Democrats Need to Be the Party of the Suburbs

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- It’s too soon to know whether the Democratic path to the presidency will go through the Sun Belt or the Midwest in 2020, but it’s increasingly clear that it will go through the suburbs. Suburbs are to the Democratic Party today what Appalachia was to the Republican Party after the 2008 election.

Donald Trump’s road to the presidency arguably began in 2008, when Hillary Clinton, who won Appalachia and most of the Rust Belt, lost the Democratic presidential primary to Barack Obama. Despite Obama’s large margin of victory in the 2008 general election, that weakness in Appalachia, Tennessee, and Arkansas persisted; it was the main area of the country where Obama underperformed John Kerry in 2004.

It took several years, but those regions became the base from which Republicans won back the presidency. In the 2010 midterm elections, Republicans flipped Senate seats in Indiana and Arkansas. Their strongest areas in the House were rural communities. In Arkansas, Tennessee, Indiana, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia — states that would eventually constitute Trump’s base — Republicans flipped 23 House seats. Republicans had exploited the Democratic vulnerability revealed in 2008 and turned it into a governing majority.

Whether it was a weak field or a trend that wasn’t yet fully mature, Republicans were unable to turn their strength in Appalachia and Rust Belt into the presidency in 2012; Rick Santorum came closest. The 2012 Republican presidential primary featured one challenger after another — Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich — trying and failing to beat eventual nominee Mitt Romney. But it was Santorum who ultimately put together a map that most closely resembles Trump’s winning path in 2016. Santorum won most of Tennessee and Missouri, swaths of Mississippi and Alabama, and, most important, chunks of Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio.

It’s too early to say whether the same process is unfolding for Democrats. But a similar pattern is starting to emerge. Republican weakness in well-educated, wealthy suburbs, which Democrats used to take back the House of Representatives, began when Marco Rubio ended his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination. During his brief run, he won the well-educated suburban counties in northern Virginia, as well as similar counties in metro Atlanta and Nashville. In the 2016 general election, the biggest shift from 2012 in favor of Democrats was in “Rubio counties.” It’s how Democrats knew to target Republican House seats in those types of communities.

Now Democrats have to expand their gains from well-educated, wealthy suburban communities to moderately educated, middle-income suburban communities. In 2016, some pundits made the mistake of believing that a Democratic “blue wall” in Midwestern states like Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin would prevent a Trump victory. Sure, the thinking went, Trump is strong in Appalachia, the Rust Belt and rural America. But there aren’t enough votes in those areas to flip states that Democrats hadn’t lost in a generation. It turned out that there were.

Suburbs have almost always been swing territory, with neither party maintaining much of an advantage. Even in recent elections, Republicans have held rural territory, Democrats have held urban territory, and small shifts in the suburbs have determined the winners.

At the same time, Trump could be so unpopular in the suburbs that unthinkable margins pave Democrats’ path to victory. In consumer culture, trends that start out as luxury — premium coffee, organic food, yoga attire — often evolve and become mainstream. Perhaps a similar partisan evolution is happening in the suburbs, where a shift to Democrats starts in well-educated, wealthy communities and moves “downmarket” over time.

Unknowns remain, of course. Will it happen in 2020, or not until 2024? Is it a trend that will play out similarly in the suburbs of cities such as Milwaukee and Detroit, allowing Democrats to flip Wisconsin and Michigan, or will it be a stronger trend in suburban Phoenix, Dallas, and Atlanta? And who will be the candidate to put it all together? What should be clear, however, is that the Democrats’ path back to the presidency is suburban.

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 is a portfolio manager for New River Investments in Atlanta and has been a contributor to the Atlantic and Business Insider.

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