Area's Exurbs Watched For Further Party Shifts

By Robert Barnes and Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, November 3, 2006

This fall, politicians, campaign strategists and demographers are looking for changing colors in the political foliage outside of the Capital Beltway: an even rosier tint to Calvert County, perhaps, or a bluer shade of purple in Loudoun County.

In the Republican-red commonwealth of Virginia, the question is whether recent Democratic success in Loudoun and Prince William counties is an aberration or a trend. In blue-state Maryland, where voter registration is so one-sided that it looks like a typo, Republicans see positive signs in exurbs such as Frederick County and in regions such as Southern Maryland.

Put simply -- and simplistically, many would argue -- politicos wonder whether Virginia's exurbs are becoming more Democratic and Maryland's are becoming more Republican.

Kevin Igoe, a Republican political consultant based in Maryland, summed it up this way:

"I definitely think the Virginia suburbs are becoming more liberal. I mean, look: The growth in the Northern Virginia suburbs exceeds the growth in the rest of the state, and it's more liberal than the existing electorate.

"I think Maryland continues to divide along two lines. The base of the Democratic Party keeps shrinking geographically into Baltimore, Montgomery County and Prince George's. Those jurisdictions are becoming more and more blue. And the rest of the state is becoming more Republican."

The problem is that boundaries drawn by surveyors hundreds of years ago are imperfect measurements of political attitude today.

Prince William and Loudoun have a distinct east-west split. Anne Arundel County, which has been a welcoming spot for Republican candidates for decades, can easily be divided into three regions with their own political identities. Frederick the city (D) contrasts with Frederick the county (R). Howard County, the center of Maryland in more ways than one, consists of the residents of Columbia and everyone else.

Robert E. Lang, director of the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech, which is headquartered in Alexandria, says booming, wealthy Prince William and Loudoun are no longer exurbs, but what he calls "emerging suburbs."

"You drive along [Route] 28 in Fairfax and Loudoun and you tell me what county you're in," he said. "There's no distinction. Loudoun and Prince William have been Fairfaxed."

Lang and other demographers believe that density is destiny: Large lots and single-family houses contain Republicans, high-rises and townhouses teem with Democrats. When Fairfax's population topped 1 million, its move to the Democratic column in presidential years was certain, demographers argue.

"Fairfax is just too urbanized to be anything other than reliably Democratic," Lang said.

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