Suburban Nation, but Urban Policies

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Ideologues may set the tone for the national debate, but geography and demography determine elections.

In America, the dominant geography continues to be suburbia – home to at least 60 percent of the population and probably more than that portion of the electorate. Roughly 220 congressional districts, or more than half the nation’s 435, are predominately suburban, according to a 2005 Congressional Quarterly study. This is likely to only increase in the next decade, as Millennials begin en masse to enter their 30s and move to the periphery.

Now the earth is shaking under suburban topsoil — in ways that could be harmful to Democratic prospects. “The GOP path to success,” according to a recent Princeton Survey Research Associates study of suburban attitudes, “goes right through the suburbs.”

The connection between suburbs and political victory should have been clear by now. Middle- and working-class suburbanites keyed the surprising election win of Republican Sen. Scott Brown in Massachusetts in January. Suburban voters were also crucial to the 2009 Republican gubernatorial victories in Virginia and New Jersey, two key swing states.

Nationally, suburban approval for the Democrats has dropped to 39 percent this year, from 48 percent two years ago. Disapproval for President Barack Obama is also high — nearly 48 percent of suburbanites disapprove, compared to only 35 percent of urbanites. Even Obama’s strong support among minority suburbanites, a fast-growing group, has declined substantially.

Many suburban voters, notes Lawrence Levy, executive director of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University, appear to be undergoing “buyer’s remorse” for backing Obama and the Democrats last time around .

Much of the suburban distress, of course, stems from the still perilous state of the economy. Obama’s mix of fiscal and monetary policies has provided much succor to Wall Street, where stock prices have soared 30 percent, and to big corporations, whose profits have risen by 42 percent. This has been great for Manhattan plutocrats — but not particularly helpful for the suburban middle class.

Indeed the indicators most important to suburbanites – private sector employment, weekly earnings, home prices and disposable income – have all stagnated or even fallen since Obama took office. Fifty-three percent of suburban residents, according to the Princeton study, described their financial situation as “bad.” The vast majority have either lost their job or know someone who has lost theirs. Almost 40 percent have either lost their home or know someone who did – up from 27 percent in 2008.

Given the stubbornness of this recession, neither the current administration or Congress gets credit for improving conditions. Barely 10 percent of suburbanites polled think the stimulus helped, one-third thought it hurt and the rest said it made little difference.

But there may be other, perhaps more nuanced, reasons for the administration’s suburban disconnect. Many of the administration’s most high-profile initiatives have tended to reflect the views of urban interests – roughly 20 percent of the population – rather than suburban ones.

When the president visits suburban backyards, it sometimes seems like a visit from a “president from another planet.” After all, as a young man, Obama told The Associated Press: “I’m not interested in the suburbs. The suburbs bore me.”

More recently, Obama made clear that he is more interested in containing suburbia than enhancing it. In Florida last February, the president declared, “the days of building sprawl” are “over.”

Much of the Obama policy agenda – from mass transit and high-speed rail to support for “smart growth” policies – appeals to city planners and urbanistas. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has spoken openly of “coercing” Americans out their cars and the Department of Housing and Urban Development is handing out grants to regions which support densification strategies that amount to forced urbanization of suburbs.

This is a problem since the vast majority of Americans – consistently more than 80 percent – do not prefer to live in dense big cities. Most want a house rather than being forced to live in an apartment. And for all but a handful, a car, not a bus or train, remains not only the preferred way to get to work, but often the only feasible means to get work — mostly in the suburbs.

If the Democrats want to mount an electoral comeback in suburbia, they need to take these realities into account . There are just not enough votes in core cities, upscale close-in suburbs or college towns to knit together a majority.

Recovering suburbia s is not impossible for Democrats. Obama himself proved this in 2008, by essentially tying for the suburban vote — a remarkable achievement. Bill Clinton won in 1992 and especially 1996 by competing well in suburbs and exurbs. In the last two election cycles, the shift of suburbanites to the Democrats keyed the party’s steady gains in the Congress – accounting for, according to GOP sources, as many as 24 seats in the last two congressional elections.

Most important, suburbanite identification with the Republican Party has continued to erode over the past two years, according to the Princeton survey. Instead the big winners have been independents, who have grown to 36 percent from 30 percent of the suburban electorate.

These voters, for the most part, also tend to be less strident in their cultural views than either secular urbanites or rural evangelicals. More than one in five suburbanites is an ethnic minority — which could also help the Democrats.

But to win even these suburban voters, the Democrats must offer solutions to suburbanites that go beyond devising their forced conversion to dense urbanity. They could refocus their efforts on climate change to suburbs-friendly strategies like telecommuting — perhaps the cheapest, quickest and most socially acceptable way to cut down on greenhouse gas emissions.

Outside of greater New York, which has half the nation’s transit users, there are already about as many telecommuters as transit riders. Why not work to expand this phenomena, so well suited to the vast majority of the country?

These suburb friendly approaches should be examined as the Democrats reflect on what many expect to be midterm electoral setbacks. They can only compete successfully on a national basis by jettisoning their apparent disdain toward the aspirations of suburban homeowners and begin treating them with respect.