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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.

As crucial, exit polls from Tuesday's election show the Democrats sharply increasing their share of white, college-educated voters. Bush carried this group by 11 points, but Obama narrowed that deficit to four, continuing a trend away from the Republican Party by college-educated professionals that has been underway for at least a decade. Obama won white voters with post-graduate education by 10 points, up from a two-point margin for Kerry.

This shift went largely unnoted during much of the race, which focused instead on Obama's challenge in connecting with working-class "Reagan Democrats" in battleground states. Many Democrats worried that Obama would fare poorly with these voters after losing badly among them in the primaries against Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, and the campaign of Sen. John McCain made an explicit bid to win them over.

The impact of these voters turned out to be far less than many had predicted. Some of the conservative Democrats who voted for Clinton in the primaries in states such as Pennsylvania and West Virginia voted for Bush in 2000 or 2004. So while McCain gained about a fifth of Clinton's voters in the Keystone State, higher than his rate nationally, he did not net that many new votes. In other places, such as Ohio's Mahoning Valley, Obama nearly matched Kerry's performance thanks in part to vigorous turnout efforts by union leaders.

The biggest region where McCain improved on Bush's numbers was the spine of Appalachia, running from Tennessee up to southwestern Pennsylvania, where he managed to flip some depressed steel counties. But these gains were in places that are, in many cases, losing population -- the electorate's share of white voters without a college education dropped by four percentage points this year, compared with 2004.

And McCain's gains were more than outweighed by his losses in growing metropolitan areas, suggesting that the story of the 2008 election was the Republicans' demographic weaknesses, not Obama's. In Pennsylvania, the southwestern counties of Washington, Fayette and Beaver gave McCain a net increase of 10,000 votes over Bush's 2004 performance, but he lost the Philadelphia suburb of Montgomery County by 41,000 more votes than Bush.

In Virginia, McCain slightly improved on Bush's performance in the rural southwest, but Prince William County alone gave Obama a 28,000 net gain over 2004.

"McCain did slightly better in southwest Virginia, but so what? You win Prince William and Loudoun, and you win Virginia," said Robert Lang, a demographer at Virginia Tech's Metropolitan Institute in Alexandria. "The Obama campaign clearly understands where the battleground of this election was. Do [the Republicans] have the basic math skills to sit with an Excel spreadsheet and figure out where the growth is, or are they out of their minds?"

He noted that a McCain adviser had referred to the parts of the state outside Northern Virginia as "real" Virginia. "If you're going to divide Virginia up, I'm going to take the one with more people," Lang said. "Did they not realize that for every one of these dying mill towns there was a languishing exurb that had suffered since the 2004 reelection of Bush, which in 2004 were all growing smartly and had house prices moving up?"

The narrowness of the Republican coalition was evident across the board. Ninety percent of McCain's supporters were white, according to exit polls. Obama attracted a significantly more diverse coalition: 61 percent white, 23 percent black, 11 percent Hispanic, 2 percent Asian, 3 percent "other." This is particularly significant, given that whites made up a smaller proportion of the electorate than at any point going back to the first exit polls; they were 74 percent of voters, down from 77 percent four years ago and a high of 90 percent in 1976.

Obama had a far broader generational coalition as well -- nearly a quarter of his voters were under 30, compared with 13 percent of McCain's. Obama beat McCain by better than 2 to 1 with them, far exceeding Bill Clinton's 19-point win in 1996. Obama won whites under 30 by 10 points, the first time a Democrat has picked up a majority of these voters going back to 1972.

To expand their coalition, Lang said, Republicans will need to find ways to talk about issues relevant to metropolitan areas. "You don't have to have the same policies as the Democrats, but you have to talk about this and not just talk about values in the small towns," he said.

Charles Bass, who lost his New Hampshire congressional seat in 2006 as that state turned more Democratic, said he and other moderate Republicans plan to do that at the Republican Main Street Partnership, a group that he heads. Suburban voters want a "family agenda, which is not abortion and gay marriage but drug-free schools and good public education," he said. "Tax cuts and gay marriage and Iraq don't sell as strongly in suburban areas -- it's education and health care and the economy."

He said McCain's choice of Palin instead of a moderate such as former Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge or Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) exacerbated Republican troubles with suburban voters in states including New Hampshire, despite Palin's attempt to bond with Granite State voters over moose-hunting and hockey. "At that point he narrowed his options," Bass said. "New Hampshire has the third-highest percentage of high-tech workers in the country, and high-tech people don't hunt moose."

Not all Republicans see trouble in Tuesday's numbers. Robert Clegg, a New Hampshire state senator who lost a primary bid for Congress this year, predicted that younger voters will become more Republican with age as they assume more responsibilities, and that Republicans will hold onto college-educated voters over the long term. "The more educated people are, the more they understand economics, the more they realize nothing in life is free," he said.

And as much as Davis worries about his party's future, he predicted that Democrats will have trouble holding onto suburban voters as Obama starts governing and tries to balance their interests and those of the party's urban base. Suburban voters in places such as Henrico, for instance, may not look kindly on Obama's tax increases on the wealthy, he said.

Obama "knows where his margins come from, and these folks have a different agenda than a suburban agenda," he said. "Any government has to make choices, and you start to disappoint groups in your coalition, and the Republicans can start picking up the pieces -- except right now, they're not prepared to do that."

Exit polls suggested that there are already some potential fissures within the Democratic coalition. Nearly a quarter of Obama voters said the government is already doing too much. Nearly half of them favor offshore oil drilling. And more than half described themselves as moderate or conservative.

But Schwartz, of suburban Philadelphia, is confident that the coalition is sustainable. Suburban voters have "identified with Democratic principles -- that the government should not intervene when it does not have to, but that we're not the enemy, that we're in this together. Republicans have tried to say government is the enemy, step aside, just me, me, me," she said. The trend "is growing, and it's going to continue."

Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta and assistant polling analyst Kyle Dropp contributed to this report.

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