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
places. Obama showed particular strength in exurbs in his primary battle against Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. He won Prince William and Loudoun by wide margins.
Lang explained the Democratic ascendancy by invoking the archetype of "Patio Man," coined by the columnist David Brooks in 2002. Patio Man, as Lang sees it, is typically a middle manager who works in a suburban office park and has a college education and maybe a master's degree. He is a centrist, upset not only about his home's plummeting value but also with the Bush administration's lapses in Iraq and in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Patio Man is also fairly comfortable with the notion of an African American president, because exurbs in places such as Northern Virginia are increasingly diverse. Plus, Lang said, exurban women are not enamored of McCain's choice of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate, which polls have shown has not gone over well with many educated suburbanites.
"The suburban dweller is saying, 'I've had it, enough is enough, and I'm going to vote for a change of parties that changes everything,' " Lang said. "What's damaged Republicans with Patio Man is the basic incompetence of government. . . . The Democrats don't own these people -- it's about the state of the Republican Party."
To be sure, plenty of exurban residents have been relatively unhurt by the downturn, or have not let it affect their preference for the GOP. A few blocks from Blake's house, on Duckling Place, Rita Ippolito said she and her husband are fairly unscathed by the financial meltdown. Their home's value has dropped and they hope to sell it in the next year, but its value is still well above what they bought it for eight years ago. And they'll be moving to Ohio, where real estate is cheap. And with strong antiabortion convictions, they remain staunch Republicans.
"There have been some mistakes by the Bush administration," she said, but "we believe in our country" and Obama "would go way too far." Ippolito added: "We want to bring back the America we once had, the conservative values."
Scott Lingamfelter, a Republican in the Virginia House of Delegates whose district includes part of Prince William County, noted that many Prince William and Loudoun residents work for the military or for defense contractors and are likely to see McCain as on their side. Small-business owners also may be worried about Obama's plan to raise taxes for people earning more than $250,000, he said. And there are still a fair number of gun owners and hunters on the outer fringes of the exurbs who view Obama as not one of them.
Kaine and Webb were elected when "some Republican moderates got mobile and said, 'I can trust some of these Democrats,' " Lingamfelter said. "But McCain's not going to lose them."
But Democratic pollster Pete Brodnitz sees Obama benefiting from the same dynamic in the exurbs that aided Kaine and Webb, whom Brodnitz advised. While Republicans have focused on disqualifying their opponents -- attacking Obama's association with a former radical, for instance -- Democrats have made a moderate pitch about practical solutions and unifying Virginians, he said.
"People have been hearing a lot of [Obama's message] in different form from other Virginia Democrats, so it's very familiar," Brodnitz said.
Democrats are also benefiting from the growing number of ethnic minorities across Northern Virginia. Hispanic voters remain upset about Republican immigration policies, particularly in Prince William, where county officials launched a crackdown on undocumented residents that has driven many immigrants from the county. And many Asian Americans rallied to the Democrats in 2006, when then-Sen. George Allen (R) called a Democratic campaign worker with South Asian roots "macaca."
The Democrats' ambitions in the exurbs are reflected in Obama's organization, which has six offices in Prince William and Loudoun, and in the four visits Obama and his running mate, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., have made to the two counties. McCain has three offices in the counties, and Saturday's visit was his first to Prince William.
"We're working hard. We know we can't take it for granted anymore," said Michael C. May (R), a Prince William County supervisor.
Helping do some canvassing for Obama has been Monica Lewis, a mother of two in Woodbridge who can see the boom and bust all around her. Five of the 70 homes on her cul-de-sac have auction signs out front. The going price for the 20-year-old townhouses has dropped from the mid-$300,000s to $200,000 or lower. About a dozen homes are unoccupied, by Lewis's count, and the vacancy rate is far higher in the sea of bigger, recently built townhouses just to her east.
Lewis, who moved with her husband, a community-college dean, from Norfolk three years ago, said the upheaval in the county makes it hard to gauge its politics. She can barely keep track of who lives on her block, and businesses are closing left and right, particularly Mexican restaurants and businesses reliant on the housing industry.
"The sense that Prince William County is a boomtown with a lot of potential and activity is gone," she said in a follow-up e-mail. "I am hopeful that we will elect Obama . . . but I think it will be very close. With the departure of so many people (renters, immigrants, working citizens), the status quo has returned. The people left standing are clinging to what they have."