Democrats See Opportunity In Outer Suburbs' Troubles

By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 20, 2008

For all the emphasis on Sen. Barack Obama's chances with working-class voters in declining Rust Belt cities, the biggest swing vote in the presidential election is likely to be in outer suburban communities, where Democrats hope to capitalize on economic unease and demographic shifts to overturn traditional Republican strengths.

Republicans have long dominated in the fast-growing exurbs, which President Bush won by an even larger margin in 2004 than in 2000. But Democrats made inroads in these areas in the 2006 congressional elections, part of a broader trend that has seen the party gain among college-educated suburban professionals. And this year, many exurbs that grew rapidly in the past decade are being hit particularly hard by the economic downturn.

These exurbs, home to an increasing share of the electorate, will help decide who wins states such as Florida, North Carolina, Colorado and Nevada, which are emerging as battlegrounds in the final weeks of the election while Republican chances of reclaiming industrial states such as Pennsylvania and Wisconsin have waned. Nowhere, though, are the exurbs more relevant than they are in Virginia, where Loudoun and Prince William counties are likely to be pivotal.

In 2004, Democratic Sen. John F. Kerry managed to narrowly win Fairfax County, the largest suburb in Northern Virginia, but Bush still carried fast-growing Prince William and Loudoun on his way to an eight-point victory. But over the next two years, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine and Sen. James Webb expanded the Democratic line outward, carrying the two exurban counties in winning their races.

Obama's chances of winning Virginia and its 13 electoral votes depend in part on whether he, too, can carry Prince William and Loudoun, which together grew by 157,000 people in the first five years of this decade. With that growth, the counties have shifted in ways that favor Democrats. Both have diversified, and Loudoun now has rates of educational attainment and household income that far exceed the state average, while its proportion of Republican-leaning working-class voters has fallen.

Sen. John McCain drew an estimated 8,000 people to a rally in Woodbridge on Saturday as his campaign intensified its efforts to compete in Northern Virginia. But interviews with voters and local elected officials and polling data suggest that Obama's prospects are enhanced by the downturn, which was hitting exurban residents hard even before last month's Wall Street meltdown.

Across the country, the housing collapse has been most acute on the suburban fringe. In Prince William, sales are picking up again, but at severely reduced prices -- the median price for detached single-family houses plunged 41 percent in the past year, from $405,000 in September 2007 to $239,900 last month. There were 844 foreclosures last month, up from 256 a year before and 40 in September 2006. Exacerbating the real estate collapse was the spike in gasoline prices, which hit hardest in exurbs where 30-mile commutes are the norm.

It was the oil spike more than anything that led Gary Blake to strongly consider voting for Obama after voting for Bush in 2004. Blake, who lives in a McMansion community near the Potomac River, said fuel costs hurt his pest-control business, which inspects homes as far away as West Virginia. Even now that gas prices have dropped somewhat, Blake sees how things have gone amiss in the number of foreclosed homes on his inspection list.

"I've become more swayed to the left after the last eight years," he said. "In 2004, I was more swayed by the tax stance of the Republicans, and thought it would benefit us more. But I've concluded that was a mistake."

Robert Lang, a demographer at Virginia Tech's Metropolitan Institute in Alexandria, says it is a generalized discontent like Blake's that has increased the Democrats' share of the exurban vote.

In 2004, Democrats won 40 percent of the vote in counties such as Loudoun and Prince William -- or Douglas County outside Denver, Delaware County outside Columbus and St. Charles County outside St. Louis. This group of counties grew 17 percent between 2000 and 2006, to about 22 million people, a far faster rate of growth than in any other type of area.

In 2006, Democrats won 44 percent of the vote in these

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