Relief Checks Reflect New Power of Suburban Voters

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Last month's election brought an electoral realignment, with Georgia and Arizona flipping to Democrats on the back of a strong showing in inner and outer suburban communities. The fiscal relief deal that just came together in Congress is the first indication that Washington is taking this new suburban battleground into account when it crafts legislation, with the immediacy of the Senate runoff elections in Georgia on the minds of both parties.

Suburban voters have different policy preferences than the kinds of voters who used to decide elections in traditional battleground states like Iowa and Ohio. In this new electoral landscape, giving direct relief to suburbanites might become as common as giving relief to farmers has been.

We're at this point because Democrats have lost their grip on much of the traditional Midwestern battleground states while Republicans are losing their grip on some of the historically-red states in the Sun Belt. Between 1964 and 2016, the victor in the presidential election won Ohio every single time. Iowa was also a bellwether, swinging its vote between Democratic and Republican presidential candidates over that period. Nearby Wisconsin and Michigan were competitive, too, even if they gave Democrats a two-decade winning streak that ended when President Donald Trump won them both in 2016.

With the Midwest being the key to winning the White House and a majority in the Senate, legislation was bound to have a bias towards industries that are over-represented in the region. That often produced fiscal policies that were tilted toward agricultural and manufacturing interests -- the Bush-era emphasis on ethanol production or the bailout of the auto industry.

That was simply good politics. Given the mechanics of the Electoral College and the Senate, if Midwestern states determine which party controls Washington, of course they're going to get preferential treatment. But that preference didn't necessarily result in policies that benefited urban or suburban parts of the country.

Now the battleground in both the Electoral College and Senate has shifted primarily to six states: Wisconsin and Michigan remain on the list, joined by Pennsylvania, Arizona, Georgia and North Carolina. Trump won all six of these states in 2016, and President-elect Joe Biden won five of them in 2020. Their 12 Senate seats are split down the middle pending the outcome of the Georgia runoffs, where a sweep by the Democrats would give the party 50 senators and control of the chamber thanks to Vice President-elect Kamala Harris's role as the tie-breaker.

More importantly, elections in those states will be increasingly decided in the suburbs of their big cities: Milwaukee, Detroit, Philadelphia, Raleigh, Charlotte, Atlanta, and Phoenix. And those suburban voters have different policy preferences than the rural and working-class voters who used to decide electoral outcomes in states like Iowa and Ohio, but who now have become solidly Republican. Suburban communities are increasingly diverse in both race and industry, with a consumption-based lifestyle of big-box stores and e-commerce.

So it's no surprise that sending checks to households using political language like "direct relief to working families" has become a policy tool gaining support with members of Congress in both parties. If there's anything that unites the suburban voter, it's consumption.

Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell even made this argument to his members when pushing for a fiscal deal that included checks to households, arguing it will help the fortunes of incumbent Republican Senators Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue in their runoff elections in Georgia:

The good news for households on the coasts is that while direct relief for farmers or subsidies for factory owners didn't do much for anyone in New York or California, $600 relief checks will. Catering to the interests of suburban voters in those six states means a shift in fiscal policy more likely to benefit a broader coalition of Americans.

While this shift makes for good politics, it's arguably been long overdue when thinking about the makeup of the American economy in the 21st century. It's no secret that we have a consumption-based economy, with personal expenditures making up almost 70% of gross domestic product. Yet for too long, tweaks to fiscal policy involved narrow handouts to special interests optimized for an electoral map centered in the Midwest, and for producers rather than consumers.

Fiscal policy favoring Georgia and Arizona rather than Iowa and Ohio is neither good nor bad. It's just a new electoral reality. But fiscal policy favoring tens of millions of households rather than just a few industries concentrated in a handful of states is unquestionably a good thing for all Americans.

So when the next round of checks comes in the mail, thank your nearest suburban Atlanta voter.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Conor Sen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He has been a contributor to the Atlantic and Business Insider.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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