The biggest political lesson of 2017: The suburbs still matter — just not how Democrats think
In this Nov. 8, 2016 file photo, a voter enters a booth at a polling place in Exeter, New Hampshire. Elise Amendola/AP

The biggest political lesson of 2017: The suburbs still matter — just not how Democrats think

In the aftermath of the 2016 election, a long debate emerged among political activists and pundits about what Democrats’ losses in key rural, working-class areas meant for the future of the party.

The discourse played out in myriad ways: Some leftists and progressives argued that the Democratic party had to re-engage rural voters with a new brand of Democratic populism. Others argued that the left should refocus its efforts on greater turnout among minority voters in urban areas.

A few longtime Democratic operatives argued that the party needed to pursue more moderate policy platforms to win over a broader section of the electorate. The media then used this as an opening to produce an unending series of rural Trump voter profiles that seemed to irritate just about everyone.

But few in the post-2016 haze were in a position to argue that the Democrats should continue to pursue the upper-middle class educated suburban electorate that had failed to deliver the presidency to Hillary Clinton.

When former Clinton adviser Brian Fallon said in a tweet that the Democrats’ path to retaking the House in 2018 “runs through the Panera Breads of America,” he was roundly criticized by a number of people (myself included) for attempting to rehash a failed strategy.

But after the results of several statewide elections in 2017, it appears that the political world may have been to quick to dismiss Fallon. It’s also clear that the conventional wisdom about who suburban voters are, and what they believe in, may have been fundamentally flawed.

In the first statewide elections since President Donald Trump’s administration took power, Democrats managed to win a multitude of races the state of Virginia in an electoral wave that few saw coming. There were a number of factors that contributed to Democrats victory in that election, but none more significant than the outsized victory Democrats managed to clench in suburban areas.

In the historically Republican Richmond suburbs of Chesterfield County, Democrats nearly managed to score their first win in over 50 years, narrowly losing the Republican stronghold by less than 300 votes. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ralph Northam also won the suburban area around Washington with 68% of the vote — 10 points up from the 58% won by the Democrat in the previous governor’s race. In many suburban counties, the Republican candidate Ed Gillespie saw his margins fall below those of Donald Trump in 2016. And a surge of suburban youth voting in particular had at least one Republican pollster telling the Washington Post that his party has a problem with “young suburbanites” who could swing future elections against them.

Danica Roem, a Democrat for Delegate in Virginia’s district 13, and who is transgender, sits in her campaign office on Sept. 22. Roem won her election in November.
Danica Roem, a Democrat for Delegate in Virginia’s district 13, and who is transgender, sits in her campaign office on Sept. 22. Roem won her election in November. Paul J. Richards/Getty Images

After Virginia came the special Senate election in Alabama, where a high-stakes race between Republican Roy Moore, an accused child molester, and Democrat Doug Jones, captured the entire nation’s attention.

After Jones won the race in the deeply conservative state, a lot of the media attention focused on the impact that black turnout in urban areas had on his victory — and rightly so. Without the unusually high turnout among black voters — which narrowly surpassed the turnout in 2008 when the nation elected its first black president — Jones would not have been able to flip the Alabama senate seat from Republican to Democrat. Also, the rebuke of Moore, who once praised the time when America had slavery, was led by black voters in a state with a deep history of racism was a cathartic moment for many.

While the increases in black turnout were significant, they amounted to only a fraction of the gains that Jones made among white voters, driven largely by increased support from highly educated voters in suburban areas. Jones won historically Republican suburban voters in certain counties by more than 68%. That gain helped get more than double the share of white voters that Barack Obama received in 2012 and more than triple the share Obama received in 2008.

In short: black voter turnout may have put Jones over the edge, but it was increased support from white suburbanites that brought him to it.

At first blush, the results of these elections appear to vindicate the strategy pursued by Clinton and many Democrats before her: engage suburban, highly educated voters while also working to drive up turnout among minority voters concentrated in urban areas.

Senator-elect Doug Jones (D-Ala.)
Senator-elect Doug Jones (D-Ala.) Mark Wallheiser/Getty Images

But while the focus on suburban voters may still be important, the messaging Democrats use to reach them may need to change. That’s because suburban voters are way more progressive than may have been previously understood.

“The suburbs really do long for class warfare,” Sean McElwee, a progressive policy analyst who studies voter behavior and preferences, said. “The evidence that I’ve seen is that what we call ‘college educated whites’ and what we call ‘working class’ whites or ‘non-college whites’ actually have reasonably similar views on most issues of class.”

McElwee recently conducted an analysis with political scientist Chris Skovron on political attitudes in the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s 91 target districts in 2018. Many of these are largely suburban districts, like Virginia’s 10th district outside Washington, D.C., while also including some rural districts in places like West Virginia.

“College educated families do not believe that the future is bright and that college is a pathway to success.”

Their analysis found that the political leanings of voters in those districts are considerably more progressive than most people think, with overwhelming majorities supporting everything from an increased minimum wage, to unlimited access to abortion services, to ending mandatory minimum sentences for low-level crime.

And McElwee says that, when it comes to the kind of economic populism championed by the left, you find that the kinds of people and families you normally find in the suburbs are sympathetic to that kind of messaging.

“If you actually look at the American national election studies, both college educated whites and working class whites overwhelmingly believe that there is less chance to get ahead than there was 20 years ago,” McElwee said. “College educated families do not believe that the future is bright and that college is a pathway to success.”

McElwee also notes that Democrats and the media have an inflated conception of how much money middle-class families actually make, and policies that redistribute resources from people earning in the high-six figures to pay for social programs could be the basis for a winning policy platform.

“If you are building a policy platform around the idea of taxing people who make more than $250,000 a year to fund universal benefits like pre-K or childcare or health care, that’s going to appeal to a lot of these suburban voters, because it turns out that they are not actually wildly wealthy, they actually are feeling a lot of deep economic insecurities.”

Democrats increasingly support those kinds of policies as a party. Fifteen senate Democrats recently came out in support of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-Vt.) plan for a single-payer health care system. Meanwhile, a majority of Democratic senators support a $15 per hour minimum wage. Both of these policies were considered too ambitious by Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton in 2016.

But at the congressional level, Democrats continue to moderate their positions when running in the suburbs. When Democratic candidate Jon Ossoff ran for a seat in a special election in Georgia’s largely suburban 6th congressional district, he promised never to raise taxes on the rich, declined to support single-payer health care, and would only go as far as saying that the minimum wage should be “livable.” He went on to lose that race to Republican Karen Handel.

If Democrats hope to avoid repeating such failures in 2018, they might be wise to advocate a more unabashedly progressive agenda in the suburbs. In other words, the recipe for success may be a Sanders-style agenda for the electorate that Clinton went after in 2016.

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