For Democrats, Time to Meet the Exurban Voter
Tuesday, December 10, 2002
November 10, 2002, Sunday, Late Edition - Final
The Nation; For Democrats, Time to Meet the Exurban Voter
By DAVID BROOKS; David Brooks, a senior editor at The Weekly Standard, is author of "Bobos in Paradise."
WASHINGTON RUY TEIXEIRA and John B. Judis recently published a book called "The Emerging Democratic Majority," which argues that long-term demographic trends favor the Democratic Party. The 2002 election results could be good news for the authors. It seems that this emerging Democratic majority is going to take a long time to emerge, and their book is going to have an extra-long shelf life.
The gubernatorial election in Maryland illustrates the strengths -- and it must be said, the weaknesses -- of their still compelling thesis. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the Democratic candidate, easily carried the city of Baltimore and Prince George's and Montgomery Counties, which ring Washington. These suburban counties are heavily populated with the people Mr. Teixeira and Mr. Judis argue are the core of the coming Democratic majority: minorities, union members and highly educated, highly affluent doctors, lawyers and members of the media elite.
The problem for Ms. Townsend was that these were the only counties she carried. She lost the rural areas and was crushed in the fast-growing exurban counties, beyond the metropolitan areas, like Frederick County, north of Washington, and Harford County, north of Baltimore.
Her loss to the Republican, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., illustrated an important feature of the political landscape: Democrats stink in the exurbs. Look at the states where Democrats lost important races: Georgia, with its sprawling megalopolis stretching out from Atlanta; Minnesota, with its growing office parks and monster malls; Florida, where Gov. Jeb Bush triumphed in the strip mall zones around Orlando.
In the Georgia Senate race, Saxby Chambliss, the Republican, beat Max Cleland, the incumbent Democrat, in fast-growing Forsyth and Gwinnett Counties with 77 percent and 64 percent of the vote, respectively.
Colorado is something of a microcosm of how voting patterns are shaking out around the country. In the race for Senate, Tom Strickland, the defeated Democrat, easily carried Denver as well the university-centered Boulder County, with its highly educated, affluent voters.
But in the Colorado where the sprawl people live, it's an entirely different story. In Douglas County, the fastest-growing county in the country, which stretches from Denver almost down to Colorado Springs, the Republican incumbent, Senator Wayne A. Allard, dominated, as he did in all the other fast-growing exurban corridors.
Thanks to population growth of about 15 percent a year, the number of voters in those places is now huge. This year, about 72,000 people voted in Douglas County. Four years ago, when Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a Republican, won the county, about 52,000 people voted. Moreover, Senator Allard carried Jefferson County, west and south of Denver, and Arapahoe County, east of Denver, by 9,000 and 11,000 votes. Though he didn't exactly distinguish himself as the second coming of Henry Clay in his first term in the Senate, Mr. Allard went on to comfortably reclaim the seat.
These exurbs are booming. Before 1980, says Robert Lang, a demographer at Virginia Tech, only a quarter of all office space was in the suburbs. But about 70 percent of the office space created in the 1990's was in suburbia, and now 42 percent of all offices are located there. You have a tribe of people who don't live in cities, or commute to cities, or have any contact with urban life. Mesa, Ariz., another quintessential exurb east of Phoenix, already has more people than St. Louis. Extrapolate out a few years, and some of these sprawling suburbs will have political clout equal to Chicago's.
It's hard to know whether the rising exurban and office park voters will cancel out the rising groups in the Democratic coalition Mr. Teixeira and Mr. Judis point to. One thing is for sure: politically detached suburban voters are the late-swinging voters in every election, and Democrats don't seem to know what makes them tick.
Democrats can win them over. Exurban voters are not, by and large, ideological conservatives. But many of them have recently left inner-ring suburbs they found too congested. If you travel from exurb to exurb, you find a pretty consistent set of priorities, which can be summarized with the motto: More Highways, Less Growth.
EVEN though they often just moved to these places, exurbanites are pretty shameless about trying to prevent more people from coming after them. At the same time, they are fanatical about cutting their commuting time. They moved to these places, after all, because they wanted to spend more time with their families as well as less money on their mortgages.
"They infuse new destinations with 'suburban' demographic attributes that should reinforce middle class, moderate conservative voting constituencies," said William H. Frey, a demographer at the University of Michigan Population Studies Center.
This is the land of guys who have luxury pickup trucks they like to take out on Sunday mornings, Old Navy outlets big enough for their own ZIP code and Fuddruckers that fill up when the megachurches let out.
They swung this election, and when it comes to how they see the world, what scares and inspires them, the Republicans, so far, just seem to get it. http://www.nytimes.com
Chart/Map: "How to Lose an Election" Democrats retained their strength in urban areas, but in many cases, that did not make up for losing the booming exurban counties.
COUNTY: Montgomery % CHANGE IN POPULATION 1990-2000: 14.5 2002 GOVERNOR'S RACE WINNER: DEM.
COUNTY: Prince George's % CHANGE IN POPULATION 1990-2000: 10.9 2002 GOVERNOR'S RACE WINNER: DEM.
COUNTY: Harford % CHANGE IN POPULATION 1990-2000: 20.0 2002 GOVERNOR'S RACE WINNER: REP.
COUNTY: Frederick % CHANGE IN POPULATION 1990-2000: 30.0 2002 GOVERNOR'S RACE WINNER: REP.
Map of Maryland highlighting Frederick, Baltimore, Hartford, Washington, Montgomery, Prince George's.
COUNTY: BOULDER % CHANGE IN POPULATION 1990-2000: 29.3 2002 SENATE RACE WINNER: DEM.
COUNTY: DENVER % CHANGE IN POPULATION 1990-2000: 18.6 2002 SENATE RACE WINNER: DEM.
COUNTY: DOUGLAS % CHANGE IN POPULATION 1990-2000: 191.0 2002 GOVERNOR'S RACE WINNER: REP.
Map of Colorado highlighting Boulder, Denver, and Douglas.
(Sources: Census Bureau; states election)