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The Great Divide

As in 2000, Republicans Dominate the Exurbs, While Inner Suburbs and D.C. Are Largely Democratic

By Peter Whoriskey and D'Vera Cohn
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, October 17, 2004; Page C01

It's no surprise to Preston and Punky Charlton that their exurban Prince William neighborhood votes Republican. They chose their four-bedroom home partly because they believed the other residents of their upscale Gainesville subdivision share their conservative views.

"You don't see people living an alternative Generation X lifestyle around here," Preston Charlton, a 42-year-old financial consultant, says of the neighborhood where he lives with his wife, a homemaker, and their three children. Compared with Washington's inner suburbs, he says, "we have more traditional values."

Carolyn Roth of Kensington made her own sign when all the Kerry signs she and neighbors had put up were stolen. (James A. Parcell -- The Washington Post)

Washington in Red and Blue

Nor is it a shock to Carolyn Roth and her husband Ira Chaleff, a management consultant, that their prosperous Kensington neighborhood just outside the Capital Beltway in Montgomery County votes Democratic.

"We're open-minded and thoughtful people," says Roth, a 54-year-old special education tutor and artist. She drives a Volvo station wagon with a "Peace" bumper sticker in three languages. "It's probably easier to believe what you hear in church and to believe what your leaders are telling you. But I don't understand how anyone who is thinking can support this administration."

The passions of presidential politics have moved pollsters to divide the country into "red" Republican states and "blue" Democratic ones. And just as easily can the Washington region be divided.

The area's "blue" precincts are clustered at its center: city dwellings, working-class suburban tract houses and well-groomed prosperous neighborhoods not too far from the federal center of power voted overwhelmingly for Al Gore. In Maryland, the blue precincts give way to red ones several miles beyond the Capital Beltway; in Virginia, the blue precincts largely stop at that landmark.

In both states, the outer areas are bright red for President Bush, where subdivisions, many with large lots, have risen from farmland.

The bluest precincts are low-income African American neighborhoods in the District and Prince George's County, where Democrats got 95 percent or more of the votes in 2000. The reddest ones are in semi-rural Frederick County and near the Charltons' house in Prince William County. In these precincts, Republicans won 70 percent or more of the 2000 votes.

"The closer you are to D.C., the bluer you are," said Jim Dornan, a GOP consultant who has worked in both states. In the inner suburbs, "You've got a lot of what we call 'goo-goos,' good government types who tend to vote liberal."

"Some people move to the exurbs because of the disconnect they feel culturally farther in," said Mark Gersh, the Washington director of the National Committee for an Effective Congress and a Democratic political analyst. "The exurbanites tend to be more family-oriented, and families are more conservative."

Bush-Cheney Territory

When John M. Hinkle, a 49-year-old financial adviser, plunked a "Bush-Cheney" sign outside his front door in western Prince William County a few weeks ago, he knew most of his neighbors would approve.

He lives with his wife and their three children at the region's edge, but at the center of the most "red" areas in Northern Virginia. It is a rural area dotted with old farms, though new subdivisions and big-box stores are under construction just a few miles away. Median household income in the 2000 Census was $91,388, and nearly half the households had three or more vehicles.

The politics of his Nokesville neighborhood are not much different from those in other red-hot zones in the region's exurbs, such as Loudoun County next door or a swath of GOP country extending from Anne Arundel to Southern Maryland.

"This area has a large percentage of traditional Christians and home-schoolers," said Hinkle, who describes himself as a conservative Catholic. People like that, he says, are attracted to "the country" and tend to vote Republican.

"We lived in suburbia, we lived in townhomes," he said. "Here we liked the idea of allowing our kids to run outside and play without being influenced by families who have different moral codes."

He suspects that residents of Washington's inner suburbs are not religious in a traditional sense and vote Democratic as a result. In fact, the 2000 election continued a 20-year trend of increasing support for the GOP among church-going voters, while the Democratic Party won among secular Americans and those who only infrequently go to church.

"I think liberals tend to have a different understanding of God," Hinkle said. "They think God did a great job with creation and human wisdom can carry us from here. A conservative is more likely to realize that human wisdom is insufficient and to submit to God's authority."

Defying Convention

Over in Carolyn Roth's Kensington neighborhood, she and two of her neighbors had signs for Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) up in their front yards -- that is, until just a few weeks ago, when someone stole them.

This led the 54-year-old Pittsburgh native to another idea.

Hand-scrawled signs from each of the three yards now proclaim: "IN 2000 THEY STOLE THE ELECTION. NOW THEY STOLE MY KERRY SIGN."

Compared with Prince William County, her neighborhood is older, the trees are mature and shady, and the houses are more varied. Incomes are higher than they are in much of the exurban areas, too, defying the conventional wisdom that well-off people always vote Republican. Housing prices are higher, too.

Their politics and demographics resemble those of other blue affluent inner suburbs, such as Bethesda or Arlington County. About 40 percent have a graduate or professional degree, and the median household income tops $114,000. Most residents are professionals, and many are or have been affiliated with government jobs downtown.

"Democrats come to town to work for the government, and then they stay," said Pablo Collins, one of Roth's neighbors. "Republicans come to town to kill government."

They dispute the idea that they are any less religious or morally grounded than in the exurban areas, and expressed a kind of boomer skepticism toward government.

"When I was growing up, America was like the best country -- I had a lot of national pride," she said. "Then with Vietnam and Watergate, there's a big chasm between what I had always thought was going on and what was really going on. I wasn't wiling to take things for granted after that."

Black and Blue

Race is another critical predictor of voting patterns: The most overwhelmingly blue neighborhoods in the region are predominantly African American.

Sheila Stringer, 48, lives with her parents in Lake Arbor, one of Prince George's County's premier black middle-class neighborhoods, where the lawns are flawless and the country club is a few blocks away. Nine in 10 residents own their homes, one in three is a government worker, and the median household income in the 2000 Census was $83,070.

There are no political signs on her block, and perhaps no need for them: This neighborhood went big for Gore in 2000. Stringer has a tape of the film "Fahrenheit 9/11" in her handbag.

"Most everybody is sick of Bush," she said. "We call him the idiot. . . . He's scary. His whole family is scary."

Stringer's parents are retired teachers, and she is a school nurse in the District. In this, the family is representative of an African American middle class built on government jobs, Sunday church and Democratic politics. Many were drawn to the area by the expansion of government during World War II, and fled the District for the suburbs beginning in the 1970s. Now, some black Prince George's residents are leaving for exurban Charles County.

Stringer does not feel especially affluent, and she says that Bush does not seem to care for regular working people like herself.

"I'm working two jobs and still don't have money to pay my bills," said Stringer, who does freelance employment in a doctor's office in her spare time. "He's working one -- half-heartedly -- and making mega-bucks on the side. Where's the justice in it?"

African Americans are usually reliably Democratic, but analysts say the voting patterns among the region's newer minority populations, Hispanics and Asian Americans, are less predictable.

They described the party alliance of the area's Asian Americans as up for grabs. Hispanic voters in the region trend Democratic, partly out of economic issues, partly out of concerns on immigration.

Carlos Guerra, 28, a mover, and his wife, a jewelry store assistant, live in the heavily Hispanic Langley Park area. They are both immigrants from El Salvador.

"I think the Republicans are always for rich people," he said. "I make enough money to live, you know?"

Wealthy 'Red' Voters

Indeed some of the wealthiest areas around Washington vote heavily Republican: Great Falls, Darnestown, the Clifton and Fairfax Station areas. To some residents, there's a clear connection between their wealth and political inclinations.

"For one thing, Kerry has said he's going to raise taxes on people who make more than $200,000," said Dave Hunt, a Republican Party leader in Fairfax County who lives in the Seneca precinct of Great Falls. Also, he said, because such area are semi-rural, "they have a more hands-off, leave-me-be type of mentality about government."

Larry Wright, 68, and his wife, Mary, live in Great Falls and are building a house there on seven acres not far from the Potomac River. They put up a 4-by-8-foot "Bush-Cheney" sign on their property, where it stood until it was stolen recently.

Wright says that while he disagrees with some of the Bush administration's policies on the environment and other domestic issues, he spent most of his life in the nation's intelligence circles, first as a Navy captain, later as a consultant, and he believes that the Bush administration has shown an admirable aggressiveness in conducting war against the terrorists.

"I'd rather fight the war in Afghanistan and Iraq than fight it in Washington," he said.

He grew somewhat sheepish talking about his own affluence and his Republican Party affiliation.

"I guess I am a prototypical 'red' voter," he said, then quickly explaining, "I grew up in a small town in Kansas, and I didn't start out affluent -- I was very lucky."

"What he didn't tell you is that he worked very hard," Mary Wright said.

From his house in a neighborhood where census figures put the median household income at more than $155,000, he said that Kerry's plan to raise taxes on those who earn more than $200,000 will affect lots of people.

"I think John Kerry might be surprised how many people make $200,000," he said.

Database editor Sarah Cohen and senior marketing researcher Dave Barie contributed to this report.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company