Trump turns attention to suburbs despite demographic shifts

The campaign's particular approach and focus seem aimed at suburban voters from a different time.

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By Dante Chinni

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump has been paying a lot of attention to the suburbs over the last few weeks. He's talked about protecting them from Democrats who, he says, want to "abolish" them and about protecting "suburban housewives" from the plans of presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden.

A campaign focusing on the suburbs is nothing new, but in tone and tenor the Trump team's approach seems aimed at suburban voters from a different time.

In 2020, America's suburbs are complicated places that defy easy explanation. Their population and politics have changed, and the way campaigns spoke to them 20 or 30 or 40 years ago — as places that are fearful of cities and crime, with low diversity and white picket fences — feels dated.

Consider two of the County-to-County communities that we are watching through Election Day, Kent County, Michigan, and Maricopa County, Arizona. Both places are home to urban areas but also large swaths of diverse suburban terrain, and both seem to be leaning away from Trump as August begins.

Start with Maricopa County. It includes Phoenix, one of the largest cities in the United States, but the city is surrounded by hundreds of square miles of suburban sprawl. Most of the massive county's growth in the last decade has been in the suburbs outside Phoenix, and it has left the county a changed place.

Since 2000, the percentage of Maricopa's population that is white and non-Hispanic has dropped by more than 11 percentage points, to 54.8 percent. At the same time, the percentage of residents older than 25 with bachelor's degrees has climbed by more than 7 points, to 33.2 percent.

And the suburban changes aren't happening just in the fast-growing Southwest. Kent County has undergone similar shifts. It includes Grand Rapids, but the real growth in the county since 2000 has been in the suburbs around it. The county is still predominantly white, but it's a different population.

Since 2000, the white, non-Hispanic population in Kent County has declined by nearly 7 points, to 73.4 percent. Meanwhile, the percentage of residents 25 and older with bachelor's degrees has increased by more than 10 points, to 36.5 percent.

In other words, the populations driving the growth in both places — minorities and college-educated voters — are the same groups that are problematic for Trump, according to poll data.

Recent polls in Arizona and Michigan show that suburban voters have become a strength for Biden.

An NBC News/Marist poll of Arizona, released July 26, showed Biden leading among registered voters in Arizona by about 5 points — 50 percent to 45 percent. But among suburban voters, Biden held a massive 62 percent to 37 percent edge. In Maricopa County, Biden led by 12 points, 54 percent to 42 percent.

And a Fox News poll of registered voters in Michigan from July 23 gave Biden a 9-point edge over Trump, 49 percent to 40 percent. In the Michigan suburbs, Biden held onto that 9-point edge, leading Trump by 50 percent to 41 percent.

This isn't a new trend. Suburbs, particularly those that are diversifying and that have higher numbers of people with college degrees, have been a challenge for Trump since he entered politics.

Both counties were challenges for Trump in 2016. He won them both but by narrower margins than Mitt Romney did in 2012, when he was the Republican nominee. The latest poll numbers suggest that Trump may see further erosion in November.

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In short, the Trump team is right to think it has work to do in suburbia, particularly upscale suburbia. The question is one of approach. It's not just talking about the suburbs. It's how you talk about them.

The Trump campaign announced last week that it was rethinking its messaging. That's a common move for a team that believes it is behind and needs to make up ground. Where the suburbs are concerned, it's probably better to have messaging aimed at the suburbs of 2020, rather than the suburbs of 1980.