IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Obama church visit follows Dems' exurbia gains

The question for 2008 and beyond: Or are did they simply benefit from voter anger over war in Iraq and corruption in Washington?
/ Source: HotSoup

Days after President Bush’s re-election victory in 2004, strategist Doug Sosnik told dispirited Democrats that their party was fatally out of touch with mainstream America, especially voters in the fastest-growing new suburbs and exurbs.

“Our leaders — particularly Washington, D.C.-based — don’t really have the same life, day to day, as all those people out there in those red states,” said the former adviser to President Clinton. “We don’t eat at the same restaurants. I don’t know how many politicians in town that are leaders of our party who voluntarily go to Applebee’s, unless it’s for work. You look at the swing voters out there, what their sporting events are, the music they listen to, the celebrities, the television programs, it’s just not what the East Coast leadership (watches) — it’s not quite where we are.’’

Sosnik added: “We can’t figure out a better way to sell to those people — we’ve got to be more like them.’’ Two years later, it’s not clear that Democrats are any more in touch with mainstream America, but they have loosened the GOP’s grip on the politically potent exurbs.

This is the question for 2008 and beyond: Are Democrats connecting better with exurban voters? Or are did they simply benefit from voter anger over war in Iraq and corruption in Washington? It’s likely the latter point; Democratic and Republican strategists say neither party has salted away exurbia.

“It’s not a done deal for us,” said Democratic strategist Steve Elmendorf. “They came to us because of very particular circumstances. They were not happy with Bush so in two years, with a different set of candidates, it’s going to be a challenge” in the exurbs for Democrats.

In 2004, the president won 96 out of 100 of the fast-growing counties, and Democrats feared these exurbs were the key to fulfilling Bush’s goal to create a lasting GOP majority. Generally populated by the same kinds of people (white middle- to upper-class families) who attract the same businesses (Home Depot, Best Buy, other big-box stores, and smaller chains like Applebee’s that feed off them), the nation’s far-flung suburbs and small towns are the vital heart of America in  terms of population, commerce, job growth, and politics. No party can afford to lose by wide margins in the nation’s high-growth areas – places like places like Gwinnett County outside Atlanta; Scott County outside Minneapolis-St. Paul; Pinal County outside Phoenix; Loudon County, Virginia, outside Washington, D.C.; and Douglas County outside Denver.

In last month’s elections, Democrats improved their performance in all types of suburban counties, including classifications traditionally dominated by Republicans. The Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech defines them as: 

  • “Emerging suburbs” are often the fastest-growing counties in the region, primarily built in the past two decades and booming with both population and new commercial facilities. The Democratic vote reached nearly 45 percent in the emerging suburbs last month, up from 39 percent in the 2002 midterms.
  • “Exurbs,” are the most far-flung counties with the lowest populations, according to the institute’s definition. Large-scale suburbanization is just taking hold in these places where Democrats experienced a big jump – from 36.1 percent in 2002 to 42.2 percent in 2006.

These are significant gains because Democrats grew their majorities in the older suburbs – those closer to city cores, where Democrats dominate.

After warning his fellow Democrats in 2004, Sosnik wrote a book called “Applebee’s America” with two others: Bush adviser and HOTSOUP co-founder Matthew Dowd, and the author of this article. “Democrats can win in exurbia because voters in these new, fast-growing areas are driven by their lifestyle choices and values, not partisanship,” the book says.

In 2005, Democrat Tim Kaine became governor while defeating Republican Jerry Kilgore in four fast-growing counties won by Bush just twelve months earlier. The Democrat succeeded in exurbia because he talked about his faith and quality-of-life issues in ways that showed voters he shared their values.

Kaine’s campaign manager, Mike Henry, said exurban voters are “a results-driven electorate, and they want people who will fight for them regardless of party.” He said Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, a potential presidential candidate who has campaigned frequently in Virginia on behalf of fellow Democrats, connects with voters in the state’s far-flung suburbs.

This weekend, Obama visits the soul of suburbia - the Orange County mega-church run by Rick Warren.

After last month’s thumping, Republicans know they can’t take these voters for granted. “We deserved to lose, no doubt about it,” said Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas. “Republicans have not been addressing the issues that people talk about at their kitchen tables. It’s that simple.” He cited three factors: Iraq, corruption “and the incompetence of government - not doing what they hired us to do.”

“They fired us in exurbia,’’ he said, ‘and everywhere.”

Join the conversation on exurbia.