The Battle For The Suburbs
The Suburbs Shut Their Doors On Dole
Lawrence C. Levy
Wednesday November 13, 1996
NOBODY OWNS suburbia. Not the Democrats who managed to extend their short-term lease while the neighbors watch warily. Not the Republicans, who once prospered in the crabgrass frontier but may have worn out their welcome. Not even Bill Clinton, who may have won a lot of hearts and minds on election day but didn't win much trust.
Like a door-to-door salesman with a smooth pitch and some appealing products to sell, Clinton once again sweet-talked his way into the tree-shaded homes of many leery suburban voters.
In 1992, Clinton won a bare plurality in the suburbs, mostly because of women voters. This year, women were still queasy about the influence of the religious right on the Republican Party, and they were concerned about the Gingrich Congress cutting programs for their children and parents. Under President Clinton, their families' pay checks were fatter than they had been, their homes were worth more and their neighborhoods were safer, almost as safe as when the ubiq-uitous baby boomers were raised to believe that anything was possible. Even the cities they fled from looked better to them.
Or maybe what happened was that Bob Dole - whose outdated "pre-suburban" pitch made Willy Loman's sound fresh - got the door slammed in his face in too many neighborhoods usually friendly to Republicans. He looked old, he talked older - of a time most voters never knew and many preferred not to remember. He did not fire them up like Rich-ard Nixon or inspire them like Ronald Reagan. If they understood his message, they didn't buy it.
So, this year, much to the chagrin of Republican campaign planners, even more suburban women bought Clinton than in 1992 - opening a gender gap wider in the suburbs than in the country as a whole. Men still went for the Republi-can, but not by so large a margin as four years ago. Overall, the president took suburbia by a healthy five points.
During the fall, I visited the suburbs of half a dozen major cities, as well as the capital of Big 'Burbia, Long Island. It was clear which way the tide was flowing. And because so many people vote in the suburbs, it came as no surprise that Dole lost the election by more than any Republican since Barry Goldwater in 1964 and that a number of GOP con-gressional seats fell to Democrats. On Long Island, Clinton won by 170,000 votes in counties run by the nation's finest-running GOP machines; Democrats took a congressional seat and five judgeships. And although Republicans held their own in state races, they have to worry about next year's local elections and 1998's statewide campaigns.
But, when it comes to national elections, the suburbs are now up for grabs. This may be worse news for Republi-cans, whose poor performances in a number of suburbs made it impossible to overcome big Democratic efforts in the cities. They should consider themselves lucky to control Congress, and they, like Clinton, should see themselves as be-ing on probation. But the Democrats - who retook blue-collar precincts outside Cleveland, solidified gains outside San Francisco and made unfamiliar inroads near Philadelphia and on Long Island - are hardly the party of choice in subur-ban America.
Take Parma, Ohio, where ethnic, conservative Democrats had liked what Nixon and Reagan had to say about race and crime and patriotism and had left their party for the better part of a generation. This year, the so-called Reagan De-mocrats came running home. Clinton easily carried Parma, 53 percent to 32, as well as other suburbs and nearby Cleve-land, enabling him to capture this crucial swing state.
In the presidential race, it was workplace issues - Republican attempts to make it harder to strike and to loosen safety standards - that brought auto, steel and other heavy-industrial workers rushing back to the fold. As proud as they were of revitalized Cleveland, neither race-baiting nor city-bashing worked.
But the Democratic Party's hold on its prodigal blue-collar sons was tenuous. "The Republicans showed they're the party of the rich," said Mike Ridgeway, an assembly worker at the giant Ford plant outside Parma. "But if the Democ-rats go overboard and get too liberal, it could go right back. Guys here like Jack Kemp a lot, so they better watch them-selves."
Democrats have much more breathing room in California's Silicon Valley. As recently as 1988, George Bush won decisively in San Mateo County, south of San Francisco, which also was an incubator for moderate Republican con-gressmen such as Pete McCloskey and Ed Zschau. Last week, Clinton took San Mateo 2-1.
Workers in this wealthy, ethnically diverse region - where more women hold positions of local authority than any other place I visited - liked Clinton's call for investment in education and technology and his tone of tolerance. Yet, Re-publican Rep. Tom Campbell survived; no wonder, he's about the most liberal member of the national GOP caucus. So, if the party hustles back to the center, it might have a future in Silicon Valley.
Another new battleground suburb is Montgomery County, Pa. In 1992, Clinton became the first Democrat since the Civil War to carry the leafy Main Line and other Philadelphia suburbs. This year, he proved it was not a fluke, capturing a fraction shy of 50 percent of the vote. And Republican freshman Rep. Jon Fox just managed to hang on - by 10 votes out of nearly a quarter-million cast. And he did so by running as far from Speaker Newt Gingrich as he could. "People are sending a message about what kind of Republican Party they want," said State Rep. Lita Cohen, a moderate Repub-lican who, like Fox, favors abortion rights. "They want one that is careful with their money but can take care of them, their children and their parents. Clinton acted like a Rockefeller Republican and won. Why should anybody be sur-prised?"
And even Democrats concede that if the Republicans can find a national candidate who harkens back to these tradi-tional Republican principles, Montgomery could easily return to the GOP fold.
Such a candidate - fiscally conservative and socially moderate - could dominate DuPage County, Ill. Dole's 51-39 majority - far shy of Reagan's 76-24 drubbing of Walter Mondale - wasn't nearly enough to overcome the work of Cook County Democrats on behalf of Clinton in Chicago and the south suburbs. Thus, another key state fell to the Democrats.
In fact, Democrats did so well south of Chicago that they picked up enough seats in the state legislature to win back the lower chamber. Although DuPage Republicans won at every level of government, with about 65 percent on average, the legislative blow was felt sharply: The speaker of the house, who came from DuPage, will be minority leader.
"Give us a candidate who really believes in the Republican principles of smaller, less intrusive government, some-one who has a serious plan to balance the budget and lower taxes, someone with a positive message that inspires peo-ple," said Julie Copeland, a DuPage Republican Party activist.
The fissures in the Republican Party also could be seen in the results in Brevard County, the Florida Space Coast. Dole carried the county by only four points, which was not enough to win this state. But a conservative freshman con-gressman, Dave Weldon, a favorite of the religious right, won by more than 10 points, the best showing by a GOP con-gressional candidate here since the Civil War. Weldon's supporters mostly went for Dole, but they did so without enthu-siasm, seeing him as a bloodless standard-bearer for their causes.
Yet it was Dole's association with the likes of the Christian Coalition and others whose agenda scares many subur-banites - even here in this land of God and country - that helped keep Dole's vote totals down in Brevard and elsewhere. It turned off the elderly and the young engineers who are flocking from northern suburbs where they usually voted Re-publican but aren't comfortable with the less familiar rhetoric of the religious right or the reality of cuts to programs for their families. Like the rest of the suburbs, these voters are up for grabs.
Somehow, the GOP will have to find a balance between suburbanites who have been comfortable for years with main street Republicanism, as practiced on Long Island and in DuPage and Montgomery Counties; and the religious right, which has only recently come to adopt this party as its base of political operations. The same goes for the Democ-rats, where a clash between the center and left could tear apart the Democratic tent - and turn off suburban voters again.
The tensions between the two (or more) visions of the parties will be hardest to reconcile in suburbia. But leaders in both should realize that it's in this increasingly influential string of places beyond the city lines that the payoffs are as great as the pitfalls are deep.