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Progressive Target: Emerging Suburbs

by Ruy Teixeira

In the aftermath of the 2004 elections, many argued that the exurban vote was central to Bush’s victory. But, as I pointed out at the time, such analyses typically shoehorned far more of the country into the exurbs than could possibly be justified by standard geographic criteria. Exurbs, properly understood, are fringe counties of metropolitan areas that border on being rural. They are not another name for any fast-growing county outside of a metro area’s urban core.

Recent county codes developed by Robert Lang and his colleagues at Virginia Tech’s Metropolitan Institute allow for a clear, geographically sound demonstration of the limited political importance of true exurbs. Analysis based on these codes also reveals that counties in another category–emerging suburbs–were much more important to Bush’s victory and are much more contestable by the Democrats.

The Metropolitan Institute (MI) codes break down the 417 counties in the top 50 metro areas in the US (where over half the total population lives) into five categories: core; inner suburbs; mature suburbs; emerging suburbs; and exurbs. Exurban counties are described as:

...the most far flung [metropolitan] counties with the lowest—essentially rural—population densities. Large-scale suburbanization is just about to take hold in these places, as they offer even better bargains, and more land (but longer commutes) than emerging counties. Exurban counties are included in metropolitan areas by the census because they share a functional relationship with neighboring counties via commuting. But by appearance, these places are barely touched by urbanization.

These exurban counties voted 62-37 for Bush over Kerry, a lop-sided result, to be sure, and a 10 point gain in GOP margin over 2000. But these counties only contributed 9 percent of Bush’s net vote gains between 2000 and 2004, mostly due to their relatively modest population sizes.

The emerging suburban counties were more consequential, though the actual numbers of exurban and emerging suburban counties are roughly equal in the MI typology. They are described as:

....the new “it” county of today. They are mostly the fastest growing counties in the region, and are often found in even slow growing regions such as St. Louis (e.g., St Charles County, MO) and Cincinnati (e.g., Boone County, KY). Emerging suburbs are almost wholly products of the past two decades and are booming with both people and the beginnings of commerce (although they remain mostly commuter zones). Emerging suburbs are both upscale and downscale and may feature everything from McMansions to trailer parks. Residents in emerging suburbs typically see these places as bargains compared to mature suburbs. That is true for households that buy a McMansion over an older and smaller tract home in a mature suburb, or a first-time homebuyer that “drives to qualify” by finding a modest attached dwelling at the edge of the region.

The Bush-Kerry split here was less lop-sided (56-43) and represented only a 5 point gain in margin over 2000. But since these emerging suburban counties are much larger than exurban counties, they contributed 26 percent of Bush’s net vote gains between 2000 and 2004, dwarfing the exurban contribution.

Besides the relatively smaller GOP margin in these counties in 2004, note that the GOP margin in these counties in 2000 was only 52-44 and in 1996 a mere 45-44. It’s clear that emerging suburban counties are not only far more important to Bush’s coalition than exurban counties, but also far more contestable by the Democrats, a political reality that should trouble the GOP.

Indeed, it already is. In the MI typology, Loudoun and Prince William counties in Virginia, where Democrat Timothy Kaine did so well against Republican Jerry Kilgore, are classified as emerging suburban counties, while Kilgore won easily in Fauquier and Stafford counties, which are classified as exurban. But since Loudoun and Prince William are so much more populous than Fauquier and Stafford, Kaine’s victory in the former counties counted for a great deal more than Kilgore’s victories in the latter counties.

Another way of thinking about the GOP’s emerging suburbs problem is provided by Ross Douthat’s and Reihan Salam’s article on Sam’s Club Republicans in The Weekly Standard. In this very interesting article, Douthat and Salam–Republicans and conservatives, themselves–remind the GOP that today their party is:

....an increasingly working-class party, dependent for its power on supermajorities of the white working class vote, and a party whose constituents are surprisingly comfortable with bad-but-popular liberal ideas like raising the minimum wage, expanding clumsy environmental regulations, or hiking taxes on the wealthy to fund a health care entitlement. To borrow a phrase from Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, Republicans are now "the party of Sam's Club, not just the country club."

They define the white working class, as I do, as whites who lack a four year college degree. And who lives in emerging suburbs? As a close read of the MI description of emerging suburbs suggests, these areas, while they do have substantial communities of affluent McMansion dwellers, also are full of voters, overwhelmingly white, of much more modest means living in much more modest circumstances. Indeed, my analysis of Census data indicates that these emerging suburbs are 79 percent white nonhispanic and 74 percent non-college educated among those 25 and older.

So, forget the exurbs. The battle for the Sam’s Club Republicans has begun and the emerging suburbs, not the exurbs, will be front and center in that battle. Judging from the most recent elections and polling data, progressives have a real shot at these voters, while Republicans will be fighting just to contain their losses.