Bush takes root in the new 'exurbs'Lawrence C. Levy
Wednesday, November 10, 2004
Like millions of backers of President George W. Bush and Sen. John Kerry, Beth Sadoff and Ellen Weiner knocked on doors the weekend before election day.
What these fortysomething backers of Kerry found in the "swing" Philadelphia suburbs were many Republicans, such as Charles Forgione, 70, and Eugene Fritz, 54, who said they couldn't wait to vote against Bush because of his handling of the war and the economy.
But they also found voters whose anger at Kerry scared them far more than the Halloween ghouls on many doors. When Weiner asked Democrat Frank Davis, 68, if Kerry could count on his support, he said, "I can't vote for a baby killer."
Once again, as for the past six presidential elections, the moderate suburbs emerged as the nation's biggest and most decisive voting bloc. Republicans win when they build a rural-suburban coalition; Democrats win with an urban-suburban alliance. This time Bush won by a couple of percentage points.
By another measure, the candidate who won two of the three largest competitive states - Florida, Ohio and Penn-sylvania - was expected to win the electoral vote. That happened. And it was Bush's showing in these states' suburbs that was most predictive of the outcome.
The results offer both parties important lessons. Democrats, depressed about their party's prospects after losing the presidency for the second time in a row, can take heart in how competitive they were in suburban precincts where they have done well since Bill Clinton again made the suburbs safe for Democrats. With better luck along the "Crabgrass Frontier" of one state, Ohio, Kerry would have been president.
But Democrats should be worried about the newest suburbs. Kerry did fine in aging "inner" suburbs, from Nassau County to the parts of Cook and Cayuhoga Counties outside Chicago and Cleveland, respectively. But Bush crushed him in the "collar" suburbs (aka "exurbs") that are the nation's fastest-growing areas.
In the three big swing states and elsewhere, the GOP connected with these younger families who decided to skip the more ethnically diverse suburbs closer to the city. They did so not only to find cheaper housing but also for the growing evangelical churches. Some of these counties, such as Chester, beyond Philadelphia's near-in suburbs, and Pasco, outside Tampa, are being transformed into "fair-fight" battlegrounds by these new Republicans - just as other older suburbs have grown competitive by the influx of urban Democrats.
But Republicans can't count on carrying these counties unless they hold their new conservative bases and make in-roads among moderates. If Bush and the Republicans ignore this reality - by pushing the same right-wing agenda that drove GOP-leaning "soccer moms" to the Democrats - a backlash could cost them moderate districts and the White House.
In the end, it's the suburbs that will continue to decide which party holds the center of the country.
In Philadelphia's suburbs, which I visited six times in seven weeks, Kerry did a little better than Al Gore. Added to his 350,000 vote lead in the city, his nearly 100,000-vote bulge in the three contiguous GOP-leaning counties was deci-sive.
In the Keystone State, the Republicans failed to scare enough socially liberal "soccer moms" into "security moms" - Republican women who had abandoned the party for its right-wing tilt. The GOP, which had an awesome get-out-the-vote effort among religious conservatives, also couldn't overcome antipathy to its party and candidate.
Kerry's supporters, such as Sadoff and Weiner, mounted their own strong ground game in Montgomery, Delaware and Bucks counties that more than matched Bush's. And there weren't enough Christian conservative families in these neighborhoods to change the outcome. The good news for Democrats is that even in the conservative suburb of Chester, where the GOP worked hard to get out its loyalists, Kerry lost only by the same 10,000-vote margin as Gore.
In Florida, however, Bush turned the swing corridor from Tampa through Orlando to the Kennedy Space Center into a gold mine. It's an area he split with Gore four years ago. But, as he did all over the country, Bush made his most dramatic gains there with evangelical Christians, tens of thousands of whom sat out the 2000 election. In highlighting his opposition to gay marriage and Kerry's votes against the ban on "partial-birth" abortion, Bush also got a boost from religious suburban Hispanics. It added up to a 350,000-vote bulge in a state many believed he truly lost four years ago.
Bush also made the same "values" appeal in Ohio, without which no Republican has won the presidency. And it played in crucial new suburbs in much the same way. While Democrats increased their vote totals in Cleveland and Co-lumbus strongholds, Republicans matched them in rural areas long considered part of the northern "Bible Belt."
But it was the new outlying communities, carved from farmland beyond heavily unionized blue-collar communities such as Parma, that Bush rolled up stunning margins. This is where most of Ohio's population growth is centered. The people there are doing better economically than the rest of Ohio and, although they are less conservative than rural vot-ers, they are more so than urban ones.
If Democrats are going to win in swing states that went against them, they are going to have to work harder to con-nect in the new suburbs while they maintain their gains in the old ones and the city.
It won't be easy, especially bridging the "values" divide, but it's not impossible. They did it again in places like Montgomery County, Pa. They can do it in the newer moderate-to-conservative suburbs beyond, especially if Republi-cans help by acting as if they have a sweeping mandate for a right-wing agenda. That could send suburbanites packing again - for a Democratic coalition with urban voters.