreneurs; in Ohio, they now constitute one in five small business owners.

Equally critical have been the shifts in millennial migration. It has been widely asserted by urban cheerleaders, such as Neil Irwin of the New York Times, that places like New York, San Francisco, and Seat­tle would prevail since they have “the best chance of recruiting super­star em­ployees.” The Times described Iowa as a place millennials are leaving, but nearly 15 percent of the population around Des Moines, the state’s capital and largest city, is between the ages of twenty-five and thirty-four, ranking it seventh among the fifty-four U.S. metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs) with between five hundred thousand and one million people. Perhaps more impressive, nearly 53 percent of local millennials have at least a two-year degree, the fourth highest rate among all MSAs in Des Moines’s population category.

Increasingly, as urban pundit Richard Florida has noted, the new growth of the “creative class”—the well-educated millennials critical to the urban renaissance—is “shifting away from superstar cities.” Large Heartland metropolitan areas like Nashville, Austin, Detroit, San Antonio, Grand Rapids, and Dallas–Fort Worth are all gaining educated millennials far more rapidly than coastal “magnets” like New York, Los Angeles, or even the Bay Area.

Read the rest of this piece at American Affairs Journal.


1 Scott Cohn, “These Are the Worst Places to Live in America in 2019,” CNBC, July 10, 2019.

2 Jon K. Lauck, From Warm Center to Ragged Edge: The Erosion of Midwestern Literary and Historical Realism: 1920-1965 (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2017), 51–57.

3 Richard Rubin, “Not Far from Forsaken,” New York Times, April 9, 2006; Deborah Epstein Popper and Frank J. Popper, “The Great Plains: From Dust to Dust,” Planning Magazine (December 1987).

4 Michael Lind and Joel Kotkin, The New American Heartland (Center for Opportunity Urbanism, 2017).

5 United States Census Bureau, “United States Population Growth by Region,” 2015.

6 Rolf Pendall et al., “Scenarios for Regional Growth from 2010 to 2030,” Mapping America’s Futures, Brief 1, Urban Institute, January 2015, 9. California analysis based on population projections from: State of California Department of Finance, “Projections,” January 10, 2020.

7 “2005 Nen Wa Nihon No Tagagore,” Shokun, February 2007.

8 Lauck, From Warm Center to Ragged Edge, 1.

9 John Herbers, The New Heartland: America’s Flight Beyond the Suburbs and How It Is Changing Our Future (New York: Crown, 1986), 3–9.

10 Derek Thompson, “The Feedback Loop That Will Makes America’s Richest Cities Even Richer,” Atlantic, March 26, 2015; Saskia Sassen, Cities in a World Economy (Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Pine Forge Press, 2000), 2–4, 15, 61.

Joel Kotkin is the author of The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class. He is the Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and Executive Director for Urban Reform Institute. Learn more at joelkotkin.com and follow him on Twitter @joelkotkin.

Photo credit: National Gallery, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, image in Public Domain

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