2018 and 2020 elections: suburban voters are more important than ever

In 2018’s blue wave, it was suburban Republicans who were swept away.

Of 69 suburban districts held by the GOP before the election, just 32 will remain in Republican hands next year, according to an analysis by the Washington Post’s Dan Balz, one of our preeminent political analysts.. This might not be a temporary aberration, either; President Trump has completely overtaken the Republican Party.

“We are facing the prospect of realignment in your Rockefeller Republican districts,” Rep. Ryan Costello, who retired rather than run for reelection again as a Republican in suburban Pennsylvania, told me. “That’s on the table.”

But what exactly do these newly Democratic voters actually want? After speaking with voters, pollsters, and politicians this year, a portrait of these places and people came into focus.

One thing is for sure: They do not like Donald Trump.

“They view this literally as a crisis. The Trump presidency is a crisis to democracy, our values, our morality,” Christine Matthews, a Republican pollster, said. “It is making women physically sick. That is the word they use all the time — the word is ‘nauseous.’”

Suburban voters have a discrete set of economic concerns — which congressional Republicans by and large ignored. They fret about rising health care costs, either for themselves or for their aging parents, or both. They want good schools and for their children to be able to afford to go to college. They worry about the job prospects for their kids when they graduate. They are wary of extremism of any kind.

In an unfortunate paradox for Republicans, the economy mostly chugging along fine freed up these voters to devote more of their time to concerns about the president, who has an unparalleled ability to focus all attention on himself at all times.

“When things are going well, paycheck’s coming in, kids are in a good school, it’s a little easier to be outraged by what’s going on and what the president says and does,” Costello said.

The importance of suburban voters, briefly explained

The problem for Republicans was the kind of suburban House districts that swung from Mitt Romney to Hillary Clinton. I counted a dozen such districts across the country; Republicans lost all but one in 2018. Rep. Barbara Comstock in Virginia’s 10th Congressional District was an incumbent Republican running in a Romney-Clinton district in the DC suburbs, and she lost by 12 points after winning by 6 last time.


But Republicans also lost where Trump had won in 2016 — like in Virginia’s Seventh Congressional District, where Tea Party hero Dave Brat fell to Democrat Abigail Spanberger. That win, Matthews said, could be attributed almost entirely to the Richmond suburbs in the district, where Democrats picked up huge margins.

The Washington Post’s Balz broke up the suburbs broadly into subcategories, based on their proximity to their urban center, and figured out how well Republicans did in each category. The denser the suburbs, the worse things got for Republicans.

  • In 11 competitive rural districts, Republicans lost just one seat
  • In 19 suburban-rural districts, Republicans lost “only” four seats
  • In 30 sparse suburban districts, Republicans lost 16 seats
  • In 15 dense suburban districts, Republicans lost 12 seats
  • In 9 urban-suburban districts, Republicans lost six seats

Across the country, highly educated voters went for Democrats. Suburban women flipped heavily for Democrats too. Democratic pollster Celinda Lake showed me polling that had married men voting 51 percent Republican and 48 percent Democrat, but their wives voted 54 percent Democrat and just 44 Republican, a notable marital break from prior elections.

Another thing about these voters, Matthews said: “They typically tend to be less culturally and socially conservative.”

Soccer moms and dads don’t like scandal and brutish tweets

Trump is an uncommonly divisive president.

His administration imposed a hardline immigration agenda that included separating children from their families — “kids in cages,” as Matthews succinctly sums it up — while preying on blue-collar white fears with harsh anti-migrant rhetoric.

There were also the routine personal online attacks of his array of enemies. Even Republican voters you talked to would say they wish Trump would tweet less. “I think it’s the president’s style,” Costello said in diagnosing the problem for suburban voters.

There does seem to be a special, visceral repulsion among some voters toward the president. “When Bush did something, nobody said they felt nauseous,” as Matthews put it.

Trump’s approval rating is, remember, unusually low considering the economy. The president was particularly disliked by women. Trump’s approval was stuck in the 30s among those voters, and his disapproval hit the high 50s. Suburban men were more evenly divided, but many still didn’t approve of Trump. This dissatisfaction wasn’t isolated to the coasts either: Trump was deep underwater with suburban voters across the Midwest, where Republicans lost crucial Senate, governor, and House races.


Spanberger beat House Freedom Caucus member Brat thanks to big margins in Virginia suburbs. She was among the many women who won competitive 2018 races; voters swept a record number of women (mostly Democrats) into office, many from the burbs.

Those are the voters who see a crisis under Trump. I talked to suburban women this year who were relatively apathetic about the Democratic candidate in their House race. But they wanted to send a message to Trump and his party.

“It seems silly to pretend at this point that there’s a lot of nuance” between Democrats and Republicans, Eileen, a Columbus, Ohio, schoolteacher, told me. “There’s not.”

Suburban voters worry about health care and education. Not immigration.

Suburban voters tend to be better off than the rural Americans traditionally thought of as Trump’s base. Immigration, the White House’s big bet in this election, holds less sway over them as a result.

Because they are often better educated, suburban voters tend to have higher incomes and feel more economically secure. Comstock’s district, one of the biggest swings on election night, is ranked 18th among 435 House districts in voters with a bachelor’s degree; the median income is high too, at $120,000. California’s 45th Congressional District in Orange County, which sent a Democrat to Congress for the first time ever, ranks 12th in bachelor’s degrees and 19th in median income.

Those voters are more comfortable and secure than people in poorer, more rural parts of the country — white working-class places where Trump might have won districts that went for Barack Obama before him. The suburbs don’t respond to Trump’s hardline rhetoric on immigrants and a border wall in the same way rural voters do.

“Threats of jobs going overseas, that sweet spot of Republican talking points with more downscale voters, doesn’t check the box for these suburban voters,” Molly Murphy, another Democratic pollster, said. “It just doesn’t resonate with what their needs and wants are.”

Instead, suburban voters have what we might call middle-class economic anxiety. They worry about health care. Many of them have aging parents, making them more familiar with medicine’s rising costs. These are generally white-collar workers, but out-of-pocket costs for employer-sponsored insurance (which those workers typically have) have also gone up in recent years.

Yet the health care bill Republicans proposed was projected to leave millions fewer people with health insurance while also rolling back protections for preexisting conditions and increasing premiums and out-of-pocket costs for many people. Surveys showed both that the Republican plan was the most unpopular major bill in decades and that voters were preoccupied with health care when they went to the polls.

“Republicans just stepped in it,” Murphy said.

The big bill Trump and Congress did get into law was tax legislation that repealed a certain tax break for state and local taxes that hit property owners in the suburbs of New York, New Jersey, and California — states where Republicans suffered big losses in suburbs on election night.

Republicans lost in places like Orange County for the first time in modern political history. For some of those suburban voters, the GOP had hurt their pocketbooks in a meaningful way with its only signature achievement.

“It comes up at every event,” Katie Porter, the Democrat who beat Republican Rep. Mimi Walters in California’s 45th District, said of the tax bill during the campaign.

So are these voters gone forever for Republicans?

The yawning divide between the parties could be why these voters might not come back to Republicans. Younger women already are overwhelmingly Democrats, and Lake said she saw a trend of older suburban women flipping their party identification to the Democrats for the first time.


map of US, suburbs

Some of it is certainly personal to Trump. But the president has infected the entire Republican Party. Costello described these suburban voters in three words — “they want results” — and lamented that Republicans have mostly been immovable on issues like gun control and climate change.

Conservatives, both grassroots voters and their elected officials, feel deeply about those issues. It’s not Trump-specific. But their positions are unpopular with the broader public, and people who voted for Romney and then Clinton and then a Democrat in 2018 aren’t ideological hardliners. In Florida, a state where voters are known to take gun safety and climate change seriously, Democrats won two suburban House seats outside Miami (and stretching down the Keys).

“On a number of these hot-button issues, used as wedge issues, they see past the argument. They get frustrated by the party who appears to be the impediment to the pragmatic solution,” Costello said. “Those are things pretty much everyone agrees with, and they don’t think the Democrats are holding that one up.”

But nobody I talked to is treating this realignment as permanent either. Trump is so omnipresent, he probably outweighed most other factors for a lot of those voters this time around. But the question is how much he taints the Republican Party even after he’s gone — and how comfortable suburban voters are with the Democratic drift to the left. Going right on some of these issues has certainly hurt Trump with this crowd.

“They have not particularly liked extremism,” Matthews told me. “I think there are boundaries.”

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