William Frey looks at presidential voting by geography and concludes that suburban voters gave Biden his victory:
In the 2016 election, rural and nonmetropolitan America gave Donald Trump enough of a margin to beat Hillary Clinton in seven key states. Ahead of the 2020 election, Republicans worried that Trump would lose his rural edge, in light of reduced support there in the 2018 midterm elections. But this was not the case. Instead, Trump’s loss to Joe Biden was due mostly to voters in large metropolitan suburbs, especially in important battleground states…
However, large suburban areas in 2020 registered a net Democratic advantage for the first time since Barack Obama’s victory in 2008. This is significant because more voters reside there than in the other three categories. In terms of aggregate votes in these large suburban counties, there was a shift from a 1.2 million vote advantage for Trump in 2016 to (at last count) a 613,000 vote advantage for Biden—a nearly 2 million vote flip. In addition, Biden benefitted from more modest Republican margins in small metropolitan areas. These advantages for the President-elect were even greater in key battleground states…
The three northern battleground states of Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin—which flipped to Trump in 2016—again entered the Democratic fold in 2020. Here, even more than in the national analysis, the 2016 to 2020 suburban shifts to either greater Democratic or smaller Republican support were instrumental in Biden’s victory…
Suburban voting patterns also made a difference in the Sun Belt, especially in large southern states where suburbanization has been rampant. The focus here is on two such states: Georgia, where Biden is ahead and a recount has been announced; and Texas, which Trump won, but where urban and suburban voting patterns closed the longtime Republican-Democratic gap.
This is the most detailed analysis I have seen thus far. The predictions were right: the 2020 presidential election depended on the suburbs!
It also brings several other features of American and political life into relief:
- Joe Biden was nominated in part because of his electability. In the long run, his electability in one particular kind of place was particularly important: suburbs. Trump, to some degree, knew this but his approach was more combative and did not have the appeal he hoped.
- While political analysis suggests middle suburbs are battleground areas, I wonder if this signals that these suburbs are also in the middle of all sorts of other trends including demographic changes, cultural tastes, and suburban inequality. To build on earlier posts, perhaps finding middle America right now involves going to a Walmart in a middle suburb or an emergency room in a middle suburb.
- Many people have discussed the electoral college in recent years. Here is a crazier proposal based on more recent trends: instead of the electoral college by states, how about an electoral college by cities, suburbs, and rural areas? With concerns on either side that cities or rural areas are controlling political outcomes, could there be some way to weight the results such that all three geographies could influence the outcome? Grouping votes by states obliterates any distinctions between places.
Willing Frey at The Brookings Institution sums up recent trends in growth rates among cities and suburbs:
As we approach the end of the 2010s, the biggest cities in the United States are experiencing slower growth or population losses, according to new census estimates. The combination of city growth declines and higher suburban growth suggests that the “back to the city” trend seen at the beginning of the decade has reversed.
These trends are consistent with previous census releases for counties and metropolitan areas that point to a greater dispersion of the U.S. population as the economy and housing market pick back up, perhaps propelled by young adult millennials who may be finally departing dense urban cores as they make a delayed entrance into marriage and the housing market…
In both regions, city growth exceeded suburban growth in the early years of this decade, where Sun Belt growth in both cities and suburbs exceeded Snow Belt growth. As the decade wore on, city growth declined in both mega-regions while suburban growth remained higher. This is evident when looking at the individual metro areas in each region (download Table C). In 2011-2012, city growth exceeded suburb growth in 19 of the 34 Sun Belt metros, and in eight of the 19 Snow Belt metros. However, in 2017-18 the city growth advantage appeared in just nine Sun Belt metros and two Snow Belt metros. Among these 11 areas that still registered city growth advantages are: Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Denver, and Boston.
It is helpful to see the longer trends in the data, particularly when lots of media outlets want to jump on one-year estimates (such as Chicago’s recent population loss).
While it is helpful to compare cities and suburbs (and these changes do matter for a lot of reasons, including perceptions), I wonder how much this covers up larger changes across metropolitan regions or feeds narratives that cities and suburbs are locked in mortal competition. All of the above data could be true while Sun Belt regions continue to grow at a strong rates. Regions could think about policies as a whole that would enhance conditions for many more people than just those in cities or suburbs.
Finally, I’ve written before about how it would likely take decades to unseat the primacy of suburban life in the United States. Was the back to city movement or great inversion just a blip on the radar screen? Or, will it cycle back at closer and closer frequencies? The global economic system may have something to do with this – what happens with the next major downturn? – yet overcoming decades of expressed preference for suburbs will not be easy.
William Frey discusses the increase of non-whites in American suburbs with three graphics:
These findings are not new though the trend continues: the suburban populations of the three largest minority groups have increased in recent decades. William Frey and others at the Brookings Institution have been tracking these findings quite effectively. Yet, as Frey notes, population growth doesn’t mean that non-whites are evenly spread throughout the suburbs:
While Hispanics, Asians and blacks are now main players in suburbanization, they do not yet have a substantial presence in the outer suburbs and show some clustering in same-race communities, in many cases as a result of quasi-legal exclusionary practices.
Thus, the headline of this piece – “The Suburbs: Not Just for White People Anymore” – might be a bit misleading. This does not mean that wealthier whites and non-whites are living in the same places even if more non-whites live in suburban areas. Given the role of social class in the suburbs where more wealth and money means living in more exclusive communities, many non-whites haven’t exactly attained the same suburban life.
The Financial Times reports that according to a Brookings Institution study, Wichita has the highest percentage of exports of any metropolitan region in the country:
Thanks to a cluster of aircraft manufacturers such as Learjet, Cessna and Hawker Beechcraft, the economic focus of Wichita – population 366,000 – is very different from the emphasis on services and consumer demand typical of 21st century America. According to a study published late last month by the Brookings Institution, a Washington think-tank, nearly 28 per cent of the city’s gross metropolitan product is sold abroad. That makes it the most export-oriented in the country, just ahead of Portland, Oregon – noted for its computer and electronics companies – and San Jose in California’s Silicon Valley.
Wichita is not who I would think is leading this list. But the article goes on to say that Wichita and some other places have figured out how to move beyond two lagging sectors of the economy, consumer goods and housing, to move forward. For the rest of the country’s economy to move forward, they may have to follow Wichita’s model.