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The Exurban Myth (Continued)

Yesterday, at the end of the first part of this post on exurbia and politics, I wondered how Mark Gersh/NCEC could come up with so many exurban counties (30) in a single state (Ohio). I don't know the full answer to this since Gersh's piece in Blueprint magazine includes no information on how he or NCEC define exurban counties. However, I did manage to get ahold of an earlier version of NCEC's criteria for typologizing counties and it indicates that pretty much any suburban county that does not contain a large city can be designated as exurban, if it is relatively downscale in terms of occupation, income and education or if it falls below a certain density criterion. (The current criteria apparently differ somewhat, but not by that much, from these earlier criteria.) This approach leads to a number of unusual results including:

1. Some entire MSAs (metropolitan statistical areas) are designated exurban, like the Canton MSA in Ohio and the Pensacola and Sarasota MSAs in Florida.

2. In other MSAs, only the county containing the MSA's main city is designated "urban-surburban" while every other county is designated exurban or even rural. For example, in the Columbus, OH MSA, only Franklin county is termed urban-suburban, while five other counties are designated exurban and two are considered rural. Similarly, all Ohio counties in the Cincinnati MSA are designated exurban except Hamilton county.

3. Medium-sized metro areas wind up being classified almost entirely as exurban or rural. In Florida, for example, there are 16 counties in medium-sized metro areas. Of these, just three are classified as either urban-suburban (1) or suburban (2), while 13 are classified as either exurban (11) or rural (2).

4. Almost no counties are simply designated "suburban". In Ohio, there are only three (compared to 30 exurban counties); in Florida, just five (compared to 21 exurban counties).

Gersh's article even refers to Hillsborough county, which contains Tampa, as exurban! (Note, however, that it is not displayed as such on his map of Florida, so perhaps his enthusiasm for exurbia was simply getting the best of him.)

This approach to defining exurbia is, in my view, simply too broad to be of much use. Collapsing all but the most urbanized parts of big metro areas, almost the entirety of medium-sized metro areas and outer suburbs everywhere into exurbia does considerable violence to the concept and clarifies little.

A geographer friend of mine comments as follows on the Gersh/NCEC approach:

The NCEC criteria don't have much to do with any accepted notion of exurban, since they ignore the geographic requirement of being on the fringe of metro areas. Many of the counties listed as exurban are independent small metro or micropolitan areas....It's "small urban" not "exurban".

In short, analyses like these create a big exurban problem for the Democrats by defining way more voters into that category than is really appropriate. By doing so, these analyses can say or imply "Democrats are losing because of those really fast-growing exurbs, so they are on the short end of the demographic stick!!" instead of the less exciting, but more accurate: "Democrats experienced some slippage in suburban and small urban counties of all types and that contributed to their loss in 2004". The task for the Democrats is the familiar one of getting enough garden-variety suburban and small urban votes back to win; they need not worry about being overwhelmed by a demographic tsunami of Republican exurban votes.


Isn't a county too large as a unit of analysis? The fact that "exurban" style development projects are built in a county adds a dimension, but it does not wipe out older residential and economic systems which may be long established. I know the area around Dayton Ohio fairly well, and two of the counties with controversy -- Green and Warren -- both have "Exurban" development economically attached to Dayton (and the massive US Airforce presence at WPAFB) -- but as whole counties they have much that is in no way "Exurban" -- some towns that are old rust belt -- others that are college towns with a particular character.

I also think the exurban panic presumes that voting patterns attach themselves to places rather than people. An exurban county is, by definition, fast growing but sparsely populated. It's likely that the first people who move to such places tend to be conservative, because of their age, occupation, family status, religion, etc. But as the places get large and complex, they become more diverse and more Democratic. Look at the State of California if you want an example.

Also, Gerth calls Bucks County, PA part of a "Main Line." Wrong. For one thing, the "Main Line" refers to the very tony burbs south and west of Philadelphia in Delaware and Montgomery Counties. Lower Bucks County (a separate unit from Upper Bucks) refers to the more middle class burbs northeast of the city. And neither is truly exurban.

very useful work. thanks, tex.

wonder if one realizes that george orwell is peeking over the edge vis a vis this topic. the framework of the debate is based on defining the unit of measure and the Right is working towards a numbering system of value where they can add 1 and 1 and get 3.

Setting aside whether or not the Big Exurban Bloc is a myth, let's look at the other part of the DLC's picture:

They're telling us that in order to appeal to white-flight exurbers, we have to ditch the African-Americans, Latinos, and Southeast Asian-Americans.

Is that really what we should be doing?

Oh, and by the way: The DLC has been saying for well over a decade that we must move to the right in order get and keep Corporate America's campaign money flowing into our coffers.

Guess what? After ten-plus years of following the DLC's policies, Corporate America, which used to at most give twice as much cash to Republicans as it did to Democrats, now gives TEN TIMES as much to the GOP as to the Democrats. The only reason the Democrats were able to compete at all this cycle was because of the grass-roots small donors -- the very people the DLCers can't stand.

what would be sweet is to use mobility data to judge the impact of the inflow into exurban areas, by whichever definition. For inmigrant population flow, Census can tell you the locality of where they came from, by fips or zip. It's a rough barometer, but you may be able to separate the "place or person" effect by tracking voting patterns of the places new migrants left. Are the exurbs being flooded by people from red counties, blue counties, or a random pattern? What was it like 10 years ago, and how are these people (by locality) voting now?

I'm a little worried, though. As we go from same sex marriage to "values" in general to faith in particular to exurbs, debunking each as we go--it becomes clearer that it may just have been that John Kerry was not a popular guy to more of the people. Nobody said we were a brilliantly deliberative nation.