Suburban Republicanism is a difficult phenomenon for any political observer to analyze because its strength and tone have shifted greatly over time. One size definitely does not fit all when it comes to descriptors, a reality exemplified by regional traditions that can defy conventional wisdom on both party affiliation and voting habits.
The pace of change is also important to understand, because environmental conditions can hamper seemingly-unfettered trends unexpectedly. Virginia’s 2021 elections provided good evidence for this, with Glenn Youngkin seemingly halting (or delaying) the underlying suburban shifts that had driven the Old Dominion leftward up to that point.
While electoral trends in America’s prominent suburbs might be fickle or inconsistent depending on exigent circumstances, a general realignment has still been observed that continues to redefine American politics. Just as Democrats have seen a marked decline in traditional rural white support, Republicans have witnessed the ground beginning to fall out from underneath their feet in the outskirts of most major cities.
Looking at the voting history in some of these metros provides crystal clear data to make conclusions regarding current trends. In short, we know where the suburbs are going in the general sense but remain in the dark as to how long it will take for all of them to get there.
Assuming political expectations regarding the future of suburban voting continue to augur well for Democrats, one must wonder whether new coalitions are monolithic or subject to change as they have been throughout history. This piece will attempt to shed some light on patterns that the political future might hold, including the long-term validity of ‘Suburban Reversion’.
To provide evidence of the observed shift away from Republicans in some of the largest American suburbs over the last few decades, data from five select metros will be used. These are Atlanta, Philadelphia, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and the District of Columbia. When the term metro is used in this article, it refers to the suburbs encompassing the boundaries of greater metropolitan areas excluding the cities proper.
Results utilized for historical analysis are compiled from David Leip’s Atlas of United States Presidential Elections, an excellent resource for detailed results past and present. The website can be found here.
The ever-changing Atlanta metro has become a fountain of wonders for Joe Biden and his party in more ways than one. Besides contributing to the President Trump’s defeat, Atlanta joined the Peach State’s outstate cities in delivering double Democratic victories in runoffs that decided control of the Senate. The President’s thin governmental trifecta simply would not exist without Georgia.
Back in 1980, President Carter was enough of a favorite son to carry Georgia handily despite his otherwise ill-fated reelection campaign. But where did he lose to Ronald Reagan? In some of the same suburban counties that have since diversified and become key elements of the Democratic coalition. Gwinnett, Cobb, and Rockdale counties voted Republican by double digits. Before their black populations increased, Clayton and DeKalb counties were still fertile ground for Republicans as well.
For a modern observer, it is nearly impossible to imagine Bush Sr. getting 65% in a county like Clayton, where Biden received 85% in 2020. But that county alone is a great example of stark demographic change effectively-inverting political preferences. Scaled up, it is an excellent lesson regarding the futility of assuming electoral makeups will remain the same over long spans of time.
Philadelphia’s collar was one of the first suburban Republican strongholds to move toward the Democrats, with the shift starting thirty years ago during the Clinton Administration. The young Arkansan’s pivotal nationwide landslide against President Bush occurred under awkward circumstances (namely Perot) but still initiated trends in regions like SEPA that reverberate to this day.
All things considered, Delaware and Montgomery counties broke with tradition rather rapidly. Both narrowly opposed Bush Sr. after having wholeheartedly supported him in 1988. Up to that point, Clinton was practically the only Democrat in the modern-era to win both counties besides LBJ. Montgomery was so rooted in Republican tradition, in fact, that it was the only one of the Keystone State’s 67 counties that pro-life Democratic Governor Bob Casey lost. In many ways, the Philly collar simply hasn’t looked back since it started voting Democratic.
Other counties like Chester and Bucks have been less disastrous for Republicans, with Romney actually winning the former in 2012. But the general trend toward the Democrats has been observed in both of these outer-collar segments also. With a Senator like Pat Toomey finally announcing his retirement, it is unclear which statewide elected Republican will be able to appeal best to these suburbs. Considering many of these communities are actually quite diverse and do not easily fit the standard suburban mold, the GOP might find its answer downballot in the legislature.
New York (North Jersey)
It might seem a bit confusing to some readers that North Jersey is being classified as a suburb of New York City, but the description makes more sense when one considers just how large NYC’s metro really is. In many respects, the whole Garden State is basically an extension of either New York or Philadelphia. Obviously the state’s political makeup is not actually that simple, but the urban-suburban connections woven across state lines cannot be ignored.
No county in North Jersey has undergone the recently-observed suburban shift more obviously than Somerset. Like so many of the other counties mentioned in this article, Somerset is a wealthy, diversified enclave home to mostly commuter workers who live out peaceful lives in suburban tranquility quite different from the conditions of New York. For the most part, though, these residents have adopted Democratic political views similar to their city counterparts.
Federal Republican strength was the first to fade in Somerset, and it has done so rather quickly. President Bush Jr. performed well in the county, and the Garden State as a whole, following his unifying response to the 9/11 disaster. Both McCain and Romney ran campaigns well-suited to attract suburbanites despite falling short of victory. President Trump, despite his one-time national success, was the least-suited nominee to appeal to these voters; Democrats won Somerset by double digits in 2020.
Republicanism still thrives in down ballot elections here, but it has begun to wane in regional contests too. During Trump’s single term, for instance, the GOP lost unanimous control of the county government. Even last year, amid a great environment, Republicans narrowly fell short of regaining a seat on the Board of Commissioners.
Go back to the Reagan years and you would be hard-pressed to find Democrats in the Chicago collar. Apart from the city itself, Chicagoland was long one of the GOP’s most fervent bastions. Historically the Republican bulwark against urban sentiments and downstate Democratic traditionalism, this collar’s past harkens back to the days when the Land of Lincoln was fiercely contested by both feuding parties at every level. That is no longer so, with some of the nation’s previously blood red counties now among its bluest.
Unlike the Philly collar, the Chicago collar’s two most formidable counties did not change voting patterns in 1992. Lake and DuPage, both complete bastions of traditional Republicanism in their own rights, had given Reagan impressive majorities and backed the elder Bush twice. Lake backed Clinton’s reelection narrowly, but did not become reliably Democratic at the Presidential level until the Obama years; DuPage followed a similar trajectory. Additionally, if you haven’t realized by now, the GOP is still stronger here down the ballot.
From quiet exurban backcountry on the outskirts of the D.C. metro, NOVA has grown far more vibrant – politically and economically – over the last few decades. Two of the most important drivers behind increased Democratic success in the region as of late are development and government. The former has brought new residents into NOVA from around the country, most of whom are well-educated and wealthy. The latter has arguably become the region’s most important employer.
The days of Frank Wolf and Tom Davis are just as numbered as the once ardently-Republican past associated with both Loudoun and Fairfax counties. Though most of the initial softening of Republican margins occurred in the 90s, NOVA did not start enthusiastically backing Democratic Presidential nominees until the tail-end of the second Bush era. Loudoun last broke for a Republican statewide candidate in 2014, when Ed Gillespie nearly upset Democratic Senator Mark Warner. Barbara Comstock, defeated in 2018, was the last of the NOVA Republicans in Congress.
Glenn Youngkin proved that some reversion is certainly possible in these widely-populated counties, but the region itself is simply not coming back into the Republican fold anytime soon at any level. But who knows, maybe time will paint a different picture than we all expect.
Bonus: Los Angeles (Orange County)
If you know anything at all about the modern politics of Orange County, nestled outside of Los Angeles, then this wonderful map by Leon Sit will not surprise you. In many ways, Democratic strength in Orange County did not begin to reach its zenith until the Trump-era. And, as Michelle Steel and Young Kim both prove, Republicans can still compete fiercely for other offices at the local, state, and federal levels.
The evidence presented up to this point clearly indicates that Democrats have gnawed into the heart of suburban Republicanism across the country over the last few decades. Although the observed trends have stalled and progressed at varying speeds depending on external factors, the overall direction has mostly remained the same.
Does that mean that ‘suburban reversion’ is a non-factor? Hardly. On its face, reversion seems to be more of a temporary phenomenon than a repeated one. Depending on how one analyzes retrenchment, reversion could potentially be little more than a mere bump on a road detracting briefly from general movement in one direction. This theory is supported further when one understands that reversion generally coincides with a favorable national environment, which can affect changes in the electorate that yield inconsistent political repercussions.
Basically, Republicans could benefit from perceived suburban reversion in the midterms this fall solely because the party is expected to wield its best environment since the 2010 wave. National conditions aside, turnout discrepancies between midterms and presidential cycles further muddle the waters of whether reversion is real or merely a result of the mobilization of specific parts of the electorate at different degrees. Temporary movement alone in either direction is not a valid gauge of long-term coalitions and certainly cannot account for split-ticket voting and disparate levels of down ballot strength.
The one thing that is assured can be ascertained from history itself: electoral coalitions are far from monolithic or permanent. Just as trends rise and fall at different rates, voting patterns change on individual whims. Countless moving parts, including demographics and environments, affect electoral results. Since political analysts have absolutely no way of determining such analytical prerequisites decades in advance, it would be futile and misguided to say that Republicans will never dominate the suburbs again.
As Armin Thomas and J. Miles Coleman are fond of saying, no part of the United States is every permanently red or blue. Cookie-cutter molds will never be able to describe the political dynamics of the entire country under one banner, and continuing polarization should keep it that way for better or for worse.
My name is Harrison Lavelle and I am a political analyst studying political science and international studies at the College of New Jersey. As a co-founder and partner at Split Ticket, I coordinate our House coverage. I write about a variety of electoral topics and produce political maps. Besides elections, my hobbies include music, history, language, aviation, and fitness.
Contact me at @HWLavelleMaps or firstname.lastname@example.org