Table of Contents
- President Donald Trump tried to appeal to an antiquated view of a white, 1950s suburbia throughout his reelection campaign. President-elect Joe Biden tried to appeal to a more diverse suburbia.
- Most Americans believe themselves to live in suburbs, meaning both campaigns needed to prioritize the battleground. The suburbs, however, are rather ill-defined — there’s no federal definition for them.
- The suburban vote, according to experts, swung to Biden, even in areas where he didn’t win.
- A more modern view of suburbia will be essential for politicians moving forward.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
In October, President Donald Trump made a plea to suburban voters: “Suburban women, will you please like me? Please. Please. I saved your damn neighborhood, okay?”
But these same suburbs may have handed the election to President-elect Joe Biden.
One New York Times piece, titled “How the Suburbs Moved Away From Trump,” details how already-blue suburbs turned bluer, and red ones got a little bit more purple.
And a report out of the American Communities Project found that, while Trump still held “blue-collar Middle Suburbs,” he lost two percentage points there. The biggest suburban loss for Trump came in the exurbs; the president still won them, but Biden gained a six-point margin.
It’s just another nail in the coffin for the traditional idea of a suburb, which once included a white-picket fence, a manicured lawn, and a quintessential caricature of a housewife. It signals the rise of a voting bloc that politicians should keep a close eye on.
It also gets at a more existential question over what a suburb is, and what suburbs can tell us about the changing demographics — and political values — of America.
“A majority of Americans live in the suburbs, and the suburbs of large metros are changing demographically more than other types of places,” Jed Kolko, the chief economist of Indeed, told Insider. He said suburbs “are crucial to any national election strategy.”
Will Wilkinson, the vice president for research at the moderate-leaning think tank Niskanen Center and a New York Times contributor, told Insider that the country’s model of suburbs versus cities is predicated on what suburbs were in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s — “creatures of white flight from the urban cores.”
Wilkinson, who has written extensively on the link between population density, urbanism, and political polarization, said: “There’s this whole history of integrating the schools and busing, and a lot of white people fled to the suburbs to basically segregate themselves. And that still dominates a lot of people’s implicit conception of the suburbs.”
But that conception has “just become wrong” in 2020, he said.
What the suburban vote will mean moving forward
“It makes sense that elections are going to turn on the suburbs, because that’s where the most people are,” Wilkinson said. More than half of Americans consider the suburbs to be their home.
So while appealing to the people of the suburbs is a solid political strategy, it’s crucial for candidates to understand who those people are.
In the 2020 campaign, Trump attempted to appeal to the anxiety surrounding the traditional white, suburban ideal by rolling back a key plank of housing reform meant to mitigate the racial wealth gap: the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule. The 2015 policy was designed to “overcome historic patterns of segregation” and “foster inclusive communities that are free from discrimination,” the HUD website said prior to Trump’s deregulation push. Trump claimed the rule would diminish property values and increase crime.
Wilkinson said Trump is “operating on that kind of older conception of the suburbs as a kind of citadel of whiteness, that is segregated from the scary brown people.”
Political scientist Ernest B. McGowen III — who studies race in the suburbs — wrote in The Conversation that while Trump’s address to suburban voters may resonate with white female suburbanites, it could potentially spur “African American residents to work in swing states and competitive races lower down on the ballot.”
It’s become clear that a candidate who understands the modern suburbs — and the multiplicity of Americans within them — stands to see major gains. Biden was much closer to that candidate in 2020.
“Suburbs are by and large integrated,” Biden said during the first presidential debate. “There are many people driving kids to soccer practice — Black, white, and Hispanic.”
We don’t actually know what the suburbs are
All along the campaign trail, both Biden and Trump touted that they grew up in suburbs — Trump in Jamaica Estates in New York City’s borough of Queens and Biden in Scranton’s Green Ridge neighborhood.
Both areas fall within larger, more urban cities. But they represent more suburb-like communities and emphasize a surprising truth: suburbia, while a key battleground in the election, is rather ill-defined.
Existing definitions from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) categorize some American areas as “urban” and others as “rural,” but there’s no “suburban” category.
HUD, in conjunction with the Census Bureau, also found that 52% of all US households described their own neighborhoods as suburban in 2017. In fact, 63% of Americans living in areas classified as “urban” self-identified as living in suburban areas.
“There are lots of different kinds of suburbs,” Kolko said, “Some are dense while others are sprawling, some are more diverse while others are more homogeneous, and some are rich while others are poor.”
What suburbia meant for the 2020 presidential election
The sheer size of America’s suburbs, then, rendered Trump’s appeal to the traditional suburban ideal powerless.
McGowen wrote that half of Black Americans live in the suburbs. Trump’s racist rhetoric could have prompted those Black suburbanites (who are more politically active than their white neighbors) to vote for Democrats across the board.
“My research indicates that Trump’s appeals may spark an unintended countermobilization,” McGowen wrote.
Per Kolko, there was a substantive suburban swing. “Overall, the suburbs swung more toward Biden in this election than either the more solidly Democratic urban counties or more solidly Republican rural areas.”
Wilkinson separately found that higher density areas have become economic hubs that are more likely to be liberal, while “whiter, lower density places” are “facing stagnation.” Their populations, Wilkinson argued, “have become increasingly uniform in terms of socially conservative personality, aversion to diversity, and lower levels of education.”
That theory was born out in the 2020 election: a Brookings report found that the counties who voted for Biden account for 70% of the country’s GDP.
“By contrast, Trump won thousands of counties in small-town and rural communities with correspondingly tiny economies,” the report’s authors wrote.
Not only did Biden clinch the vast majority of the economy: he did some key flipping, turning half of the 10 “most economically significant counties” that Trump won in 2016 blue.
Trump may not have understood that the suburbs are a whole different beast these days — more nebulous and less likely to fit the mold of the traditional suburban ideal. And, if he does end up running again in 2024, it may be worth learning who actually lives behind those white-picket fences.