Remember the suburban voters in 2020

As COVID-19 and police brutality pushed the 2020 presidential election off the front pages for months, recent poll data suggests suburban voters are breaking one way in national polls:

And while Trump has an edge with rural voters, Biden crushes him in the suburbs – which often decide how swing states swing.

Fifty per cent of suburban registered voters told the pollster they planned to vote for Biden, while 36 per cent said they’d vote for Trump.

And in Texas metropolitan areas:

A Quinnipiac University survey released last week found Trump leading Biden by 1 point in Texas. Trump leads by 2.2 points in the RealClearPolitics average.

Texas Republicans are primarily worried about their standing in the suburbs, where women and independents have steadily gravitated away from the GOP since Trump took office.

Republican support has eroded in the areas surrounding Houston, Dallas, Austin and San Antonio, four of the nation’s largest and fastest growing metro areas. Democrats defeated longtime GOP incumbents in Houston and Dallas in 2018.

More background on trying to find a suburban “silent majority”:

The suburbs — not the red, but sparsely populated rural areas of the country most often associated with Trump — are where Trump found the majority of his support in 2016. Yet it was in the suburbs that Democrats built their House majority two years ago in a dramatic midterm repudiation of the Republican president.

Now, Trump’s approach to the violence and unrest that have gripped the nation’s big cities seems calibrated toward winning back those places, in the hopes that voters will recoil at the current images of chaos and looting — as they did in the late 1960s — and look to the White House for stability…

Five months before the general election, according to national polls, the political landscape for Trump is bleak. But there is a clear window of opportunity: Trump remains popular in rural America, and he won the suburbs by 4 percentage points in 2016 — largely on the backs of non-college-educated whites.

There are millions more potential voters where those came from — people who fit in Trump’s demographic sweet spot but did not vote. They live in rural and exurban areas, but also in working class suburbs like Macomb County, outside Detroit. They are who Republicans are referring to when they talk about a new “silent majority” — the kind of potential voters who, even if disgusted by police violence, are not joining in protest.

This probably bears repeating: the American suburbs of today are not solely populated by wealthy, white, conservative voters. This is the era of complex suburbia where different racial and ethnic groups as well as varied social classes live throughout metropolitan regions.

Relatively little media coverage has examined how COVID-19 or police brutality has affected suburbs or how suburbanites feel about all the change. While just over 50% of Americans live in suburbs, coverage emphasized urban areas. And what do suburbanites think when they see these images of urban life, policing, and protest that they may or not understand on an experiential or deeper level?

Trump administration pushes housing deregulation

A look at the Trump administration’s approach to homelessness includes this summary of how they view housing more broadly:

Housing deregulation is probably the core of the report outlined by the Council Advisors. That lines up with the Trump administration’s overall position on housing—from Carson’s enthusiasm for breaking up exclusionary zoning to the housing plan that the Domestic Policy Council is drafting. Trump signed an executive order establishing a White House Council on Eliminating Regulatory Barriers to Affordable Housing in June.

While making it easier to build housing could ease the affordability crisis, it may be hard to achieve those reforms, Hanratty says. Several of the Democratic Party primary candidates have outlined housing plans with various strategies to promote new construction, but all of them would require sweeping new legislation. And in practice, deregulation might not produce housing that is affordable to very low-income families or people with substance-abuse or mental-health afflictions without subsidies.

This is a common conservative argument to make these days: the housing market needs to be a more free one with less interference from local governments as well as the federal government. Attempts at more explicit intervention – such as in public housing – have not proved popular. If the law of supply and demand could simply take over, the market would provide housing options for all.

However, this may not work as intended. The suburbs, a space seen as desirable by many Americans was not the result of free markets but rather the result of all sorts of social and government interventions. Would Houston’s growth without zoning look attractive for communities around the country? Without any regulations, developers and builders may have little incentive to build cheaper housing and instead pursue units that provide more profit.

Finding some middle ground where specific and limited interventions actually lead to more affordable housing will prove difficult. Without some negative consequences for communities and housing market actors who do not participate in providing cheaper housing, what can be done?

Ronald Reagan lived in Chicago; conservatives for cities?

A Chicago Tribune story on the troubles facing President Ronald Reagan’s boyhood home in Dixon, Illinois includes some interesting information about where else Reagan lived when he was young:

However, Theodore Karamanski, a history professor at Loyola University Chicago, said presidential birth and boyhood homes aren’t often historically significant, with the possible exception of presidents like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Historians tend to favor places that were central during periods of power.

He pointed out that presidents often have several homes they lived in during childhood, including Reagan, who even lived for a time on the South Side of Chicago.

Instead, it is the local communities that generally push for a historic designation for birth and boyhood homes.

According to WBEZ, Reagan lived with his family in Chicago for a little more than a year:

Before Barack Obama, only one U.S. President had called Chicago home. As a boy, Ronald Reagan lived on the first floor of the building at 832 East 57th Street.

The Reagans moved into their apartment in January of 1915. They’d come to the city from the western Illinois village of Tampico. Jack Reagan, Ronald’s father, got a job selling shoes in the Loop. His wife, Nelle, stayed home with the two boys, 6-year-old Neil and little Ron–called “Dutch”–who was going on 4…

Sometime in 1916 the Reagan family left Chicago and moved to Galesburg. It’s not clear whether Jack quit his Loop job, or was fired. But their time in Hyde Park was over.

Reagan lived more of his younger years outside of the big city; but, imagine he lived there longer. Or, he chose to remember the Chicago experience as more formative. Or, the Chicago neighborhood put more effort into remembering him as living there.

Perhaps the biggest issue (besides the length of time the family lived in Chicago) is that this image of a big city boy does not match Reagan’s own politics or how he was perceived. Can a Republican leader in the United States claim to be from a big city, not from the metropolitan region but from the big city itself? Given the voting breakdown of recent elections as well as the anti-urban inclinations of conservatives, this does not sound likely. In a country that still idealizes small town life, claiming to represent those parts of the country can go a long ways.

Current President Donald Trump presents an alternative to this conservative small-town vision. Born in and still a resident of New York City, Trump is hardly a small-town or even a suburban conservative. As a real estate developer, he aims to bring large buildings with his name on them to big cities around the world. His policies do not align with a pro-urban vision even as he is clearly a city person. And, I would guess this big-city conservative is an anomaly rather than an ongoing trend for Republicans.

Ronald Reagan as a Chicago native is far-fetched but it does suggest an alternative vision: conservatives who are from and for big cities. This would require a massive shift in ideology but it is not unprecedented nor impossible. Perhaps it would just take a mythical icon of the party would saw the city as their home and priority.

Argument: Trump “is acting like a real estate developer”

Want to understand the behavior of President Donald Trump? Megan McArdle suggests he is simply doing what a real estate development might do:

Because what you see on TV shows about house-flippers is, writ large, the nature of the whole business: To compete in a highly capital-intensive industry, almost everyone takes on a lot of debt. Like most real estate people, Trump loves debt — “There’s nothing like doing things with other people’s money,” he told a rally in 2016. “Because it takes the risk, you get a good chunk of it and it takes the risk.”…

That’s why the real estate business rewards a certain willingness to put everything you have on a long shot; if you can’t cheerfully take risks with horrific potential downsides, you need a different job. The best argument for this approach is that some problems can’t be solved any other way — if developers demanded steady, predictable incomes like the rest of us, most of America would still be farmland.

In its best form, the developer’s way of thinking can achieve the impossible — or at least what the more staid and methodical folks said was impossible. I opposed moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and was at best ambivalent about sticking with Kavanaugh, but I have to admit that the apocalyptic doom predicted by Trump’s opponents has so far failed to materialize, while the political gains were immediate, and large.

Then again, there’s a reason most of us don’t live like real estate developers, or want to. Bankruptcy is a sadly normal fact of life in the real estate business, which is why Trump can tout his extensive experience negotiating with creditors. The cost of gaining wins with big bets is that you never know when you might lose everything.

Analyzing behavior and motives from afar is a difficult task. Yet, this argument raises some interesting questions:

  1. Could an average American describe how a real estate developer operates? A few might be known to a broad number of people but I’m guessing many operate behind the scenes. And these developers can significantly effect communities.
  2. It would be interesting to know how the president polls among real estate developers. Would they proudly call him one of their own? Would they recognize the approach?
  3. Are there examples of other real estate developers who became political leaders? If so, did they act in similar ways?
  4. Is there a way to quantify or easily explain the amount of influence real estate developers have had in cities or places? Donald Trump was a big name developer: widely recognized, some degree of wealth, and a number of large buildings with his name on it. Yet, how much did he influence New York City or other locations?

 

The houses of Donald Trump

I was recently looking into what Donald Trump has said about the single-family home – arguably the cornerstone of the American Dream – and found this article on his six personal homes (including pictures and video tours). Two quick thoughts:

  1. Not surprisingly, Trump does not go small with his homes. No McMansions here. These are all expensive, luxurious properties.
  2. His homes are all on the East Coast or in the Caribbean. For a man who built his candidacy for president on support from forgotten America, his homes are from the elite areas.
  3. His style seems to be more traditional. This may be to project that his relatively new power – several decades of money and influence – are connected to traditional sources of power. There is not a modernist structure here. The Manhattan penthouse maybe comes the closest but even that is more opulent than modern or edgy.

Locating Trump supporters and fascists in the suburbs

One columnist explores possible connections between Trump supporters and where they live:

But scapegoating poor whites keeps the conversation away from fascism’s real base: the petite bourgeoisie. This is a piece of jargon used mostly by Marxists to denote small-property owners, whose nearest equivalents these days may be the “upper middle class” or “small-business owners.” FiveThirtyEight reported last May that “the median household income of a Trump voter so far in the primaries is about $72,000,” or roughly 130 percent of the national median. Trump’s real base, the actual backbone of fascism, isn’t poor and working-class voters, but middle-class and affluent whites. Often self-employed, possessed of a retirement account and a home as a nest egg, this is the stratum taken in by Horatio Alger stories. They can envision playing the market well enough to become the next Trump. They haven’t won “big-league,” but they’ve won enough to be invested in the hierarchy they aspire to climb. If only America were made great again, they could become the haute 
bourgeoisie—the storied “1 percent.”
…

Their material security bound up in the value of their real-estate assets, suburban white people had powerful incentives to keep their neighborhoods white. Just by their very proximity, black people would make their neighborhoods less desirable to future white home-buyers, thereby depreciating the value of the location. Location being the first rule of real estate, suburban homeowners nurtured racist attitudes, while deluding themselves that they weren’t excluding black people for reasons beyond their pocketbooks.

In recent decades, rising urban rents have been pushing lower-income people to more peripheral locations. As suburbia has grown poorer, the more affluent homeowners have fled for the even greener pastures of exurbia. Everywhere they turn, their economic anxiety 
follows them…

If you’re looking for Trump’s implacable support, Texas trailer parks and Kentucky cabins are the wrong places to find it. Fascism develops over hands of poker in furnished basements, over the grill by the backyard pool, over beers on the commuter-rail ride back from the ball game—and in police stations and squad cars.

Linking the suburbs to right-wing politics is nothing new. And it is certainly true that the formation of American suburbs is heavily influenced by race and class. Still, I’m a bit surprised I haven’t seen much data yet on the geography of Trump and Clinton support. In recent presidential elections, candidates have been fighting over middle suburban votes: cities and inner-ring suburbs vote Democratic, exurbs vote Republican, and suburbanites in the middle could go either way. Indeed, you can even find narratives that suburban voters are breaking for Democrats.

And fascism forming in the suburbs…I’d like to see a lot more evidence.

Fighting over suburban voters and Trump lost ground

Democrats and Republicans both need suburban voters and analysis of the 2016 presidential results suggests Donald Trump lost ground in some suburban areas:

Trump’s general election struggles in suburbia were anticipated. With few exceptions he struggled in those same localities in the primary season, routinely losing suburbs to Sens. Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz. Trump’s ability to press an agenda that wins those suburban voters back—or Democrats’ ability to seize on this schism—may largely define the success of both parties in the next era of American politics.

A national analysis of 20 high-growth suburban Republican counties surrounding the metropolitan areas of Chicago, Columbus, Cincinnati, Milwaukee, Kansas City, St. Louis, Nashville, Atlanta, Charlotte, Jacksonville, Richmond, Washington, Denver, New Orleans, Dallas, Houston, Austin, and Fort Worth show the same softness in Trump support across disparate regions of the country. Of those 20 counties studied, only St. Charles, Missouri, delivered a Trump a larger margin than it had given Romney. The 20 suburban growth counties studied collectively gave Romney a 753,442-vote advantage over Obama but yielded Trump a smaller 467,120-vote advantage over Clinton…

Democratic strategists are hawking the narrative that Trump’s metropolitan problem was due primarily to minority voters, and some of that is true. In Gwinnett and Cobb Counties outside Atlanta, white voters now make up less than two-thirds of the population and Trump was nine percentage points weaker than Romney had been. But Trump’s softness in even heavily white suburbs indicates a broader warning sign for Republicans….

Suburbanites Like Republicans But Not Trump

Who will put together the best campaign to reach these suburban voters in 2020? Perhaps we need to update the phrase from the Nixon campaign of “Will it play in Peoria?” (though the original phrase came from vaudeville, not politics) to something more like will it play in Cobb County or Loundon County or Kendall County.

The ever-active big city as antidote to Donald Trump

One New Yorker writes about how the city itself is a salve against the election of an undesirable candidate:

Urbanism isn’t perfect, certainly not as we’ve ever managed to live it in New York. It’s brought us income inequality and political complacency and an ugly disdain for the forsaken voters on whose rage our boy-king just boogie-boarded into office. But the city is not one that will respond to that comeuppance with humility. And as the days wore on after the election, and we settled back into our know-it-all selves, we began to feel a little less ignorant or even ill-informed. We know plenty. We know tolerance and science and that cosmopolitanism does not mean unanimity but that it does mean vitality, and that you shouldn’t intervene when two drug addicts are yelling at each other outside a Chinatown subway station but that you should when it’s one of them yelling at a Mexican woman to clear out of town. We know that, whatever he thinks of Hamilton, there are safe spaces for the president-elect in this city — Staten Island, for starters, and Hasidic Williamsburg and the ‘21’ Club and Jean-Georges, apparently. Thankfully, we know there are unsafe spaces, too, including right outside his front door, where many continue to rally every day despite the armored trucks and sandbags and police with blacked-out name tags. We know that “inner cities” aren’t “war zones” and that ending discriminatory policing doesn’t lead to a rise in gun deaths — we actually know that because the city is an urban laboratory for city-first governance, and it has yielded real results. We know that putting America First means welcoming the world, and we know our immigrants have enriched us, not raped us. We know that city life can be ugly, but also that we are all strong enough to live among some ugliness. We know that, stranded in a country that may soon privatize public schools, we have just established universal pre-K, and we know — or think we know — that it works. We know that we have pretty gender-­accommodating public bathrooms because we know people who still fuck and do drugs in them. We know that La Guardia is a dump — but so what? We know this city is, ultimately, ungovernable — that it’s too unruly, that it’s at its best when it’s unruly, and that its unruliness is what gave rise to what people like Trump used to call the American Dream. We know that people like him are the cost of that unruliness, and that you can learn to live with them by mocking them. We thought we knew the country would listen to our warnings, but we’re not going to stop making them. We know, whatever one might think of Bill de Blasio, our giant in Gracie Mansion is up to the task of grandstanding, suggesting he’d erase the city’s ID-card data rather than endanger immigrants. We know the city will be independent, and we know the city will also continue to be itself — a theater of freaks and refugees and the restless who were never elsewhere able to feel at home. We know that an open and tolerant and ­progress-minded future still lies before us, even if we have to go it alone, and even if that future now looks a few feet smaller at the shoreline.

And we also know that we are not in fact alone — that New York is not an island but an archipelago. Our mayor has resister-cousins in Chicago and Los Angeles and Providence, San Francisco and Seattle and Minneapolis — and those are just a few of the cities mobilizing themselves as immigrant sanctuaries. We know that the number of Democratic counties has shrunk over the last decade or two, as entrepreneurs and other hustlers flooded into cities, and we know that the counties that went blue in this election account for nearly two-thirds of the American economy. We also know that Peter Thiel was basically the only Trumper in Silicon Valley. If you have to live in a bubble, really, you could do worse.

This could be relatively easy to dismiss as an example of urban dwellers or coastal residents leaning Democratic versus those in more rural areas or in the middle of the country voting Republican. But, the underlying idea is more interesting: is the city, particularly the #1 global city in the world New York City, bigger than presidential elections? Regardless of who is president, this city moves on with its own concerns and attitudes. It is affected by national politics but it is also a world onto itself. More broadly, the economic heart of the city – giving rise to all the traffic (vehicular and pedestrian), Wall Street, dynamic urbanism described by Jane Jacobs – continues.

When the candidate with the big data advantage didn’t win the presidency

Much was made of the effective use of big data by Barack Obama’s campaigns. That analytic advantage didn’t help the Clinton campaign:

Clinton can be paranoid and self-destructively self-protective, but she’s also capable of assessing her own deficiencies as a politician in a bracingly clear-eyed way. And the conclusion that she drew from her 2008 defeat was essentially an indictment of her own management style: Eight years earlier, she had personally presided over a talented, sloppy, squabbling, sprawling menagerie of pals, longtime advisers and hangers-on who somehow managed to bungle the building of a basic political infrastructure to oppose Obama’s efficient, data-driven operation.

To do so, Mook hired a buddy who had helped Terry McAuliffe squeak out a win in the 2014 Virginia governor’s race: Elan Kriegel, a little-known data specialist who would, in many ways, exert more influence over the candidate than any of all-star team of veteran consultants. Kriegel’s campaign-within-a-campaign conducted dozens of targeted surveys—to test messaging and track voter sentiment day-by-day, especially in battleground states—and fed them into a computer algorithm, which ran hundreds of thousands of simulations that were used to steer ad spending, the candidate’s travel schedule, even the celebrities Clinton would invite to rallies.

The data operation, five staffers told me, was the source of Mook’s power within the campaign, and a source of perpetual tension: Many of Clinton’s top consultants groused that Mook and Kriegel withheld data from them, balking at the long lead time—a three-day delay—between tracking reports. A few of them even thought Mook was cherry-picking rosy polling to make the infamously edgy Clinton feel more confident…

In numerous interviews conducted throughout the campaign, Clinton staffers attested to Mook’s upbeat attitude and mastery of detail. But, in the end, Brooklyn simply failed to predict the tidal wave that swamped Clinton—a pro-Trump uprising in rural and exurban white America that wasn’t reflected in the polls—and his candidate failed to generate enough enthusiasm to compensate with big turnouts in Detroit, Milwaukee and the Philadelphia suburbs.

It would be fascinating to hear more. The pollsters didn’t get it right – but neither did the Clinton campaign internally?

The real question is what this will do to future campaigns. Was Donald Trump’s lack of campaign infrastructure and reliance on celebrity and media coverage (also highlighted nicely in the article above) something that others can or will replicate? Or, would the close margins in this recent presidential election highlight even more the need for finely-tuned data and microtargeting? I’m guessing the influence of big data in campaigns will only continue but data will only get you so far if it (1) isn’t great data in the first place and (2) people know how to use it well.

Connecting sundown towns and votes for Trump in Wisconsin

Sundown towns were once common in the North and one academic looks at the connections between such communities and voting for Donald Trump:

Did sundown towns elect Trump in Wisconsin? My research assistant, Kathryn Robinson, and I tried to find out. Since it is much easier to get county-level election returns than municipal ones, we concentrated on “sundown counties,” those having a county seat that could be established as a sundown town or likely sundown town in Loewen’s mapping. An incredible 58 of the state’s 72 counties fit into such a category. Of the 58 sundown counties 31 are 1% or less African American (and only eight more than 2%), suggesting that the proxy of the county seat works in identifying sundown areas at the county level.

The simple answer on Trump and sundown towns in Wisconsin is: “Clearly they elected him.” Sundown counties gave Trump almost 935,000 votes to Clinton’s just over 678,000. His margin in the sundown areas exceeded 256,000 votes. That Clinton won the fifteen non-sundown counties by almost 230,000 votes could not make up for Trump’s 58% to 42% margin in the sundown ones. Just short of two/thirds of all Trump voters in Wisconsin came from sundown counties. Only nine sundown counties chose Clinton with 49 for Trump…

Our appreciation of the critically important historical dimension to sundown voting—both Robinson and I are trained in that discipline—ironically came through a sociologist. That is, when I contacted Loewen to outline the project to him, he mentioned having recently been to Calhoun County, a tiny sundown county in Illinois near where I grew up. That county, he told me, had voted for Obama in the same proportions as the rest of the country in 2008. I then looked up its 2016 vote, a landslide for Trump. Robinson and I had reason to wonder if a similar swing from Obama to Trump characterized the 2008 to 2016 trajectory of sundown county voters in Wisconsin.

The pattern could hardly been more striking. In 2008, Barack Obama defeated John McCain in all but eight of Wisconsin’s sundown counties. These virtually all-white counties delivered to the African American candidate a majority of nearly 143,000 votes. The fifteen very small sundown counties discussed above supported Obama in 2008 by 57.4% to 42.6%. The countervailing continuity lay in the metro Milwaukee suburbancounties, where the vote went to the conservative candidate in both 2008 and 2016, by overwhelming margins in both cases. The intervening 2012 election proved a halfway house, with the Milwaukee suburban counties solidly for Romney but Obama splitting the other sundown counties with the Republican ticket. By 2016, just under 400,000 votes had switched from the Democratic to the Republican candidate in sundown Wisconsin. Outside of the sundown counties the pro-Republican swing from 2008 to 2016 was just 17,000 votes.

It would be worthwhile to see such research carried out elsewhere as there were more sundown towns than people imagine (even if actual laws or records about them are difficult to find).

While Loewen alerts us to this important history, it is also interesting to consider how sundown counties or towns can experience rapid racial and ethnic change. This article cites a rural community that suddenly had an influx of Latino workers for several manufacturing plants. Or, imagine some suburban areas after World War Two that had rapid development and demographic change. I’m thinking of Naperville, Illinois, a sundown town that due to high quality residential and job growth is a suburb today that is increasingly non-white and where city leaders praise the growing diversity. Is there a point where the effects of being a sundown town disappear or could such effects pop up again depending on the situation (economic factors, racial and ethnic change, certain leaders, etc.)?