It’s time to rethink the term “suburban vote”

To all those political pundits out there who keep tossing around the phrase “suburban vote,” it’s time to pause and think.  If by “suburban” you mean white, middle-class straight families, you are missing the boat.  That demographic represents a shrinking segment of actual suburban dwellers.

The reality is a lot more diverse and complex, something like America itself.  To suggest that “suburban” signifies a certain political agenda or set of needs and values, is to oversimplify today’s suburban realities.

Take the class thing, for example.  Suburbia might still be associated in many people’s minds with successful families living in homes they own, and enjoying a measure of stability and comfort.  But in truth, poverty has moved into suburbia in a big way.  As researchers like Elizabeth Kneebone, Alan Berube, Peter Dreier and others have shown, poor people represent one of the fastest growing demographics in the suburbs.  During the 2000s, more poor people lived in suburbs than in cities for the first time, and by 2010, 55 percent of the metropolitan poor lived in suburbs, while one in three poor Americans overall lived in the suburbs.  What, then, does their “suburban vote” signify?  They are a constituency with needs like affordable housing, health clinics, adequate public transportation, and a range of public services.  In the suburban environment itself – not exactly set up to serve many of these needs – delivering these sorts of services becomes an enormous challenge.

And how about the white thing?  For decades, the suburbs have been associated with white privilege, white intergenerational wealth, and white cultural values.  That too has changed dramatically.  These white suburban areas continue to exist in some quarters, no question. But they are being joined by and – in some cases – racially and ethnically diluted by immigrants, ethnics, and African Americans, who are creating new “melting pot” suburbs.  Consider these numbers.  In 1970,  just under 10 percent of all suburbanites were  “minorities” (that is, African American, Asian American and Latino).  By 2010, the number jumped to 28 percent.  It’s even more strking from another angle.  Among all African Americans, 39 percent lived in the suburbs as of 2010.  And those proportions were even higher for Latinos and Asians: nationally, 46 percent of Latinos and 48 percent of Asians lived in the suburbs as of 2010.  And in the largest 100 metro areas, the numbers were even higher – 62 percent of Asian Americans and 59 percent of Latinos.  So we’re talking somewhere between 40 to 60 percent of all Latinos, Asians, and African Americans who call the suburbs “home.”

The immigrant story is even more striking.  The typical trajectory for the majority of immigrants these days is to move not to some urban ethnic enclave, but rather straight to the suburbs.  In 2013, half of all immigrants lived in the suburbs, and that proportion was even higher in the largest metro areas where most immigrants live.

What, then, does the “suburban vote” signify?  The values of Black Lives Matter in a suburb like Ferguson?  The protection of multi-million dollar real estate investment for Chinese immigrants in San Marino, Ca.?  A demand for immigrant rights in a working-class Latino suburb like Maywood, Ca.?  It represents all of these things, and much more.


In a lot of ways, suburbia now houses profound variations in the American experience itself.  It encompasses wealth inequality – the very rich and the very poor, along with a shrinking middle-class.  It reflects a kalaidescope of racial and ethnic identities. It houses different family types and age brackets, including young singles, empty nesters, the elderly, same-sex couples with kids, single parents with kids, extended families.  By 2010, 75 percent of suburban homes did not contain a married-couple family with kids.  These social realities ought to explode – once and for all – that outworn myth of good ol’ June & Ward Cleaver living out their white suburban dream. And maybe even that spectre of the “soccer mom.”

So how, then, could the phrase “suburban vote” possibly signify anything resembling a coherent bloc?

For some time, the “suburban vote” signified that volatile middle of American politics that could easily swing either way. It was a bipartisan phenom, encompassing both conservatives and liberals who shared a common set of “suburban” values like homeowner entitlements, law and order, low taxes, and the like.  As suburbia has expanded to gargantuan levels – now housing 51 percent of all Americans – that political “center of gravity” is swinging and swaying, toppling from one side to the other, thrown off kilter by agendas and concerns that may exist more on the political edges and reflect an enormous range of perspectives.

Even recent presidential elections have telegraphed these changes.  When George W. Bush won in 2004, the crucial “suburban voters” who helped put him over the top lived in the fast-growing exurbs, which typically remained the whitest.  Although not necessarily the most prosperous, these exurbs housed upwardly striving young families with kids seeking affordable homes, and the only place they could afford them was in the far suburban fringe, where “drive-til-you-qualify” subdivisions were spreading rapidly and providing refuge from high taxes and social diversity.  In some cases, these were the same communities hit hard during the foreclosure crisis.

When Obama won election in 2008 and 2012, by contrast, it was the inner suburbs that helped push him to victory.  In these older suburbs, residents tended to be more diverse ethnically, racially, and even socio-economically, and were definitely more left leaning.  This “suburban vote” signified something much different than the one that helped elect George W. Bush. Some pundits in 2014 predicted that “To win the White House in 2016, Republicans must retain their exurban and rural strongholds, while beating back the growing Democratic tide in the [inner] suburbs…”  But few voices now seem to be parsing out these subtleties.

Especially as the election is moving into that heated final stretch, I fear we’re going to see political commentators, pollsters, and pundits throwing the “suburban vote” phrase around too carelessly, without realizing the intensive variation that rubric embraces. Even in yesterday’s column by Cathleen Decker, one of my favorite political analysts here in L.A., she wrote that Clinton and Trump have been “tussling over suburbanites who usually lean Republican.”

Rather than fall back upon these outworn images of the burbs, it’s time the pundits learn a thing or two about what’s actually happening in the suburbs.   Even better, I’d rather hear some talk about how the candidates plan to improve life in the suburbs – for the incredibly rich array of people who now live in them, that 51 percent of Americans.  Some policy talk – beyond Trump’s remark that the foreclosure crisis was a good business opportunity – would be way more welcome than some glib reference to the “suburban vote.”


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