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Understanding Suburban Politics

by Ruy Teixeira

In December, I wrote about “emerging suburbs” and the ways in which they differ from true exurbs, both geographically and politically. I pointed out that:

The Bush-Kerry split [in emerging suburbs]....was less lop-sided (56-43) [than in true exurbs] 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.

The MI typology upon which I based my analysis was developed by Virginia Tech’s Metropolitan Institute and, I am happy to report, they have now issued an excellent report, “The New Metro Politics: Interpreting Recent Presidential Elections Using a County-Based Regional Typology”, co-authored by Robert Lang and Thomas Sanchez, that explicates their methodology and provides a wealth of fascinating political data based on their typology. In so doing, they provide us with a very useful framework for understanding contemporary suburban politics as a whole, a subject of vital importance for today’s progressives.

The MI typology breaks 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. As the MI report notes, in the typology

....counties are classified on the degree to which they are “urban.” In this descriptive definition, the more urban counties are slower growing, have higher population densities, feature greater “urbanized” populations, and maintain smaller proportions of non-Hispanic white residents. While these four variables do not substitute for a complete multivariate-derived typology, research has shown that they are the key determinants of socio-spatial differences between counties.

Here are some of the key findings, but I strongly urge you to read the entire report. Note how these excerpts highlight the importance of mature suburbs which, along with the emerging suburbs whose importance I have previously flagged, constitute the real battleground of suburban politics. Democrats need to drive up their margins in mature suburbs, which lean in their direction, while vigorously contesting emerging suburbs, which lead toward the GOP. If Democrats can master that two part formula, it’s not a stretch to say they will dominate the suburbs and the country as a whole.

...In total, 150 million people (or over half the US population) lived in the 417 top 50 metropolitan counties as of 2000. The biggest share, or nearly 49 million people, resided in the 66 mature suburban counties. The 41 inner suburban counties followed with almost 40 million residents. The exurbs captured the largest number of counties at 147—beating the emerging suburbs by one county—but had by far the smallest population at just over 5.6 million....

Population densities follow a step-like variation across county categories. The core county density reaches over 9,000 people per square mile—a density that can both easily support rail transit and reflects a high share of multifamily housing. With over 2,000 people per square mile, inner suburbs, while much less dense are clearly more urban than even mature suburbs, and exceed the density of emerging suburbs by almost a magnitude in scale. Interestingly, even the relatively low-density emerging suburbs are several times more intensely settled than the exurbs.

County population growth rates clearly show that the biggest gains come in less densely settled suburbs. Emerging suburbs lead the way with a nearly 30 percent growth in the 1990s. Exurbs are also booming, but have a considerably slower rate of development and,
more importantly, a far smaller absolute gain than the emerging suburbs. The exurbs also register more modest absolute gains than the much bigger mature suburbs. In fact, in absolute terms, the mature suburbs, while adding just 11.6 percent more residents in the 1990s, managed to outpace all other county categories in the number of actual people added.

That the mature suburbs are adding more residents than emerging suburbs is an important point that is often lost in the discussion about places that are gaining political strength. The focus tends to be exclusively on rates of growth rather than absolute change (see Brownstein 2005). Note also that due to their demographic composition, which includes more households with adults only compared to exurbs and emerging suburbs, the growing voting strength of mature suburbs is even greater than its population gains on their own would suggest...

The 2004 Bush and 2005 Kaine campaigns point to a new metro politics that reflects the changing metropolis. It is likely that new density-based political strategies will factor into the 2006 midterm election, and especially the 2008 presidential race. Democrats have a special stake in the new metro politics given that they have so far mostly not understood these opportunities. The metropolitan political battle line is not neatly split between city and suburbs, but instead now mostly lies in the transition areas between mature and emerging suburbs....