The American suburbs fueled the emergence of the Democratic congressional majority in 2006 and then helped expand it 2008. During those two election cycles, Republicans lost 24 incumbent or open seat races in these cul-de-sac filled districts.
But now suburbanites are shifting again. As a result, many of these districts could swing back to the GOP, providing more than half of the forty seats Republicans need to capture the majority in the House.
The battle for the suburbs will determine if President Barack Obama continues to work with his own party as the congressional majority or if Washington reverts to divided government.
Many swing voters live in the suburbs. As these regions grew following World War II, they became an increasingly large and pivotal piece of political real estate.
During most presidential elections for the past fifty years, the suburbs offered Republicans fertile political soil. According to American National Election Study (ANES) data, the GOP consistently won about 55 percent or more of the vote in these areas, except for the 1964 Democratic blowout and in 1976, when Jimmy Carter fought Gerald Ford to a draw in the suburbs.
In the 1992 and 1996 elections, however, Republicans lost their advantage among these voters to Bill Clinton. Suburbanites seem to move in the Democratic direction when the party nominates moderate, southern governors. George W. Bush fought Al Gore to a draw in 2000 and then recaptured a majority of the suburban vote against John Kerry in 2004, according to CNN exit polls.
At the congressional level, however, Republican support eroded considerably in 2006 and 2008. Recently, suburbanites trended more in the direction of urban voters, who also tilted even more Democratic in the last several elections and away from rural voters, who became more Republican, according to ANES data. Several factors account for this drift toward the Democrats.
First, independent suburban voters prefer divided government. After six years of George Bush in the White House and a GOP congressional majority, many wanted a change. In 2006, Democrats won the House majority in part through a strong performance in the suburbs.
Second, some suburbanites viewed the GOP brand as too conservative on social issues. This perception helped fuel Democratic challengers in previously Republican held seats in both 2006 and 2008.
Third, the suburbs are changing, with a higher percentage of voters who align with Democrats migrating out of larger cities every year.
In 2010, however, Democrats face serious headwinds in the suburbs. They are now the ones defending unified party government. And concerns about social issues always recede during periods of economic stress. This year is no exception. Anxiety over job loss causes many suburban voters to shift emphasis in their issue matrix to the economy.
Former House Republican leadership aide John Feehery understands the sheer thrust of the winds confronting the Democrats. Feehery was spokesman for former House Speaker Denny Hastert, who also represented a suburban district outside of Chicago.
In a recent piece on his blog, The Feehery Theory, he laid out a compelling case for why suburbanites are now defecting from the Democrats.
Many factors explain the shifting politics of the suburbs. But one of Feehery’s arguments is particularly compelling during these tough economic times – the collapse of high expectations. “When you expect things to get better, but suddenly they get worse, that is when you get a revolution,” he writes. “Suburbanites who once expected that their futures held nothing but upward mobility are now facing the grim reality of busted budgets, persistent debt, mediocre schools, clogged streets, and alarming crime.”
Ken Spain, communications director for the National Republican Congressional Committee agrees. “We lost 24 suburban districts combined in the last two cycles,” he told me. “Part of it was a bad environment and part was bad luck. But we’re positioned to win many of these back. We have the right candidates, the resources and the kind of environment that can swing these suburban areas back.”
Evidence at the district level supports these conclusions. Florida, Illinois, and Pennsylvania now feature at least three competitive suburban races currently held by Democrats in each state. Others like Connecticut, New York, Ohio, and Virginia each also include two competitive suburban districts per state now held by Democrats.
Democrats won a lot of political rumbles in previously held Republican cul-de-sacs in 2006 and 2008, securing their current congressional majorities. Taking a number of these seats back in 2010 could serve as the foundation for a GOP majority in the House this November.