How Suburbs Swung the 2020 ElectionBreaking News
tags: urban history, suburbs, 2020 Election, suburban history, metropolitan history
America’s political map is famously divided into shades of red and blue. But while most of America was anxiously watching screens and needles to see which hue the handful of crucial swing states would turn, the nation’s future was ultimately being decided at a far more granular scale—in the suburbs.
Geography’s defining role in how Americans vote has increased over the past decade or so, as people have sorted themselves by income, education and ideological outlook. More affluent and college-educated professionals and knowledge workers have clustered in larger cities, as many working-class people moved outward to the suburbs and rural America, widening the chasm between blue cities and red outlying areas.
But in the 2020 presidential election, it was the suburbs that were the inflection point, carrying the Democrats to victory. The dominant fissure was not between urban and rural voters but between suburban and rural voters. And not just close-in highly urbanized suburbs in close proximity to the urban center, but some further out suburbs, even exurbs.
The central political role of the suburbs is not new. Suburbia has long been the key battleground for the presidency. Back in the early 1970s, political strategist Kevin Phillips famously identified the “silent majority” of conservative-leaning suburban voters. And this is likely why Trump put attracting suburban voters at the center of his own failed electoral strategy.
But Trump was relying on outdated stereotypes about the suburbs, which have changed markedly in their demographics since Phillips’ diagnosis. The suburbs are not monolithic and don’t conform to the largely white middle-class ideal of the 1950s and 1960s. They have grown increasingly diverse by race, ethnicity and socio-economic class.
Nearly a decade ago, University of Southern California political scientist Jeffrey M. Sellers identified a particular type of suburb as key to presidential elections. He called attention to more economically distressed suburbs, typically located closer in toward urban centers, which play an outsize role every four years. These economically challenged close-in suburbs were big factors in Obama’s wins and even bigger factors in Trump’s surprise 2016 victory. And as Sellers showed back then, turnout favors the Democrats. Biden surely benefitted from this year’s record turnout.
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