Democrats Add Suburbs to Their Growing Coalition

Alec MacGillis and Jon Cohen, Washington Post, November 6, 2008

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The Democrats appear to have built a majority across a wide, and expanding, share of the electorate—young voters, Hispanics and other ethnic minorities, and highly educated whites in growing metropolitan areas. The Republicans appear at the moment to be marginalized, hanging on to a coalition that may shrink with time—older, working-class and rural white voters, increasingly concentrated in the Deep South, the Great Plains and Appalachia.

Nothing demonstrates this reversal as clearly as the Democrats’ ascendance in the suburbs and among the moderate, college-educated voters who dominate them. Obama won 50 percent of suburban voters, three points higher than Sen. John F. Kerry’s showing in 2004 and the most by a Democrat since exit polling began in 1972, swelling his margins in a number of battleground states.

In Virginia, Obama offset losses in the rural parts of the state by not only winning Fairfax County, as Kerry did, but also the big outer suburbs of Prince William and Loudoun counties, home to many high-tech workers and government contractors. Obama visited Prince William County, which has been hit hard by the real estate bust, on the first day of his general-election campaign and the last, as well as in between. He also easily won the big Richmond suburb of Henrico County, a largely white community that Republicans had sewed up for years.

In Pennsylvania, Obama fared worse than Kerry in many steel towns around Pittsburgh. But he ran up such big margins in the formerly Republican suburbs of Philadelphia that he was able to run away with the state, by more than 10 points.

In Colorado, he gained 100,000 votes over Kerry in three big suburban counties outside Denver. In Ohio, he achieved a narrow majority in part by reducing the Republicans’ margins of victory in the outer suburbs of Columbus and Cincinnati.

In Florida, he won partly by improving on Kerry’s numbers among suburban voters in the Interstate 4 corridor between Tampa and Orlando and in Indiana and North Carolina, his showing with suburban voters improved by about 20 points in each state, far exceeding his gain among rural voters. Obama nearly carried the most iconic Republican suburb of all, Orange County in Southern California.

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Bush prevailed in 2004 because he combined his rural base with just enough votes from the suburbs. But the Democrats have steadily been expanding from their urban base for the past decade. {snip}

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But the shift is also explained by the transformation of many suburbs as they become more developed and cosmopolitan. Suburbs are growing more diverse, which poses a challenge for a Republican Party that has seen a steep drop in its support among ethnic minorities, especially Hispanics, two-thirds of whom voted for Obama, up from 53 percent for Kerry. Prince William County, for instance, is on the verge of having a majority of minorities.

As crucial, exit polls from Tuesday’s election show the Democrats sharply increasing their share of white, college-educated voters. Bush carried this group by 11 points, but Obama narrowed that deficit to four, continuing a trend away from the Republican Party by college-educated professionals that has been underway for at least a decade. Obama won white voters with post-graduate education by 10 points, up from a two-point margin for Kerry.

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The impact of these voters [working-class “Reagan Democrats”] turned out to be far less than many had predicted. {snip}

The biggest region where McCain improved on Bush’s numbers was the spine of Appalachia, running from Tennessee up to southwestern Pennsylvania, where he managed to flip some depressed steel counties. But these gains were in places that are, in many cases, losing population—the electorate’s share of white voters without a college education dropped by four percentage points this year, compared with 2004.

And McCain’s gains were more than outweighed by his losses in growing metropolitan areas, suggesting that the story of the 2008 election was the Republicans’ demographic weaknesses, not Obama’s. In Pennsylvania, the southwestern counties of Washington, Fayette and Beaver gave McCain a net increase of 10,000 votes over Bush’s 2004 performance, but he lost the Philadelphia suburb of Montgomery County by 41,000 more votes than Bush.

In Virginia, McCain slightly improved on Bush’s performance in the rural southwest, but Prince William County alone gave Obama a 28,000 net gain over 2004.

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The narrowness of the Republican coalition was evident across the board. Ninety percent of McCain’s supporters were white, according to exit polls. Obama attracted a significantly more diverse coalition: 61 percent white, 23 percent black, 11 percent Hispanic, 2 percent Asian, 3 percent “other.” This is particularly significant, given that whites made up a smaller proportion of the electorate than at any point going back to the first exit polls; they were 74 percent of voters, down from 77 percent four years ago and a high of 90 percent in 1976.

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To expand their coalition, Lang said, Republicans will need to find ways to talk about issues relevant to metropolitan areas. “You don’t have to have the same policies as the Democrats, but you have to talk about this and not just talk about values in the small towns,” he said.

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And as much as [Tom] Davis worries about his party’s future, he predicted that Democrats will have trouble holding onto suburban voters as Obama starts governing and tries to balance their interests and those of the party’s urban base. Suburban voters in places such as Henrico, for instance, may not look kindly on Obama’s tax increases on the wealthy, he said.

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Exit polls suggested that there are already some potential fissures within the Democratic coalition. Nearly a quarter of Obama voters said the government is already doing too much. Nearly half of them favor offshore oil drilling. And more than half described themselves as moderate or conservative.

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