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Cul-de-Sac Politics

Winning the suburban vote.

11:00 PM, Feb 18, 2009 • By GARY ANDRES
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ILLINOIS CONGRESSMAN Mark Kirk wants to take a bite out of suburban crime. And in doing so, he also hopes to curb the growing Democratic advantage on some political turf Republicans used to dominate. Last week Kirk unveiled a list of the "Top 10 Most Wanted Gang Members" in Lake County, Illinois, a handsome area of hamlets north of Chicago.

"Illinois leads the nation in per capita gang members, fueled in part by the growth of suburban street gangs," Kirk said. "As violent gangs are pushed out of Chicago, they are relocating in the northern suburbs."

But the four-term Republican is pursuing a much larger objective. The suburbs are changing--and so are concerns in the cul-de-sac. The suburbs present politicians with a potential one-two punch: Not only are these areas transforming politically and demographically, but their share of the American electorate is also growing.

Exit polls tell part of the story. For the past decade, the suburban portion of voters has grown steadily larger every election cycle, representing 43% in 2000, 45% in 2004, 47% in 2006, and nearly half (49%) last November.

From a political standpoint, Republicans used to largely control these areas. According to the American National Election Study, the GOP won the suburbs in every presidential election except one between 1952 and 1988 (Republicans lost the suburbs in 1964's Goldwater-Johnson race). But since 1992, these local neighborhoods turned into a battleground, with Democrats prevailing in four out of the last five presidential elections (George W. Bush narrowly won the suburban vote in 2000, but Democrats prevailed in 1992, 1996, 2004 and 2008).

Demographic shifts explain a lot of the Democrats' resurgence in these areas over the past 15 years. Contrary to the Ozzie and Harriet perception, Joel Kotkin wrote in the Wall Street Journal in 2002, "There are now more nonfamily households than households with children living at home in the 'burbs.'" They are less white, more single and more highly educated--all groups the GOP has struggled with in recent years.

A shifting labor force is also reshaping the suburbs. Dalton Conley of New York University wrote in the Washington Post this past weekend that in the 1950s only 17 percent of women with children 18 and under worked outside the home. Even at the heart of the fight over the Equal Rights Amendment during the mid 1970s, that figure only rose to about one in three. But by 2000 it had ballooned to approximately 70 percent. These swings affect the politics of the cul-de-sac, with concerns about the safety of latchkey kids, drugs, crime, and schools taking on greater prominence.

Suburbs are also dominated by the middle class--a political demographic the Democrats have worked hard to win back. Senator Charles Schumer of New York has been the architect of the party's crusade for a new middle class appeal. Joshua Green wrote about Schumer's near obsession with this project in a recent Atlantic Online article:

Schumer's emphasis on the middle class echoes Bill Clinton's in the 1990s, but its disposition and focus are different. Clinton operated at a time when many Democratic policies were under attack, and much of what he accomplished--on welfare reform, crime, streamlining government, and even school uniforms--can be thought of as defensive retooling of government. . . . Schumer's agenda is primarily offensive, a series of mainly tax policies designed to support and encourage middle class aspirations.

Ken Spain, Communications Director for the National Republican Congressional Committee, agrees with the need to answer these concerns: "Democrats have successfully built their messaging strategy around a very simple narrative: The middle class is being left behind because Republicans have different priorities. They have been laying the foundation for this middle class narrative for the last several years." But Spain also believes the Democrats may have stumbled with their handling of the stimulus bill. "They put the politics of pork over the interests of the middle class and did so at the expense of their own campaign promises to restore fiscal responsibility to Washington."