Can the GOP Ever Win the Urban Vote?

Consider this indisputable fact: In 2012, a single urban county in five states provided Obama his margin of victory for the entire state and their electoral votes.  The story becomes even more important since those states were Colorado, Florida, Nevada, Ohio, and Pennsylvania- all considered important swing states.  Those counties were Denver, Miami-Dade, Clark, Cuyahoga, and Philadelphia.  Gaining in other counties is sometimes not enough to offset the Democratic advantages in these locations.

These facts become increasingly important given some recent demographic trends.  The rate of growth between suburban and urban areas is now equal nationally.  Suburban growth has declined from a high of over 3% in the 1950s to its current 1%.  Conversely, urban areas have increased from an historical low growth rate of under 1% in the 1970s to its current 1%.  Meanwhile, rural area population growth rates are likewise in decline.  Combined, in terms of national politics (the presidential vote), the traditional suburban-rural base of the Republican Party is in decline while the traditional urban base of the Democratic Party is on the rise.

The story gets a little more complicated and more troublesome for the Republican Party when one looks at the voting trends in the three various areas- urban, suburban, and rural.  The following chart shows the percentage share of the GOP vote in the three areas nationally in presidential elections since 1988:

Suburban Rural Urban
’88 59% 56% 48%
’92 50.50% 49% 40%
’96 48% 49% 38%
’00 52% 56% 40%
’04 54% 57% 41%
’08 49.50% 54% 34%
’12 51% 56% 34.50%

Obviously, incumbents do better in reelection situations.  However, the Republican improvements in rural/suburban areas in 2012 over 2008 made the race closer and if not for those five counties listed above, the result could have been different after Election Day.

What is driving these trends?  Some have argued that the 2008 recession made cities more palatable to people.  There were more services, closer proximity to the jobs that were there, less traveling distance, etc.  Of course, urban centers also have their associated problems- schools, traffic congestion, crime, etc.  However, it appears that people were making decisions to make the best of a bad situation.  In fact, some demographers have noted that the increase in urban growth has slowed as the economy has slowly picked up.  What the economy needs is good, sustained growth to push back on the growth in urban areas.  This would push the urban fence-sitters back into the suburbs- traditional GOP territory.

But, what if it pushes liberal Democrats into the suburbs?  A Pew Research poll showed that 77% of those who consider themselves “conservative” would prefer to live in the suburbs while 75% of those described themselves as “liberal” preferred the urban areas.  If the economy improved on a sustainable basis, most likely the urban conservatives would move out.  The key question is whether enough would migrate out in order to make a difference.

The answer is likely “no” as the growth of the Philadelphia suburbs have proven.  As Philadelphia’s population decreased to the advantage of its suburbs, those suburbs have actually drifted slowly into the Democratic column.  As the outlying counties outside the immediate surrounding counties have grown, the trend in those counties is a slower rate of growth for the Democratic Party.  For instance, Delaware County immediately adjoins Philadelphia and it was an Obama county.  Slightly to the south and west, but still a “suburb” of Philadelphia, Chester County voted for Romney in 2012.  This lends some support that to the extent people move out of urban counties, the liberals move to the closer suburbs and conservatives to the further suburbs.

Still, urban centers in critical states have shown increases that outpace the overall state population growth.  These are cities like Denver, Durham, Orlando, Richmond and Columbus, Ohio.  If these trends hold true, these urban centers will play an increasing role in presidential outcomes and they lie in key swing states.  We can also predict that if these current trends hold true, it will be to the advantage of the Democratic Party as far as presidential politics is concerned.

While this may be bad news on the presidential front, it is good news on the legislative and congressional fronts.  In effect, liberals moving into liberal areas only make those areas more liberal.  Over 67% of state legislative districts and congressional districts are suburban or rural.  Although Obama won two elections, since 2008 the Democratic Party has lost, on net, 70 House seats and a whopping 910 state legislative districts.  The Left blames gerrymandering while the real culprit is these naturally occurring demographic trends.

In 1988, suburban counties voted 4.5 percentage points for Republicans above the national average.  That gap narrowed to 2 points by 2000, but has since increased back up to 3.1 percentage points.  This is caused by millenials delaying their migration to the suburbs which accounts for some of the upward trends in urban population growth.

Rural America is basically a lost cause for the Democratic Party and they know it.  It explains why they really pay it no attention electorally.  What is egregious is that the Republican Party now treats urban America as a lost cause and the suburbs have become the only battleground.  To reverse that mindset, the GOP needs to steal a page from the Obama/Democratic playbook.  Urban centers have a built-in advantage when it comes to electoral politics from a strategy standpoint.  The closer the proximity of the population, the easier it is to identify, target, organize and turn out potential voters.  Using Philadelphia as an example again, there are clusters of neighborhoods of conservative voters surrounded in a sea of liberal ones.  Targeting these areas like the Northeast and South Philadelphia could make inroads into Democratic advantages.  One must be reminded that the GOP does not have to win an urban area outright, nor even tie the Democrats.  A flip of a few percentage points can make a large difference in the final state counts which is the overall goal.

Instead, the Republican Party has this misguided view that all urban centers are monolithic liberal strongholds.  Some are, but even more are not.  The GOP, without pandering to urban needs like increased federal spending on local transportation concerns or housing, needs to pay more attention to the existing Republican and conservative voters in urban areas, target them, then get them out to vote.  Those conclaves and the moderate ones are the targets.

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