Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

Suburban Voting in Presidential Elections

Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

Suburban Voting in Presidential Elections

Article excerpt

This article examines the conventional wisdom that suburban voting patterns became increasingly favorable for Democratic presidential candidates from 1992 to 2000. Its genesis can be traced to a round table discussion of the congressional elections that aired on CSPAN in early January 2002. Charlie Cook, one of the most astute observers of American politics working today, suggested that the balance of power in the Congress would be determined by the preferences of voters in a handful of "collar counties"--counties that ring major urban counties such as Wayne (Detroit), Cuyahoga (Cleveland), and Cook (Chicago). Presumably, Cook made this claim because (1) a disproportionate number of competitive House seats are situated in and across these collar counties, (2) a high percentage of competitive Senate races occur in states with important collar counties (e.g., Missouri, New Jersey, Texas), and (3) collar counties tend to have a greater than average share of "persuadable" or swing voters. Cook went on to make two additional provocative points. First, he stated that the suburban vote did not revert back to its historically Republican proclivity for the 2000 presidential election. This implies that whatever changes occurred during the 1990s were more than simply a reaction to the charismatic appeal of Bill Clinton. Second, and perhaps even more interesting, he posited that changes in suburban voting patterns mask strong differences between northern and southern suburbs. (1) That is, Democratic gains in the suburbs are largely driven by changes in northern suburban counties.

Cook is not alone in his assessment of the power of suburban voters. In his influential essay "The 49% Nation," Michael Barone (2001) points out that the Democrats have made almost all of their post-1988 gains in the top twenty-three major metro areas and have done especially well in the top seven. Although it is left unsaid, it is difficult to imagine that the suburban reaches of these metropoles have not been responsible for the lion's share of these shifts. But while Barone distinguishes between peripheral areas of the North and South, he does not offer (as Cook does) a regional distinction when considering the political behavior of suburbanites.

All of this underscores the reality that while we may have suspicions about the interactive role of region and residential location, we have little by way of empirical analysis. This article addresses this gap in several important ways. Initially, we offer a brief overview of the existing literature on the influence of residential locale on voting behavior. We then propose a set of hypotheses about the dynamics of presidential candidate preference over the past decade and the reasons for the 2000 presidential vote distribution. Aggregate and individual-level survey data from the American National Election Studies (ANES) and network exit polls are introduced to test these hypotheses, including the particular notion that there are regional differences in suburban voting tendencies. Finally, we conclude with a brief discussion of the implications of the analysis for 2000 and subsequent elections.

What We Know (and Don't Know) about Suburban Voting

The importance of suburban voters to many state and national elections became an article of faith in the late 1980s. The logic behind this assumption is fairly simple. Voters living in urban areas tend to be disproportionately African American or Hispanic or less affluent and therefore more likely to identify with the Democratic Party. At the other end of the spectrum, rural voters are more likely to be white, southern, and religiously observant and therefore more likely to identify with the Republican Party. (2) In contrast, by 1990 the suburbs of major metropolitan areas contained something like a representative cross section of the American public: predominantly (but not overwhelmingly) white, only slightly more educated, affluent, and more likely to be married than the rest of the nation, and balanced in terms of gender and age. …

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