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Morning Jay: Can Romney Win Back the Wealthy Suburbs?

6:00 AM, Apr 20, 2012 • By JAY COST
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The conventional wisdom in American politics is that Democrats win poor voters, Republicans win the rich, and the two sides battle over the middle class. That used to be true – indeed, that was basically the case during the earliest Whig-Democratic battles in the 1830s and 1840s, and the Truman/Dewey contest of 1948 was a pretty straightforward class conflict. But those traditional class cleavages have really broken down in the last quarter century or so.

The GOP in the South was once limited to the growing suburbs around “New South” cities like Dallas and Tampa, but lately the party has made headway in downscale areas like southern Georgia and northeast Mississippi, as well as border states like West Virginia and Kentucky. At the same time, Democrats have been on the rise in the wealthier suburbs of the major Northern cities.

It’s this latter group of voters I want to talk about today. They once used to be a mainstay in the Republican coalition, but no longer. Can Romney win them back?

To appreciate the decline of the GOP in these suburban, upscale areas, I want to look at the GOP “tilt” of four, once classically Republican suburban counties – Westchester County, New York (outside New York City), Montgomery County, Pennsylvania (outside Philadelphia), Lake County, Illinois (outside Chicago), and Orange County California (outside Los Angeles). All four of these counties had been onetime anchors of postwar Republicanism, but they have all trended remarkably toward the Democrats.


(Note: “tilt” is the extent to which a county votes above or below the national GOP average.)

The last time Westchester or Montgomery voted Republican for president was actually 1988, and, as you can see, all four have moved away from the GOP; although the start of this drift differs by county, it essentially coincides with the rise of Southern Republicanism in particular, and in general the growth of rural, downscale GOP voters. This also corresponds with Clinton's "New Democrat" message of fiscal responsibility and social moderation, which subsequent Democrats -- Gore, Kerry, and Obama -- have been depending on ever since.

We can also see this most dramatically when we look at polling data. The next graph shows the Republican tilt of high-income voters, defined by percentiles to enable us to compare elections over time.

While upper-middle income voters have been fairly stable, check out the extraordinary movement of the wealthiest voters. Their high water mark with the GOP was actually backing Gerald Ford over Jimmy Carter, a rural Georgian Democrat. Since then, they have moved slowly but surely away from the GOP, and by 2008 they were actually a swing constituency, breaking 52-46 for Obama, precisely what the nation as a whole did.

This is a huge political problem for the Republican party, for two reasons.

First, these voters should find the GOP message of pro-growth and limited government appealing; clearly they once did. The party’s messaging must be off in some way. In all likelihood, the GOP’s increased emphasis on cultural/social issues in the last 30 years has been a drag in these places, but the party should be able to articulate cultural conservatism without alienating these upscale suburbanites. This messaging failure has cost the GOP the state of Pennsylvania in the last three presidential elections – as Western Pennsylvania has moved toward the GOP, metro Philly has moved toward the Democrats, thus keeping the state blue.

Second, the party already is continuously blasted by Democrats for being unduly dependent upon the demands of the wealthy. Given that this is never going to change, wouldn’t it be nice if the party could actually win the wealthy?

This is where Mitt Romney comes into play. I can think of several reasons why he might be able to reverse the party’s decline with the well-to-do.

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