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Exurbia: The Democrats' Next Frontier

Yesterday, the New Politics Institute released my report, The Next Frontier: A New Study of Exurbia. In all due modesty, I recommend it to you. Here's the summary of key findings, but I do think you'll find the whole report instructive.

Is exurbia really solid GOP territory—so dominated by conservative white voters that the Democrats have no chance of competing successfully there? This report takes a careful look at the data and concludes that view is incorrect. On the contrary, the most important part of exurbia—America’s emerging suburbs—is definitely accessible to Democrats. Here are some of the key findings of the report:

· Exurbia can be usefully divided into two parts—borderline rural “true exurbs” and borderline suburban “emerging suburbs”. Today’s true exurbs contain only 2 percent of the nation’s population. Emerging suburbs on the other hand contain 13 percent of the nation’s population and, on average, are growing faster than any other type of county in the US, including true exurbs.

· Emerging suburbs are rapidly becoming more diverse. Between 1990 and 2000, emerging suburbs went from 85 percent white down to 79 percent white, meaning that the minority percentage of these areas rose at a rate of about six-tenths of a percent per year in the 1990's.

· Between 1990 and 2000, the white population of emerging suburbs grew solidly, by about 21 percent over the decade. But the black population of these counties grew by 50 percent and the Hispanic and Asian populations exploded, growing by 117 percent and 111 percent, respectively. Overall, the minority population grew by 89 percent, substantially faster than minority growth in any other county category.

· About 58 percent of emerging suburban residents and 69 percent of true exurban residents are white working class–that is, are whites without a four year college degree. Only 23 percent and 16 percent, respectively, in these areas are college-educated whites.

· In terms of occupation, overwhelming numbers of emerging suburban and exurban workers do not hold professional or managerial jobs–65 percent and 71 percent, respectively. In both types of areas, there are more construction and production workers than professionals and way more sales and office workers than managers.

· True 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 Bush-Kerry split in emerging suburban counties was less lop-sided (56-43) and represented only a 5 point gain in margin over 2000, when the Bush-Gore split was 52-44. (In 1996, the Dole-Clinton split was only 45-44.) But since these emerging suburban counties are much larger than true exurban counties, they contributed 26 percent of Bush’s net vote gains between 2000 and 2004, dwarfing the true exurban contribution.

· Of the 100 fastest-growing counties, 44 are emerging suburbs. These very fast-growing emerging suburbs account for almost two-thirds of the contribution to Bush’s net vote gains made by the 100 fastest-growing counties as a whole. Thus, the political impact of the 100 fastest-growing counties in the US is primarily due to the fast-growing emerging suburban counties that are included within the group.

· Emerging suburban counties are not equally accessible to the Democrats all over the country. By and large, the “bluer” the state, the better Democrats do in emerging suburbs and the “redder” the state, the worse they do. Kerry lost emerging suburban counties in solid blue states by only 51-48. In purple leaning blue states and purple leaning red states, he did just a bit worse in these counties, losing 53-46, while Clinton in ‘96 actually managed to carry the emerging suburbs in both these groups of states. In pure purple states Kerry actually beat Bush by a point in the emerging suburbs, 50-49. And even in red vulnerable states, Kerry was still within a 58-41 margin in these counties, while Clinton in ‘96 lost them by only 4 points.

· Public opinion data indicate that emerging suburban voters are tax-sensitive and concerned about government waste, but not ideologically anti-government. Similarly, while they tend to be religious and family-oriented and hold some conservative social views, they are socially moderate in comparison to rural residents. They are also not anti-business, but do hold populist attitudes toward corporate abuse and people who game the system. And these voters worry more about concrete issues like public education than they do about whether politicians have the “correct” stance on various values issues.

· Smart Democratic campaigns that offer solid solutions to the everyday problems of exurbia, particularly in the emerging suburbs, present a relatively moderate stance on social issues and seem culturally comfortable with the exurban way of life can have every expectation of performing well among these voters. Conversely, if the GOP continues to pursue an ideologically anti-government agenda that compromises government services, while pandering to the far right on social issues, they can have every expectation of shrinking margins among these voters.

· Competing and winning in exurbia also means that Democratic field operations will have to venture into areas where they feel less comfortable and where finding Democratic votes takes a bit more effort. To succeed in these areas, they will have to develop new models of voter mobilization that go beyond traditional precinct-based methods and reach out to the newer voters and others who lean their way, but who are dispersed throughout their communities, rather than conveniently concentrated within specific precincts.