Republican Hopes Rest on Suburban Comeback

Anytime a party suffers an unexpected defeat, there are two general responses: assigning blame and planning a better strategy for next time.

After Jimmy Carter in 1980 was — in the words of CBS News’ Bob Schieffer — “whomped” by Ronald Reagan, Democrats went through both reactions. As would be expected, the Reagan victory caused much debate in Democratic Party circles about how to respond. (Mostly every Democrat except Jimmy Carter’s inner circle agreed that Democratic mistakes had greatly helped Reagan.)


More traditional Democrats like Walter Mondale believed that Reagan’s victory was largely due to national anger over inflation and the Iran hostage crisis; they proposed that a labor-based campaign with the old formula of “tax-spend-elect” could restore the party’s strength in urban areas. A new generation of Democrats led by Gary Hart argued that a strategy of targeting the suburbs and the new western cities where labor was less prominent would be necessary. (Jesse Jackson also entered the fray, claiming that he could lead a Rainbow Coalition of minorities that would register massive numbers of new voters to defeat Reagan.) The new Democrats pointed to the fact that the older cities had lost so much population that even a 100% turnout wouldn’t make much difference.

Mondale defeated Hart and Jackson for the 1984 Democratic nomination, and got to test his theory against President Reagan.

The results were not pretty for Democrats, as the dynamic of an ascendant suburban vote was in full force for Reagan. Despite the fact that Mondale received a slightly higher percentage in the ten largest Frost Belt cities (65%) than Hubert Humphrey in 1968 (61%) or Carter in 1980 (also 61%), the suburbs in every large Frost Belt metro area except Pittsburgh either exceeded or matched Mondale’s city margin. Mondale’s performances in these cities ranged from a low of “only” 61% in New York City to a high of 80% in Detroit — and he still got buried by a tide of Republican suburbanites.


Adding in the usual GOP edge in the rural areas allowed Reagan to easily win every big-city state on the way to a 49-state blowout. The 1984 results seemed to settle the debate among Democrats on the need to reach out to suburbia, though Rev. Jackson remained a true believer in his inner city-based Rainbow Coalition. Eventually, in the 1990s the Democrats under Bill Clinton evolved into the “New Democrat” strategy of appealing to middle class voters and started to win national elections again.

Now, the Republicans after Mitt Romney’s unexpected loss are asking questions about the party’s future. What should be the winning plan for the GOP in 2016 and beyond: mobilizing the Republican base of conservatives, or winning back some of the independents who voted for Obama?

Fox News’ Dick Morris argued that Romney lost because not enough white conservatives turned out to vote:

The fundamental reason for Romney’s defeat is apparent, if largely unreported. It is not just that blacks, Latinos, and single women showed up in record numbers at the polls. It’s that whites didn’t. … We lost because whites stayed home.

Morris went on to blame the impact of Hurricane Sandy and the negative ads run by the Obama campaign against Romney’s business career.

While I agree that Sandy helped President Obama and his barrage of negative ads hurt Romney, I don’t believe his theory of a low white turnout is correct. There is a simple explanation for the lower share of white voters in America: demographic replacement. Every year, about two million older white voters die and are largely being replaced by the youngest set of voters, who are mostly Hispanic and Asian. The 2010 Census showed that non-Hispanic whites were down to 64% of the total American population, compared to 69% in 2000. However, the CNN exit poll showed that whites were 72% of the national voters.


So, white voters “over-performed” in terms of turnout.

Beyond turnout, white voters were also strongly supportive of Romney, as he tied with Dwight Eisenhower in 1956 at 59% for the third-best Republican performance ever among white voters after President Nixon (67% in 1972) and President Reagan (64% in 1984). The same CNN exit poll showed that 82% of self-identified conservatives voted for Romney — the exact same percentage that supported President Reagan in 1984.

Therefore, in all likelihood Republicans have already maxed out on white conservatives and need to look elsewhere for the gains they’ll need.

Beyond the need to reach out to the rapidly growing Hispanic vote, Republicans also have a ripe target in the suburban areas of the largest Frost Belt cities: New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, etc.

Mitt Romney essentially lost the election in three or four states: Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan. What do all four states have in common? Lots of suburbanites and/or retired blue-collar workers. Florida now swings with the rest of northern suburbia.

Tipping the Sunshine State to Romney would have given him 235 electoral votes. Adding Pennsylvania (20 votes) and Michigan (16) would have given him a majority of 271, despite the loss in the national popular vote (due to huge Obama margins in traditional Democratic cities New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco). Alternatively, adding Pennsylvania and Ohio (18 votes) would have also won the election for Romney.


Here’s the stat that will have Republicans tearing their hair out: if Romney had just matched Gerard Ford’s 1976 performance of 55% in the suburbs of Philly and Detroit, he would have carried Pennsylvania and Michigan and (assuming Florida also swung) won the Electoral College a la Bush in 2000. Ford lost the 1976 election by two points.

Republicans have lost key big states like New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Michigan at least six straight times. But all is not lost for the GOP in the industrial states: if they can recover among suburbanites, they can become quite competitive in the Frost Belt again. With the South, Farm Belt, and Mountain West turning over Republican majorities, the GOP can get to 270 electoral votes by carrying just a few industrial states like Ohio and Missouri or perhaps Pennsylvania, Michigan, or Wisconsin. The last Republican nominee to carry the suburbs of the big Frost Belt cities was the first George Bush, way back in 1988. He is also the last Republican to win resoundingly in the Electoral College by carrying 40 states.

Historically, winning back the suburbs of the major metro areas should be quite do-able for the Republicans in 2016 or 2020. After all, these voters were among the most loyal Republicans dating back to the party’s first victory in 1860 for Abraham Lincoln. From the Civil War to the end of the 1980s, Republicans carried the suburbs of the largest Frost Belt cities in every election except the rare Democratic landslide years of 1912, 1936, and 1964.


In fact, 51% of northern suburbanites voted for Herbert Hoover during the depths of the Depression in 1932.

Independent candidate Ross Perot helped break the Republican grip on suburban voters in the North in 1992; every Democratic nominee has won at least a plurality of these voters since then. How can Republicans recover lost ground in the Northern suburbs? The best advice would appear to be to downplay controversial social issues like birth control, and to emphasize the traditional GOP economic message of lean, efficient, honest government and low taxes. This message worked for over 12 decades, from the 1860s to the 1980s.

If the Republicans were really clever, they would let the Obama administration raise taxes by even more than currently proposed, and then run against high taxes. Historically, suburbanites have been the most tax-sensitive voters. As Bill Schneider wrote in the Atlantic:

Upscale voters are the most likely to say that government has too much power and influence, that taxes should be kept low, and that people should solve their problems for themselves.

The lessons of 2012 are obvious: the Republican future doesn’t lie in an even greater mobilization of rural conservatives, but in winning back the northern suburbanites who for over a century were part of the Republican base. New Jersey, which is dominated by the overflow of population from New York City and Philadelphia, is the most heavily suburban state in the nation. A shorthand way of measuring the Republican Party’s progress in courting the suburbs will be to simply watch the Garden State.



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