Democrats Add Suburbs to Their Growing Coalition

By Alec MacGillis and Jon Cohen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, November 6, 2008

After President Bush's reelection in 2004, top strategist Karl Rove proclaimed the arrival of a permanent Republican majority. Just four years later, the results from Sen. Barack Obama's definitive victory suggest that the opposite may be underway.

The Democrats appear to have built a majority across a wide, and expanding, share of the electorate -- young voters, Hispanics and other ethnic minorities, and highly educated whites in growing metropolitan areas. The Republicans appear at the moment to be marginalized, hanging on to a coalition that may shrink with time -- older, working-class and rural white voters, increasingly concentrated in the Deep South, the Great Plains and Appalachia.

Nothing demonstrates this reversal as clearly as the Democrats' ascendance in the suburbs and among the moderate, college-educated voters who dominate them. Obama won 50 percent of suburban voters, three points higher than Sen. John F. Kerry's showing in 2004 and the most by a Democrat since exit polling began in 1972, swelling his margins in a number of battleground states.

In Virginia, Obama offset losses in the rural parts of the state by not only winning Fairfax County, as Kerry did, but also the big outer suburbs of Prince William and Loudoun counties, home to many high-tech workers and government contractors. Obama visited Prince William County, which has been hit hard by the real estate bust, on the first day of his general-election campaign and the last, as well as in between. He also easily won the big Richmond suburb of Henrico County, a largely white community that Republicans had sewed up for years.

In Pennsylvania, Obama fared worse than Kerry in many steel towns around Pittsburgh. But he ran up such big margins in the formerly Republican suburbs of Philadelphia that he was able to run away with the state, by more than 10 points.

In Colorado, he gained 100,000 votes over Kerry in three big suburban counties outside Denver. In Ohio, he achieved a narrow majority in part by reducing the Republicans' margins of victory in the outer suburbs of Columbus and Cincinnati.

In Florida, he won partly by improving on Kerry's numbers among suburban voters in the Interstate 4 corridor between Tampa and Orlando and in Indiana and North Carolina, his showing with suburban voters improved by about 20 points in each state, far exceeding his gain among rural voters. Obama nearly carried the most iconic Republican suburb of all, Orange County in Southern California.

Estimates of turnout indicate that a record number of voters cast ballots this year. Final figures may not be available for weeks, in part because of unprecedented levels of early votes still to be tallied, but turnout is expected to be up around 10 percent over the previous record of about 122 million four years ago. The numbers were up in all eight states that officially switched from red to blue. In North Carolina, a potential ninth Bush state for Obama, nearly a million more voters cast ballots this year than in 2004.

Bush prevailed in 2004 because he combined his rural base with just enough votes from the suburbs. But the Democrats have steadily been expanding from their urban base for the past decade. It is a shift that points to how the parties' basic messages have changed, with Republicans increasingly employing cultural themes that resonate most in rural areas -- such as Gov. Sarah Palin's appeals to "pro-America" small towns -- while Democrats have focused on suburban concerns such as education.

"This has been growing for years, and this election was a new leap forward," said Rep. Allyson Y. Schwartz (D), who represents suburban Philadelphia. Obama "was running a wave that came crashing down in the best way possible. Many of the suburban voters I represent see the Democrats as more open to ideas, more centrist, more pragmatic, not so rigidly ideological as the Republicans have become."

Some Republicans offer a similar diagnosis. "It is a problem for Republicans. As they continue to cater to their culturally conservative rural base, they continue to alienate educated voters," said Rep. Tom Davis, who is retiring and whose Fairfax County district was taken over by the Democrats on Tuesday. "The suburban vote is steadily slipping away, and the party's trying to ignore it and pretend it's not happening."

But the shift is also explained by the transformation of many suburbs as they become more developed and cosmopolitan. Suburbs are growing more diverse, which poses a challenge for a Republican Party that has seen a steep drop in its support among ethnic minorities, especially Hispanics, two-thirds of whom voted for Obama, up from 53 percent for Kerry. Prince William County, for instance, is on the verge of having a majority of minorities.

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company