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Realignment or Speed Bump: The Battle for the Suburbs in 2020 and Beyond

aw2
November 3, 2020

In the immediate aftermath of the 2016 election, the political media was obsessed with white, working-class voters. Reporters flocked to small towns and rural outposts, desperate to understand how so many of these once rock-ribbed Democrats ended up supporting Donald Trump. Since 2018, however, suburban voters, especially white, suburban women, have become the swing voter du jour. Once considered the bedrock of the modern GOP, suburban voters across the country have been flocking to Democratic candidates since Trump's election. 

It's also a group that pundits and analysts are going to spend a lot of airtime discussing on Tuesday night.

Two Republican strategists, Liesl Hickey and Robert Blizzard, knew that these voters would be critical to the 2020 election, but they wanted to have more than a just surface level understanding about them. Hickey, a strategist and former NRCC executive director, and Blizzard, a partner in the GOP polling firm Public Opinion Strategies, told me that they "wanted to find a way to get a deeper dive into the emotions and put some context behind WHY suburban voters feel the way they do — and understand how they come to their decision making on candidates and issues."

Since May, Blizzard and Hickey have checked in weekly with 40 suburban, college-educated men and women from the following states: Arizona, Georgia, Florida, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas and Wisconsin. These 40 people represent a mix of age, race, and employment. They are identified as either independent, soft Republican or soft Democratic. 

Every week, these voters logged onto a bulletin board discussion group (something that Hickey described as a political version of journaling). They answered questions posed by a moderator while reading and responding to other participants' posts. This method allowed them to track how voters' opinions were shifting (or not) over time. 

With the election coming to a close and all their interviews completed, I asked them to reflect on why so many suburban voters have soured on the president, and if these voters are 'in play' for the foreseeable future. 

Overall, said Blizzard, what struck him the most was how "savvy" and "sensible" these voters were. They were not caught up in the 'all or nothing' politics of Twitter or cable TV. The issue of COVID has been their number one issue for this entire time.

While these voters are doing well financially (last week, 56 percent of them said they were better off personally), they think things in the country are desperately off track (78 percent said the country was not better off). 

And it's that disconnect — between their own economic comfort and what they see as a country spiraling out of control — that has shaped their opinions of this race the most. 

These voters "don't have outright hatred for Trump," said Hickey, but they are desperate for a return to normalcy. The words heard the most from these voters were things like "leadership," "calm," and "recovery."

As Blizzard described it, "the economy was not enough to get them beyond the style and the personality" of Trump that they disliked. 

"Among these voters this race has never really formed into a choice," Blizzard told me. "It has remained a referendum. Everything is seen through the context stylistic about the president."

This is why, when asked what was more important to their vote, how they were doing personally, or how they thought the country was doing, two-thirds of these suburban swing voters said they'd chose country. 

And, that, right there, is the reason why Trump is struggling in the suburbs. 

But, what about the long-term prospects for these voters. Is this a group that will make up the backbone of a 'new' Democratic coalition? Is this a 'realignment' election? Or, will they simply be, as one Democratic strategist remarked to me a few months back, voters that Democrats' rent' until the next election?

Blizzard and Hickey argue that these voters will be tough for Democrats to keep in their coalition post-Trump. "When it comes to the substance," said Blizzard, "these voters aren't with the Democratic policies." For example, like so many others, these suburban swing voters described Trump's performance in the first debate as "a dumpster fire" that was "uncomfortable to watch." But, said Blizzard, "when we pushed them onto substance (taxes, economy, climate), they tended to side more with Trump arguments." Hickey adds that they are "very concerned about what the economy will look like with Democrats in control, especially on the issue of taxes." 

Even as Republicans are likely to lose even more ground in the suburbs (especially in fast suburbanizing states like Texas), Blizzard sees this as a short-term retreat for the GOP. 

"This is a Trump speed bump in the suburbs," Blizzard told me. "I don't see this as a longstanding challenge."

Either way, these voters will be one of the most closely watched for the next two years. And in 2022, it could be Democrats fate that hangs in the hands of these swing voters.