« Dems Surge Ahead in Recent Polls | Main | Don’t Like It, Don’t Understand It, Don’t Plan to Use It: Seniors on the New Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit »

Will the Real Exurban Voters Please Stand Up?

by Ruy Teixeira

Will the real exurban voters please stand up? Well, maybe they have! In the 2005 Virginia gubernatorial race, Republican Jerry Kilgore, after running a bruising, culture wars-driven campaign against Democrat Timothy Kaine, lost the quintessential exurban county of Loudoun—the fastest-growing county in the entire nation since 2000—to Kaine by 3,400 votes, 51 percent to 46 percent. In contrast, John Kerry lost this county in 2004 by 13,000 votes, 56 percent to 44 percent. And even Mark Warner, Kaine’s Democratic predecessor, lost Loudoun by 53 percent to 46 percent in his successful 2001 gubernatorial bid. (For much more on the fascinating geographical pattern of the Virginia vote, I urge you to consult an excellent new report, "The 2005 Governor’s Race: A Geographic Analysis of the 'Four Virginias'”, by geographers Robert Lang and Dawn Dhavale of Virginia Tech's Metropolitan Institute.)

This is really quite a remarkable result. Recall that in 2002, conservative commentator David Brooks surveyed the landscape after a smashing election victory for the GOP and penned an influential New York Times op-ed, “For Democrats, Time to Meet the Exurban Voter.” In that article, he argued that the rise of America’s exurbs contributed mightily to the GOP’s success in that election and would continue to do so in the future, putting the Democrats on the demographic ropes, so to speak. Bush’s strong showing in those same exurbs in 2004 seemed to validate Brooks’ thesis. As he put it in his 2002 op-ed: “[Exurban voters] swung this election, and when it comes to how they see the world, what scares and inspires them, the Republicans, so far, just seem to get it.”

Now it appears maybe the GOP doesn’t get it. As I put it in my New York Times op-ed piece this Monday, “The Battle for the Exurbs”:

[F]ar from “getting” exurban voters on a deeply psychological level, Republicans have misinterpreted their past success in these areas as evidence that these voters endorsed and wanted an anti-government, socially conservative agenda. But that was never a warranted assumption, either then or now.

In reality, exurban voters are tax-sensitive and concerned about government waste, but not ideologically anti-government. They tend to be religious and family-oriented, but socially moderate in comparison to rural residents. They are not anti-business, but they do hold populist attitudes toward corporate abuse and people who game the system. And they worry as much or more about public education as they do about moral values.

That’s the real exurban voter. No wonder Jerry Kilgore couldn’t connect. He ran a campaign on cultural wedge issues like the death penalty and illegal immigration when exurban and most other Virginia voters were looking for solutions on education, transportation and health care.

Fresh poll data supporting this interpretation comes from a Greenberg Quinlan Rosner/Communities for Quality Education poll conducted in Loudoun County on election day and the day after. As summarized in the Washington Post:

Forty percent of those polled ranked “transportation and roads” as either their first or second priority when it came to picking a gubernatorial candidate; 38 percent said education. Asked which candidate would do a better job handling those issues, Kaine held a 23 percentage point advantage over state Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore (R) on education and a 16 percentage point edge on transportation. Interestingly, the death penalty and illegal immigration—two of Kilgore’s top talking points—were ranked as the most important voting issues by just 3 percent and 13 percent, respectively, of people questioned.

There is also evidence that exurban voters across the country want a serious change of course from that offered by Bush and the GOP, which has implications, of course, for the next election in 2006. Here are some data from combined Democracy Corps surveys over the September-November period.

1. Fifty-seven percent of exurban voters think the country is off on the wrong track, compared to just 37 percent who think it is going in the right direction.

2. By 60 percent to 37 percent, exurban voters think the economy is going in the wrong direction.

3. By 55 percent to 39 percent, these voters think the country should go in a significantly different direction, rather than continue in Bush’s direction.

4. By 54 percent to 45 percent, exurban voters think the Iraq war has not been worth the cost.

5. Finally, the Republicans only have a narrow 4-point lead among exurban voters in the generic Congressional contest; that compares to a 23-point margin for Bush in the 2004 election among these voters.

Not a pretty picture for the GOP. Maybe it’s time they really “got” the exurban voter.