Win the suburbs, win 2020; patterns in news stories that make this argument

More than a year away from the 2020 presidential election, one narrative is firmly established: the path to victory runs through suburban voters. One such story:

Westerville is perhaps best known locally as the place the former Ohio state governor and Republican presidential candidate John Kasich calls home. But it – and suburbs like it – is also, Democrats say, “ground zero” in the battle for the White House in 2020…

In 2018, Democrats won the House majority in a “suburban revolt” led by women and powered by a disgust of Donald Trump’s race-based attacks, hardline policy agenda and chaotic leadership style. From the heartland of Ronald Reagan conservatism in Orange county, California, to a coastal South Carolina district that had not elected a Democrat to the seat in 40 years, Democrats swept once reliably Republican suburban strongholds…

“There is no way Democrats win without doing really well in suburbs,” said Lanae Erickson, a senior vice-president at Third Way, a centrist Democratic thinktank…

“There are short-term political gains for Democrats in winning over suburban voters but that doesn’t necessarily lead to progressive policies,” she said. In her research, Geismer found that many suburban Democrats supported a national liberal agenda while opposing measures that challenged economic inequality in their own neighborhoods.

Four quick thoughts on such news reports:

1. They often emphasize the changing nature of suburbs. This is true: the suburbs are becoming more racially, ethnically, and economically diverse. At the same time, this does not mean this is happening evenly across suburbs.

2. They often use a representative suburb as a case study to try to illustrate broader trends in the suburbs. Here, it is Westerville, Ohio, home to the Tuesday night Democratic debate. Can one suburb illustrate the broader trends in all suburbs? Maybe.

3. They stress that the swing voters are in the suburbs since city residents are more likely to vote for Democrats while rural residents are more likely to vote for Republicans. It will be interesting to see how Democratic candidates continue to tour through urban areas; will they spend more time in denser population areas or branch out to middle suburbs that straddle the line between solid Republican bases further away from the city and solid Democratic bases closer to the city?

4. Even with the claim that the suburbs are key to the next election, this often sheds little light on long-term trends. As an exception, the last paragraph in the quotation above stands out: suburban voters may turn one way nationally but this does not necessarily translate into more local political action or preferences.

Keeping track of the Democratic field on housing

Curbed is tracking the housing positions of the Democratic candidates for president in 2020. Here is part of the overview of YIMBY policies:

Yes In My Back Yard (YIMBY)…

Because these laws are administered at the local level, federal policy can’t do much to directly change these laws and instead attempts to incentivize—or punish—local governments to change them. Castro has proposed a Presidential Commission on Zoning Reform to establish federal guidelines on land use and zoning. O’Rourke would direct HUD to come up with a model for setting zoning and land use policies that let formerly restrictive communities to allow more housing production.

Warren’s plan puts $10 billion into a new grant program communities can use to build infrastructure, but local governments have to reform land-use laws to be eligible.

Booker’s plan uses a similar mechanism by tying more than $16 billion in federal block grant money—including Community Development Block Grants (CDBG)—to local governments reforming zoning laws that serve as barriers to building more housing units. Castro also wants to expand CDBG and rural development programs by $2 billion per year and tie the money to zoning reforms. O’Rourke would double CDBG funding and provide new grants to communities that eliminate restrictive zoning laws.

Klobuchar proposes “prioritizing” local governments that reform local zoning laws when allocating federal housing and infrastructure funds, but doesn’t specify which ones.

Bennet would create a one-time $10 billion competitive grant program for state and local governments that reform zoning laws to allow for more housing density, in addition to increasing the funding of transportation grant program BUILD to $4.5 billion and make it eligible only to local governments that allow for more housing density near transportation hubs. Eligibility for New Starts, a grant program for fixing rail infrastructure, would also be deployed in this manner.

O’Rourke has a zoning-related proposal that’s unique among the candidates. He would allow people to deduct more in state and local taxes from their federal tax returns if they live in areas without restrictive zoning. There’s currently a $10,000 cap on SALT deductions, and that cap affects mostly coastal cities where restrictive zoning is a major issue. He would also pass a $1 trillion infrastructure package to repair transportation lines that would be tied to eliminating exclusionary zoning.

Three quick thoughts:

  1. As the section above goes on to note, it will be difficult to enact change within wealthy communities through federal policy. Without buy-in from whole metropolitan regions regarding housing, would any YIMBY policies at a federal level simply push cheaper housing into communities that already have more of such housing?
  2. The subheadline for this article suggests “Housing policy is taking center stage in the 2020 election.” This is a bold pronouncement as housing seems to attract little attention in debates or drives little national conversation. I would still be interested to see someone really run with the housing issue.
  3. I have not seen recent numbers on this: how does housing as an issue rank among other possible issues among the electorate? There are certain areas of the country – like some of the largest metropolitan areas – where this is a pressing issue while it is less important elsewhere. On one hand, housing effects all possible voters but it rarely attracts national attention, particularly compared to other national economic issues like jobs or income.

Democrats want suburban voters!

(And so do Republicans but this ABC News story details the efforts of Democrats🙂

The effort, which will target areas that will likely define the 2020 presidential contest, kicks off on Thursday with a roundtable event, hosted by Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez, alongside local Texas residents in the suburbs of Harris County…

“Suburban voters sharply rejected Republicans in 2018 and they’re ready to hold Trump accountable in 2020,” said David Bergstein, DNC Director of Battleground State Communications. “They’re fed up with his toxic health care agenda, failure to support commonsense gun safety measures and endless string of broken promises on a number of issues.”…

Exit poll analysis following the 2018 midterms completed by Langer Associates for ABC News shows that the suburban voters comprised half of the American electorate. While Democrats won over urban residents and Republicans won over small cities — the suburbs were split evenly, 49-49%…

“The theory is that former Republicans in the suburbs were content with Republican policies on the economy, maybe even immigration to an extent,” she continued. “But some of the rhetoric that the president uses and some of the policies that Republicans have embraced, are maybe not in line with the Republican Party of George Bush.”

A few responses to this article (and similar ones):

  1. That suburbanites are monolithic in their political views (and in other parts of their lives). I assume campaigns know this but this generally does not come out in the media much. The stereotype of white wealthy families living in the suburbs does not always hold.
  2. Everyone is looking for trends among suburban voters. It can often be difficult to see trends when we are in the middle of changes. For example, the article wonders if the trend away from Republican suburban voters is a trend that is here to stay or could be reversed. Either could be true? (Though we can make educated predictions; but see #1 above for the ongoing changing population composition of American suburbs.)
  3. A relatively clear pattern in suburban voters seems to be a divide between suburbanites living closer to cities who lean toward Democrats and suburbanites closer to the metropolitan edges who lean toward Republicans. This leaves a middle suburbia that can go either way. But, again, see #1 above regarding a much more diverse and unevenly settled suburbia.
  4. The American electorate should be slightly more than half of the voters since the percentage of Americans living in suburbs is roughly 52%.

Analysis suggesting suburban women could decide 2020 election

The suburbs continue to be a key geographic battleground in national politics. Analysts suggest suburban women may decide the 2020 presidential election:

Many professional, suburban women — a critical voting bloc in the 2020 election — recoil at the abrasive, divisive rhetoric, exposing the president to a potential wave of opposition in key battlegrounds across the country.

In more than three dozen interviews by The Associated Press with women in critical suburbs, nearly all expressed dismay — or worse — at Trump’s racially polarizing insults and what was often described as unpresidential treatment of people. Even some who gave Trump credit for the economy or backed his crackdown on immigration acknowledged they were troubled or uncomfortable lining up behind the president.

The interviews in suburbs outside Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Detroit and Denver are a warning light for the Republican president’s reelection campaign. Trump did not win a majority of female voters in 2016, but he won enough — notably winning white women by a roughly 10 percentage-point margin, according to the American National Election Studies survey — to help him eke out victories across the Rust Belt and take the White House…

The affluent, largely white and politically divided suburbs across the Rust Belt are widely viewed as a top battleground, the places where Trump needs to hold his voters and Democrats are hoping to improve their showing over 2016.

If large numbers of suburban women are turned off by the action and rhetoric of the current president, it will then be interesting to see if his opponents craft messages to specifically target these same voters. If parties and candidates generally think they know what urban and rural voters want to hear, how will they adjust to suburbanites who are living in fairly complex and varied settings?

For example, the concerns of residents in more affluent suburbs may not match that well with larger political and cultural issues parties and candidates want to address. What if these voters are more akin to “dream hoarders” who want to secure their own positions more than they care about larger issues?

Six Democrat candidates push new housing policies and it does not register at the latest debates

I have asked when the candidates for president will address housing and homeownership. Apparently, six Democrat contenders have – but it does not come out in public very often.

Last week, Amy Klobuchar became the latest Democratic presidential hopeful to say out loud that cities and towns need to let people build more housing. She joined Cory Booker, Julián Castro, and Elizabeth Warren in proposing a more active federal role in getting state and local governments to loosen zoning rules—a topic that, up to now, has not figured prominently in campaigns for the White House…

Most proposals advanced by Democratic candidates do not fit neatly along the traditional ideological spectrum from “laissez-faire” to “activist government.” Some of Warren’s proposals could be described as classic Democratic tax-and-spend policy making—she would use proceeds from raising the estate tax to increase funding for the Department of Housing and Urban Development substantially. Yet Warren’s plan to address “state and local land-use rules that needlessly drive up housing costs” is decidedly pro-competition—in keeping with her stated philosophy of making markets work better through stronger rules. Booker, Castro, and Klobuchar likewise balance more government spending with calls to reduce anticompetitive regulations. Only two candidates, Harris and Buttigieg, call for more demand-side subsidies without addressing supply constraints.

One idea notable for its absence among the candidates’ plans is the furthest-left option: an expansion of traditional public housing. Sanders, as a self-identified socialist, would seem the most likely to call for building more public housing, as some left-leaning think tanks have suggested. So far he has leaned toward fairly modest housing interventions, emphasizing local government tools such as community land trusts and inclusionary zoning.

There is still an opportunity here for at least one candidate to really push on this issue. As the article notes, the cost of housing is one that many voters consistently think about, particularly in higher-cost cities and regions. Even in markets with lower housing costs, the price of a mortgage or rent is one of the biggest expenses a household will face.

Perhaps the issue is that no candidate has found a simple tagline or slogan regarding housing that could apply everywhere? Since so much about housing and regulations is local, even large-scale government programs might require some complicated explanations. In the current debate format, this might be hard to relay. At the same time, these candidates are making plenty of speeches where they could hone a pitch about housing.

One way to do this would be to introduce housing as an inequality issue on multiple fronts. Where people can afford to live affects all sorts of life outcomes as well as long-term wealth. There is not a free market in housing: housing outcomes are the result of federal policy, local decisions made by municipal officials and business people, and the actions of consumers.

Which 2020 candidate will set themselves apart by promoting homeownership?

Homeownership is at relatively low levels in the United States. There is a disparity in homeownership between different racial and ethnic groups. Affordable housing is hard to come by in many housing markets. So why is homeownership not an issue more 2020 candidates are talking about?

Several possible reasons come to mind:

  1. Policy options regarding housing on a national scale are not easy and/or may not be popular. Homeownership gets at a whole set of thorny issues including meritocracy, unequal distribution of resources, the power of local government, and exclusion from certain communities.
  2. Federal policy has done less subsidizing of homeownership in recent years (even as the general policy over the last century or so has been to do so). Other areas of policy are more attractive or pressing (see #4 for example).
  3. Many Americans desire to become homeowners at some point (including millennials) and they assume it will happen at some point, even if they face obstacles now. Perhaps they don’t see a big role for the federal government to play in this. Perhaps many Americans think housing is a free market operation (despite evidence to the contrary).
  4. Debates about college loan debt and free college may be proxy issues for homeownership. No shortage of ink has been spilled writing about how possible young homeowners cannot purchase a home because of college debt. Provide a cheaper or less-debt-inducing college experience and homeownership rates might climb again.
  5. Economic and social conditions have changed to the point where although many Americans still plan to own a home, it is no longer the same marker of success it was in the past. Success now may be no college debt or a fulfilling career or a funded retirement.

Even as American politicians for roughly a century have appealed to voters with arguments about expanding homeownership (for example, see Herbert Hoover in 1931 or George W. Bush in 2002), this election cycle may few such arguments.

Affordable housing, homelessness, and a political void

Homelessness in Los Angeles and other high cost cities may be just the tip of the iceberg of a larger housing issue in the United States that gets little political attention:

“To say it’s been a real wake-up call would be putting it mildly,” says Raphael Sonenshein, the director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at California State University’s L.A. campus. “It continues to be the No. 1 issue voters keep pointing to. This is going to be the issue of our time for the next few years out here. I think it’s going to dominate the rest of the mayor’s administration.”

Homelessness is by no means a problem unique to Los Angeles, of course. It’s a national crisis of varying degrees in cities from San Francisco to Boston, and one that officials at all levels of government seem hard-pressed to know how to address. Ahead of the first presidential-primary debates, the issue has barely registered, if at all, on the 2020 campaign trail, even as the bursting field of Democratic contenders issues policy proposals to address a wide range of other social and economic problems. But the candidate’s may be forced to confront the issue before long if the crisis continues to spread across the country…

California’s problem may be especially acute, but the lack of affordable housing, like homelessness, is a widespread problem in a national economy where income inequality has grown steadily for years. Yet of the leading presidential candidates, perhaps only Elizabeth Warren has outlined a detailed national plan to address the lack of affordable housing. She has proposed a program that would encourage states and localities to drop restrictive zoning laws that limit multiple dwellings and drive up housing costs in exchange for grants that could finance parks, roads, and schools. Her plan is comparable to a state proposal floated by California’s new Democratic governor, Gavin Newsom.

One major problem is widespread public opposition to greater density; a city like Los Angeles epitomizes urban sprawl, but it also enshrines the ideal of a backyard swimming pool and garden. The California state Senate recently shelved a bill that would have allowed the overriding of local zoning laws to permit construction of mid-rise apartment buildings near transit hubs and employment centers, even in neighborhoods currently limited to single-family homes. The bill fell victim to intense opposition from local neighborhood groups and some progressives, who feared it would benefit developers but not create more affordable housing. A study published in February by researchers at UCLA found that Newsom’s goal of 3.5 million new homes by 2025 is unrealistic because no more than 2.8 million could be built under current zoning laws.

I have argued before there is little appetite for a national discussion about affordable housing. To some degree, housing issues are related to numerous issues at stake in the 2020 elections including economic concerns, matters of justice and inequality, and providing opportunities to all Americans. However, it is difficult to make the argument that housing is behind all of these other concerns. I think this case could be made: where people live has many consequences in life.

I’m guessing housing issues will continue to mainly be local issues for a long time. It is unclear whether even state-level solutions can make sizable dents in these issues or how many states would have an appetite for sweeping policies that would affect all municipalities.

If there is limited movement on or even discussion of affordable housing across the United States, could this mean any progress in other areas will be limited?