We tend to think about voters as individuals whose personal characteristics determine their candidate choices. We focus on attributes like race, gender, education and age.
Such individual distinctions are clearly important, but too often we give short shrift to social characteristics.
For example, there’s no question that population density drives voting patterns.
The more densely packed peoples’ neighborhoods, the more likely they are to vote Democratic, while the more sparsely populated their living situation, the higher the Republican vote.
Cities are Democratic, rural areas Republican, and the places in between, places we call suburbs, are key battlegrounds.
But be careful. There is no agreed upon definition of what constitutes “the suburbs.”
As is usually the case, ask different questions, get different answers, even if one is endeavoring to measure the same underlying concept.
The U.S. Census Bureau, the canonical source of demographic and geographic data, has nothing whatever to say about the suburbs. They don’t provide a definition, or even use the term. They instead divide the country into just two categories — urban and rural — with 81 percent of Americans living in urban areas.
The Marist Poll uses five categories of “area type” and finds about 23 percent of the electorate living in suburbs.
Exit polls divide neighborhoods into three categories and a meaningfully larger 49 percent of voters labeled themselves suburban in 2016, 51 percent in 2018. These results are quite close to the findings of a massive survey by the Department of Housing and Urban Development which found 52 percent dwelling in suburbia.
In 2018, Pew asked Americans which of three kinds of areas they lived in and derived a number between those recorded by Marist and the exit polls, with 43 percent locating themselves in the suburbs.
Instead of asking people where they lived, another Pew study used the tripartite categorization to divide counties and found 55 percent of Americans living in counties that are more suburban than either rural or urban. Of course, many counties sport a mix of densities.
Rather than classifying individuals or counties, David Montgomery of City Lab used various data to categorize congressional districts, putting each into one of six groupings. Montgomery’s analysis put three-quarters of districts into some form of suburbia, with 39 percent in the two middle suburban categories.
What’s the political relevance of all this?
Go back to the exit polls. They find rural voters are mostly Republican (voting for Trump by a 27-point margin in 2016), while urban dwellers gave Clinton a nearly mirror image, 26-point advantage. Suburban voters went for Trump by just 4 points.
In 2018, urban voters gave House Democrats an even larger 33-point margin, while rural voters were less loyal to the GOP, as House Republicans’ margin shrunk to 14 points. Suburban voters divided exactly in half.
Working at the congressional district level, Montgomery, together with professor Richard Florida, uncovered even sharper distinctions. Going into 2018, Republicans controlled 83 percent of the nation’s largely rural districts. After the election they fell back a bit, to 81 percent of those congressional districts.
Largely urban areas present the opposite extreme. Just before 2018, Democrats held 89 percent of those 82 districts. Post-election, it rose to 99 percent.
While urban seats are the backbone of the House Democratic caucus, they can provide fewer than 38 percent of the 218 seats Democrats need to hold the House majority.
Going into 2018 as the minority, Democrats held 53 percent of the 169 suburban seats, a number which vaulted to 70 percent as a result of that year’s blue wave.
Assuming Democrats continue to own urban districts, and the GOP retains most rural areas, Democrats must win 60 percent of suburban districts to enjoy the slimmest of House majorities.
Expanding the Democratic majority means winning more suburban seats. While redistricting will change things a bit, keeping that majority will require holding the suburbs.
As vital as the suburbs are though, remember, analysts aren’t always talking about the same people or places when they use the term.
Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has helped elect 30 U.S. senators, 12 governors and dozens of House members. Mellman served as pollster to Senate Democratic leaders for over 20 years, as president of the American Association of Political Consultants, and is president of Democratic Majority for Israel.