Part 2 of this series can be read on Resilience.org here.
‘was the day before Christmas and all through the White House the only creature stirring was Donald Trump—everyone else jetted to Florida. The image of a president roaming the halls of the Nation’s principal residence—stirring the partisan pot with his tweets—is more than a little depressing—both for he who stirs, and the nation being stirred to no useful purpose. It is, however, a nearly perfect political meme for the moment.
The first lady and her son were not the only ones to flee. Growing numbers of senior presidential advisors are also exiting the House Trump’s trying to gild. Given the outcome of the mid-term elections, it appears that some members of the much vaunted #Trumplican [voting] core have also begun to leave the fold. Only time will tell if their flight from Trump is temporary or permanent.
Republican candidates in 2018 continued to lag the Democrats in the total number of votes cast nationwide. It is a replay of the 2016 elections when Democratic Senate and presidential candidates out-polled Republicans by several million votes. One thing that has changed since 2016 is that Democrats running for the House in 2018 garnered more support nationally than their Republican opponents.
As reported by MarketWatch, a nationwide poll of 115,000 participants found fractures in the Trumplican base. Correlating the poll data with the outcomes of the 2018 midterms leads easily to the conclusion that America’s suburbs will be the battlefields on which the 2020 election will be fought—and with it the fate of the nation’s energy and environmental policies for the decade of the 2020s.
Forty percent of Congressional districts are comprised mainly of suburban communities. Once decidedly more Republican than Democrat, the suburban rings around major cities across the country are showing themselves more evenly divided but with a distinct portside tilt. In the 2016 election, 49 percent of suburban voters cast their lots with Trump, while 45 percent did the same with Clinton. Just two years later, suburban voters sent a majority of Democrats to the US House of Representatives.
Whether the perceived fractures in Trump’s 2016 voter-base bode well or ill for the environment will depend in large measure on how successful efforts are to convince suburban swing voters that climate matters enough to make it an actionable priority when marking their ballots.
This first part of the series on wooing suburban swing voters is meant to establish a defensible foundation for why suburban voters are critical to the overall effort first to stop—or at least slow—the Trump administration’s dismantling of existing climate-related policies; and, second to begin putting in-place the aggressive policies needed to heed the warnings of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and Trump’s own climate scientists.
Before getting into the meat of the matter, it is useful to recount some of overall findings of the National Opinion Research Center—the group that analyzed the nationwide poll:
- 27 percent of voters describe themselves as strong Trump supporters of which 6 percent voted for Democrats, in 2018.
- 18 percent characterize themselves as somewhat approving of which 16 percent voted for Democrats in 2018.
- 21 of the 40 House seats won by Democrats in 2018 were in districts Trump carried in 2016.
- The “somewhat” Trump voters are much more likely to disagree with him on the issues of immigration and healthcare and express divergent opinions on the need for a border wall, gun control, and climate change. (emphasis added)
Geography has become almost as crucial to the outcome of elections as ideology. In both the 2018 and 2016 elections, Democrats received more votes overall than Republicans. In 2018 Democratic House candidates received 51.5 million votes (51.2 percent) in total while Republicans logged 47.3 million votes (47.1 percent). Senate Republican candidates in 2018 fared even worse with 33.5 million total votes (41.5 per-cent) to the Democrat’s 46 million (56.9 percent).
Of the 40 congressional districts that Democrats turned from red to blue in 2018, 38 were suburban. Figure 1 displays the density and distribution of voters by geographic area. The purple-colored districts are predominantly suburban and the most likely to have featured Republican incumbents in close 2018 races. The numbers in parenthesis are the congressional districts within each geographic area. Together, the sparse and dense suburban areas in purple account for 169 congressional districts—equal to 39 percent of the total number of House seats (435).
In 2016, 47 percent of sparse suburban voters picked Trump, while 39 percent in the dense suburban areas supported him. A sparse suburban area is defined geographically as predominantly suburban, with a mixture of sprawling exurb-style and more densely populated neighborhoods. It can also include a small rural population. Politically, voters in a sparse area are closely divided with Republicans currently holding 55 percent of the congressional districts (86)—representing 20 percent of the total number of congressional seats.
Virginia’s 10th Congressional district is an example of a sparse suburban area. It is just beyond the inner-ring suburbs of Washington, D.C. According to 2010 census data the district has some 750,000 residents—51 percent male, 49 percent female. It is overwhelmingly White (74 percent) with a median household income of $109,505. High school and college graduates are respectively 93 and 52 percent of the population. Since 2015, the 10th district has been represented by Barbara Comstock. The Representative is considered, at least by Trumplicans and Tea Partiers, a traditional right-of-center conservative.
Comstock lost her re-election bid to state Senator Jennifer Wexton, a moderate Democrat. Fairfax County, which is a portion of Virginia’s 10th district, increased its Democratic support by 10 percent over 2016. In Prince William County, a portion of which is also in the district, the Democrats share of votes went from 46 percent in 2016 to 63 percent in 2018.
Wexton’s capture of the district is consistent with Virginia’s current status as a swing state that has begun to lean reliably Democratic. Suburban voters are largely responsible for the state-wide move. A similar pattern has shown itself in other states. (Figure 2)
A dense suburban area is defined geographically as having more concentrated inner-ring suburban neighborhoods and significant urban population. Politically voters lean left, and the Democrats currently control 66 percent of the 83 total congressional districts within the category–representing 19 percent of the total number of congressional seats.
An example of a dense suburban area is California’s 49th Congressional district comprised of the northern coastal areas of San Diego County. Since 2001 the district has been represented by Darrell Issa (R). Before the midterms, Issa announced that he would be retiring from Congress. The district of 717,000 is 62 percent White and 26 percent Hispanic, with an average annual income of around $88,000.
Like many of the other Republican retirees from Congress in 2018, Issa faced having to defend Trump in a district that was becoming Democratic. According to Politico’s Rachael Bade:
As former House Oversight Committee chairman [Issa]…built a name for himself by dogging the Obama administration for years. He turned the IRS upside down by accusing top officials of targeting conservative groups for political purposes, led the charge to hold then-Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt, and accused President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton of trying to cover up the 2012 terrorist attacks in Benghazi, Libya.
In recognition of Issa’s solidly conservative credentials, Trump has nominated him to head the US Trade and Development Agency.
Democrat Mike Levin is the incoming representative of the 49th district having beaten his Republican opponent with almost 54 percent of the vote. Levin is recognized as a staunch environmentalist and was endorsed by Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) as a solidly progressive Democrat.
Figure 3 pinpoints some of the urban and suburban counties where Democrats prevailed in otherwise Republican neighborhoods. Figure 3, unlike Figure 1, is divided along county lines rather than congressional districts. According to Sean McMinn, some of the biggest county flips in the South were in the suburbs of Houston, San Antonio and Austin, Texas; Memphis, Tennessee; Charlotte, North Carolina; Oklahoma City; and Atlanta, Georgia. A complete set of Interactive maps are available here. I encourage readers to use them and other readily available sources of information, e.g., Ballotpedia and Center for Politics, as useful tools for targets of opportunity going into the 2020 national elections.
Politics in the 21st century is a game of decimal points. Thousands of votes out of millions are tipping the scales. At least 20 Democrats and 24 Republicans won their House races by a margin of five percent or less. Recounts in Florida, Georgia, Utah and elsewhere reflected just how close many of the races were.
Educated affluent suburbanites offer an increasingly attractive voting block on climate matters and are a large enough cohort to be the difference between the on-again/ off-again cycle of environmental protection of the past and the establishment of an effective, stable and aggressive national climate change policy. These voters have already shown signs of their willingness to value specific issues, e.g., healthcare and climate, above party fealty. Political analysts from both parties see the changes just within the two years between the 2016 and 2018 elections as evidence of “malleability.”
Re-distribute .0038 percent of the three million more votes Clinton won in 2016 to Michigan, and she captures 16 more electoral votes. Trump took the state and all its electors by just 11,612 votes.
Had 120,000 Trump voters—0.04 percent of three million—gone for Clinton she would have won Florida’s 29 electoral votes. Together Florida and Michigan would have earned Clinton the White House. A valuable lesson of the last two elections is that small differences can have very outsized consequences.
Sam Abrams, a scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI), describes suburban voters this way:
These folks are’ flippable’, and that’s what we saw here. They’re going to be retrospective voters. They’re going to look at what what’s going on and they’re going to say, ‘Are we happy with it? Are we comfortable with it?’ (emphasis added)
Even in the suburbs, the Democrats failed to turn blue in 2018 their percentage of the votes rose by meaningful amounts. In Douglas County, Colorado, Democrats increased their share of the vote totals by 11 percent—going from 30 percent in 2016 to 41 percent in 2018. Similar results were experienced throughout the nation—East, West, North, and South.
Wooing suburban voters to the green side of the political force requires an appreciation of who they are. Suburban America is much more diverse than many might imagine. Based on data from the 2010 decennial census 35 percent of the suburban population are minorities, similar to their share of the overall American population. According to the Brookings Institute, the suburbs of Houston, Las Vegas, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. became majority minority in the 2000s.
The following are also characteristics of suburban districts that can help to tailor advocacy strategies leading up to the 2020 presidential elections.
- Sparse suburban districts are on average more than 70 percent white.
- Dense suburban districts are just roughly half white.
- Both types of districts are on average more affluent and better-educated than purely rural or urban districts—but low-density suburban areas tend to be whiter, richer and more educated.
- The suburban districts where Republicans are endangered are also wealthier and better-educated than the suburban areas where Republicans are safe.
- Competitive suburban districts have a median income $10,000 per year above the noncompetitive seats.
- The rate of four-year college graduates is eight percentage points higher in competitive districts than in noncompetitive ones.
Notwithstanding the growing diversity of suburban districts, when political strategists speak of targeting suburban voters they mostly mean highly educated, upper-middle-class, often-but-not-always-married white women. It makes little difference whether the strategist is Republican or Democrat. Liesl Hickey a highly regarded strategist, who has served as the executive director of the National Republican Congressional Committee, has said it all:
The overwhelming challenge we have is with college-educated, suburban women…their resistance mostly has to do with their feelings about President Trump.
Two long-time Republican women in Texas illustrate Hickey’s point.
Have you ever heard of a stupider and trashier man than the president of the United States?
I cannot bear what is going on right now in government. I find him [Trump] completely offensive and unethical and slimy.
Women, in general, distinguished themselves as a major driving force behind the Democrats having flipped 40 seats and sending a record number of women to the House of Represent-atives. According to FiveThirtyEight:
59 percent of women voted for Democrats, and 40 percent voted for Republicans, which adds up to a record margin of 19 percentage points — nearly double the margin by which they voted for Democrats in 2016. And when we compare how women voted to how men voted — or the gender gap— we find a record-breaking 23-point difference, which is the highest it’s been since at least 1992. Granted, that might not seem like a huge jump from 2016 when the gender gap was 22 points, but part of the reason the gap isn’t larger this year is that more men moved to the left in 2018.
Within the affluent/educated suburban cohort, women are most concerned about global warming and more willing to vote their worries and values. (see Figure 4) Women are also more likely to vote than men, and there is evidence to suggest that women influence the way their husbands and partners vote.
In singling out affluent, educated white suburban women, it is not my intention to diminish the role played, or that could be played by others, e.g., women of color, men of color, progressives, and millennials. Nor should highlighting the cohort provide an excuse not to woo other suburban voters.
In the search for swing votes, the political turf between city and country offer the most fertile fields. Some groups of voters are already in the climate hawk camp, and some are still on the fence. Of those on the fence, white affluent, educated women should prove easier to cultivate on the basis of the research and analysis that has followed in the wake of the 2016 and 2018 elections.
Neither am I suggesting that environmental advocates focus only on those—men or women—who believe Trump is the most stupid and trashy man imaginable and are washing their hands of the Trumplican Party.
Ideally, advocacy in support of a habitable environment is about rising above partisanship not reinforcing it. I know, it’s easy to talk about cooperation but very hard—some say impossible—to achieve it. There are, however, individuals and organizations within Republican circles concerned about the state of the environment and willing to do something about it. There could be more if rank and file Republican voters would stand up and tell their candidates they are being judged on their environmental records. If found wanting they will lose elections.
It is entirely possible for a voter to favor conservative tax and economic policies, while at the same time championing the environment. Conversion of the Republican party—in whole or in part—from denier to defender must be constituent-driven. Intra-party leadership is lacking; a situation caused as much by the fear of retribution, e.g., midnight tweet attacks by an insecure president left to roam around an empty White House, as ignorance, or the unenlightened and unethical self-interest of the fossil-fuel industry and its supporters.
The goal here is to put in place an integrated national climate policy that will stay in place.
The fortunes of US climate policies have largely depended on the occupant of the Oval Office and the courts. However, the courts are too slow to act and, the presidency is too flighty. The only way the nation can ever hope to keep from crossing the warming thresholds climate scientists are warning of is by breaking free of partisan gridlock.
To break the on-again, off-again cycle one of two things needs to happen. Either Democrats, as the party of environmental defense, must capture and hold the White House and both chambers of Congress for decades, or a coalition of Democrats and Republicans willing to vote their environmental values must be forged. Believing that any political party in the US —Democrat or Republican—can maintain a lock on the executive and legislative branches long enough to pass and protect the needed policies and programs is fantasy.
It is no less unrealistic to believe that suburban swing voters will back proposals outside of their comfort zones. Which is why in Part 2 of Slouching Toward Suburbia I’ll be discussing what themes and policy approaches are likely within the comfort zones of suburban swing voters.
Lead image credit: Ricardo Gomez Angel, courtesy of Unsplash