Speaking on a hot, windy afternoon during a visit to the fracking fields of west Texas last month, Donald Trump conjured an ominous vision of suburban America under siege: terrorized by rising crime and threatened by the development of low-income housing.
“It’s been hell for suburbia,” Trump declared, touting his decision to rescind an Obama-era fair-housing rule to combat racial segregation in the suburbs, part of his promise to preserve what he called the “Suburban Lifestyle Dream”. To the scattered crowd in attendance, he added: “So, enjoy your life, ladies and gentlemen. Enjoy your life.”
Nearly 500 miles east, in the expanse of metropolitan Houston, Democrat Sri Preston Kulkarni is running to represent a suburban congressional district that is worlds apart from the one that exists in Trump’s imagination.
Texas’ 22nd congressional district, which is almost the size of Rhode Island and nearly as populous, is so diverse that his campaign is distributing literature in 21 languages. Protests against police brutality and racial discrimination spread throughout the region after the death of George Floyd, a black man who died under the knee of a white Minneapolis police. And Floyd, a native of Houston, was laid to rest in the district.
“This is new Texas,” said Kulkarni, a former diplomat who grew up in Houston. “It’s diverse, it’s educated, it’s dynamic.”
And it’s not only Texas. From Atlanta to Phoenix, this pattern is part of a longterm political realignment of the suburbs that has been dramatically accelerated by Trump’s presidency.
Once a cornerstone of the Republican coalition, these densely populated metropolitan suburbs are turning increasingly Democratic. At the same time, the more sparsely populated exurban areas have become even more deeply Republican, countering, for now, Democrats’ gains elsewhere in the suburbs. The fight then is increasingly for the voters in the middle, the suburbanites lodged between liberal and conservative America.
Until now, Trump has appeared uninterested in persuading these swing voters back, alienating them further with the inflammatory rhetoric and hardline views on race and cultural heritage that excite his base.
But their mounting backlash to Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and his attempts to stoke racial grievance have imperiled the president’s re-election prospects and put his party at risk of being shut out of power in Congress.
Trump is promoting a vision of America’s suburbs that no longer exists
In recent weeks, Trump has sought to appeal, with little subtlety, to suburban voters. In one tweet, he vowed to protect “the Suburban Housewives of America” from the threat posed by his Democratic presidential rival Joe Biden.
In a play to the perceived racist fears of white suburban voters, he wrote: “I am happy to inform all of the people living their Suburban Lifestyle Dream that you will no longer be bothered or financially hurt by having low income housing built in your neighborhood.”
Demographers and political strategists say Trump is promoting a vision of America’s suburbs with aproned housewives, leafy cul-de-sacs and picket fences that no longer exists.
“He’s talking about an America that’s at least 40 or 50 years old,” said William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution. “The suburbs of today are really a microcosm of America.”
A decades-long rise in the number of people of color, immigrants and college graduates, have transformed the sleepy bedroom communities of yesteryear into sprawling amalgams of America’s diversity. There are also far fewer housewives and the overall rates of violent crime have declined significantly.
In response to the recent upheaval, Trump adopted a strategy used by Richard Nixon as a presidential candidate during the turmoil of 1968, vowing to be a “president of law-and-order” and protect suburbanites from outside threats.
But suburban voters say they strongly disapprove of his handling of the protests, according to a New York Times/Siena College survey. An even larger share say they have a favorable view of the Black Lives Matter movement, which Trump denounced as a “symbol of hate”.
Overall, recent polling shows suburban voters backing Biden by historic margins.
Suburban women are not going to be fooled by Donald Trump’s antiquated notion of what they should care about.Shannon Watts
A recent NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist survey found that just 35% of suburbanites would vote for Trump, almost the same proportion – 33% – who said they approved of his job as president. That contrasts with 60% of suburban voters who said they would support Biden.
The disaffection is particularly pronounced among suburban women: 66% said they would support Biden, compared to 48% of suburban men.
“The Trump administration has in many ways radicalized women and moms,” said Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action, part of Everytown for Gun Safety, which is spending heavily on political races in diversifying Sun Belt states.
Watts was a stay-at-home mother of five when she started the group in 2012, after the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting. She realized then that she had been “living in a bubble” as a white suburban woman, and was awakened to the trauma of gun violence that disproportionately impacts communities of color every day.
Watts believes white suburban women across the country, for whom gun reform is increasingly a voting priority, are having a similar realization in response to the Black Lives Matter protests. In November, she hopes they will join Black and Hispanic women in removing Trump from office.
“Suburban women are diverse and decisive,” she said, “and they are not going to be fooled by Donald Trump’s antiquated notion of what they should care about.”
Suburban women as a force in American politics is not new. In the 1990s, campaigns targeted the “soccer moms.” After the September 11 terrorist attacks, they became the “security moms”. And in 2008, Sarah Palin, the Republican vice presidential nominee, rebranded them “hockey moms.”.
In 2018, suburban women – both as candidates and voters – helped Democrats regain control of the House by flipping long-held Republican districts on the outskirts of Atlanta, Dallas and Houston. In a rout, Democrats swept all seven districts of Orange county, once a fortress of suburban conservatism known as Reagan country.
Now in 2020 – less than three months before the November election – Democrats are increasingly confident about their strength in the suburbs, as the Biden campaign expands its footprint in states like North Carolina, Arizona and Texas.
Trump won suburban voters by four percentage points in 2016, according to exit polls. Some strategists believe he has an opportunity to do so again this year, if swing voters perceive Democrats as moving too far left.
“Suburbanites have not moved wholesale to the Democratic party,” said Tom Davis, a former Republican congressman from Virginia.
The affluent suburban district he once represented is now solidly Democratic, part of a political metamorphosis that has all but wiped from power the Republicans who once dominated this southern state.
‘The politics are only beginning to catch up with the new demographic realities’
Though the suburbs have changed, Davis said they remain an aspirational destination for upwardly-mobile families and young people, a place where residents expect low crime, fewer taxes, better schools and stable property values. As such, he said they have a distinct political identity as homeowners and parents that still aligns more closely with the Republican agenda.
“Trump is speaking to suburbians who don’t want the city moving out to where they are,” Davis said. “That’s why they live there. It’s a statement. It’s not a racial statement – but it is a values statement.”
Republicans continue to thrive in suburban areas surrounding smaller cities like Indianapolis and Jacksonville, Florida, which tend to be less diverse and more conservative.
Democrats do not need to win these voters, but they cannot afford to ignore them either, said Lanae Erickson, the senior vice-president at the center-left thinktank Third Way.
In a new analysis of suburban counties in six battleground states, shared exclusively with the Guardian, Third Way identified 30 smaller suburban counties where Democrats have an opportunity to breach these Republican firewalls.
Using voter file data, the analysis projects, that for example, that in Pennsylvania Democrats will grow their vote total in the state’s most populous suburban county, Montgomery Ccounty, by 28,792 votes. By contrast, Democrats are expected to gain a total of 145,511 votes across the state’s nine smaller suburban counties, due in part to an influx of Latinos.
In a razor-thin election like 2016, when Hillary Clinton lost the state by just 44,000 votes, these counties could be decisive.
Suburbanization will continue to reshape American politics long after 2020.
“The politics are only beginning to catch up with the new demographic realities”, said Stephen Klineberg, a professor of sociology at Rice University and the author of Prophetic City: Houston on the Cusp of a Changing America. “By 2050, all of America will look like Houston looks today.”
In that sense, the open race for Texas’ 22nd congressional district is like peering into the future, Klineberg said.
There in the sprawl of Houston’s suburbs, Kulkarni, whose father is from India and whose mother is a descendent of the city’s namesake, Sam Houston, is running against Troy Nehls, the Republican sheriff of Fort Bend county, which covers much of the district and is almost equally split among Asian American, African American, Hispanic and white voters.
During the Republican primary, which tested the candidates’ fealty to Trump, Nehls denounced an early effort by local officials to mandate mask-wearing and mimicked the president’s rhetoric on the protests. But on social media, he has vowed to “build bridges” between the minority communities in his district and law enforcement.
As Houston grapples with the devastation caused by the coronavirus pandemic and the ensuing economic crisis, as well as the aftershocks of the racial justice protests, Kulkarni says voters of all political stripes are ready to move beyond a “politics of division”.
“They are tired of the attacks on science and healthcare,” Kulkarni said. “They like the fact that we live in a diverse area. And I think there’s actually more of a consensus now than I’ve ever seen before that diversity is our strength, not our weakness.”