The political gap between Republican rural areas and Democratic urban areas is widening. Suburban voters, hanging near the middle, shift back and forth across the divide. These turns can appear subtle, but they can steer the politics of the nation.

National divide in presidential elections

Percentage-point margin

R+30

R+27

Rural and

small towns

More

GOP

R+1

Suburban/

midsize metro

0

More

Dem

D+30

D+32

Big urban

’04

’08

’12

’16

The suburbs and midsize metro areas are poised to make an impact Tuesday. Because they have the largest numbers of voters, even a shift that looks unremarkable in percentage points can yield a decisive margin in votes.

Big-city suburbs and similar midsize metros together make up the biggest bloc in more than half of the competitive congressional districts on Tuesday’s ballots. And in another handful of districts that comprise all three kinds of areas — Big urban, Suburban/midsize metro, and Rural and small towns — the suburbs have enough voters to swing the balance.

That gives suburbs an outsize role in deciding the 73 competitive House districts, all but four held by Republicans. Democrats would need a net gain of 23 seats to win control of the chamber.

Competitive House districts that are mostly ...

Big urban areas

Suburbs and midsized metros

Rural and small towns

Areas at center of

metros with population

of more than 1 million

22 districts

Suburbs of big urban areas

and metros with population

250,000 to 1 million

38 districts

Rural areas and metros

with populations

of less than 250,000

12 districts

Wisconsin’s 1st District is mostly rural, but areas near Milwaukee and in midsize Janesville give suburban voters influence.

Seattle

Spokane

Duluth

Billings

Minneapolis

Syracuse

Detroit

New York

Salt Lake City

Chicago

Omaha

San

Francisco

Columbus

Washington D.C.

Kansas City

Denver

St. Louis

Las Vegas

Durham

Charlotte

Los Angeles

Atlanta

Tucson

Charleston

Dallas

El Paso

Support for bipartisan consensus on immigration may not be enough to save a moderate Republican incumbent in the heavily Hispanic 10th District.

Houston

Orlando

Tampa

Republican incumbents are slightly favored in the 6th and 7th districts in Atlanta’s diversifying suburbs.

Miami

Competitive House districts that are mostly ...

Big urban areas

Suburbs and midsized metros

Rural and small towns

Rural areas and metros

with populations

of less than 250,000

12 districts

Areas at center of

metros with population

of more than 1 million

22 districts

Suburbs of big urban areas

and metros with population

250,000 to 1 million

38 districts

Wisconsin’s 1st District is mostly rural, but areas near Milwaukee and in midsize Janesville give suburban voters influence.

Seattle

Spokane

Billings

Syracuse

Detroit

New York

Salt Lake City

San

Francisco

Omaha

Chicago

Washington

D.C.

Denver

St. Louis

Las Vegas

Charlotte

Los

Angeles

Tucson

Charleston

Dallas

Support for bipartisan consensus on immigration may not be enough to save a moderate Republican incumbent in the heavily Hispanic 10th District.

Houston

Orlando

Tampa

Miami

Republican incumbents are slightly favored in the 6th and 7th districts in Atlanta’s diversifying suburbs.

Competitive House districts that are mostly ...

Big urban areas

Rural and small towns

Areas at center of

metros with population

of more than 1 million

22 districts

Rural areas and metros

with populations

of less than 250,000

12 districts

Suburbs and midsized metros

Suburbs of big urban areas and metros with population 250,000 to 1 million

38 districts

Wisconsin’s 1st District is mostly rural, but areas near Milwaukee and in midsize Janesville give suburban voters influence.

Spokane

Salt Lake

City

San

Francisco

New

York

Omaha

Chicago

Denver

Las Vegas

Charleston

Dallas

Tucson

Tampa

Miami

Republican incumbents are slightly favored in the 6th and 7th districts in Atlanta’s diversifying suburbs.

Competitive House districts

that are mostly ...

Suburbs and midsized metros

Suburbs of big urban areas and metros with population 250,000 to 1 million

38 districts

Big urban areas

Areas at center of metros with population

of more than 1 million

22 districts

Rural and small towns

Rural areas and metros with populations

of less than 250,000

12 districts

Wisconsin’s 1st District is mostly rural, but areas near Milwaukee and in midsize Janesville give suburban voters influence.

Spokane

Salt Lake

City

San

Francisco

New

York

Chicago

Denver

Las Vegas

Tucson

Dallas

Tampa

Miami

Republican incumbents are slightly favored in the 6th and 7th districts in Atlanta’s diversifying suburbs.

Competitive House districts that are mostly ...

Big urban areas

Rural and small towns

Areas at center of

metros with population

of more than 1 million

22 districts

Rural areas and metros

with populations

of less than 250,000

12 districts

Suburbs and midsized metros

Suburbs of big urban areas and metros with population 250,000 to 1 million

38 districts

Wisconsin’s 1st District is mostly rural, but areas near Milwaukee and in midsize Janesville give suburban voters influence.

Spokane

Salt Lake

City

San

Francisco

New

York

Omaha

Chicago

Denver

Las Vegas

Charleston

Dallas

Tucson

Tampa

Miami

Republican incumbents are slightly favored in the 6th and 7th districts in Atlanta’s diversifying suburbs.

The map above is based on an analysis of counties and parts of counties that make up the House districts rated competitive by the Cook Political Report (as of Oct. 30). Big urban counties are at the center of metros with population of more than a million. Suburban/midsize metros includes the suburbs of those big urban counties and metro areas with 250,000 to 1 million people. Rural and small towns is a group that takes in rural counties and counties in metros of less than 250,000 population. (Alaska, with a statewide competitive House race, is not included in the analysis.)

District Last held by ’16 pres. margin
Pa. 16th Lancaster GOP Trump +20
Fla. 6th Outside Orlando, Daytona Beach GOP Trump +17
Minn. 8th Duluth Dem. Trump +16
Ill. 12th Southeast of St. Louis, Carbondale GOP Trump +15
N.Y. 22nd Utica, Binghamton GOP Trump +15
Ky. 6th Lexington GOP Trump +15
Wash. 5th Spokane GOP Trump +13
S.C. 1st Charlseton, Hilton Head GOP Trump +13
N.C. 9th South of Charlotte, Wadesboro GOP Trump +12
Ohio 12th North and east of Columbus GOP Trump +11
Fla. 16th South of Tampa GOP Trump +11
Mo. 2nd St. Louis GOP Trump +10
Fla. 18th Palm Beach GOP Trump +9
N.C. 13th Greensboro GOP Trump +9
Pa. 10th Willamsport GOP Trump +9
Tex. 22nd Southwest of Houston GOP Trump +8
Mich. 8th Lansing GOP Trump +7
Wash. 3rd North of Vancouver GOP Trump +7
Ga. 7th Atlanta GOP Trump +6
N.J. 3rd East of Philadelphia, Toms River GOP Trump +6
Va. 7th Outside Richmond GOP Trump +6
Iowa 3rd Des Moines, Council Bluffs GOP Trump +4
Ill. 14th Antioch, far west of Chicago GOP Trump +4
Mich. 11th East of Detroit GOP Trump +4
Neb. 2nd Omaha GOP Trump +2
Ga. 6th Atlanta GOP Trump +2
N.J. 11th Northwest of Newark, east of Paterson GOP Trump +1
Minn. 2nd South of Minneaplis-St. Paul GOP Trump +1
N.J. 7th West of Newark, Montgomery GOP Clinton +1
Kan. 3rd Kansas City GOP Clinton +1
Pa. 7th South and West of Philadelphia GOP Clinton +1
Pa. 1st Philadelphia GOP Clinton +2
Calif. 10th Modesto GOP Clinton +3
N.Y. 24th Syracuse GOP Clinton +4
Ariz. 2nd Tuscon GOP Clinton +5
Ill. 6th West of Chicago GOP Clinton +7
Colo. 6th East of Denver GOP Clinton +9
Va. 10th West of D.C., Leesburg GOP Clinton +10
N.Y. 27th Outside Buffalo and Rochester GOP Trump +24
Calif. 50th Northeast of San Diego GOP Trump +15
N.C. 2nd Outside Raleigh GOP Trump +12
Fla. 15th Outside Tampa, Orlando GOP Trump +10
N.Y. 11th Staten Island, South Brooklyn GOP Trump +10
Utah 4th South of Salt Lake City GOP Trump +7
Ohio 1st Cincinnati GOP Trump +7
Va. 2nd Virginia Beach GOP Trump +3
Nev. 3rd South of Las Vegas Dem. Trump +1
Tex. 7th West Houston GOP Clinton +1
Tex. 32nd North Dallas GOP Clinton +2
Calif. 48th South of Los Angeles GOP Clinton +2
Wash. 8th Cle Elum, East of Seattle-Tacoma GOP Clinton +3
Tex. 23rd Outside San Antonio, West Texas GOP Clinton +4
Calif. 45th Irvine GOP Clinton +5
Nev. 4th North of Las Vegas Dem. Clinton +5
Calif. 25th North of Los Angeles, Santa Clarita GOP Clinton +7
Calif. 39th East of Los Angeles, Yorba Linda GOP Clinton +8
Calif. 49th North of San Diego GOP Clinton +8
Minn. 3rd West of Minneapolis GOP Clinton +9
Fla. 26th Key West, south of Miami GOP Clinton +16
Fla. 27th Miami GOP Clinton +20
W.Va. 3rd Southern West Virginia GOP Trump +49
Iowa 4th Sioux City GOP Trump +27
Mont. At-large Entire state GOP Trump +20
Kan. 2nd Topeka GOP Trump +18
Minn. 1st Rochester Dem. Trump +15
Va. 5th Charlottesville GOP Trump +11
Wis. 1st South of Milwaukee GOP Trump +10
Maine 2nd Northern Maine GOP Trump +10
N.M. 2nd Southern New Mexico GOP Trump +10
N.Y. 19th Northern Hudson Valley GOP Trump +7
Ill. 13th Champaign, Springfield GOP Trump +5
Iowa 1st Cedar Rapids, Dubuque GOP Trump +4

Pennsylvania, one of the key swing states in the 2016 presidential election, shows how the suburbs can be deciders. A Republican surge netted Donald Trump a 439,000-vote lead in the state’s rural areas and small towns. While that was far better than Republican Mitt Romney’s showing there in 2012, it wasn’t enough on its own to beat Democrat Hillary Clinton, who amassed 580,000 votes in Democrats’ urban strongholds of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

What made the difference in the end was a Republican shift across much of the state’s suburbs. Those areas overall broke from a near-tie going to Barack Obama in 2012 to a Republican advantage in 2016 that was large enough to carry Trump to a statewide victory of less than one percentage point.

Pennsylvania 2016 presidential vote, by county urbanization

Trump won rural counties by a large margin.

0

400k

Rural and small towns

Trump gained 438,800 votes

But Clinton won by even more in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

Big urban areas

Clinton gained 583,200 votes

Suburban counties swung to Trump, giving him the state’s 20 electoral votes.

Suburbs and midsized metros

Trump gained 188,700 votes

Trump won overall

by 44,300 votes

Pennsylvania 2016 presidential vote,

by county urbanization

Trump won rural counties by a large margin, giving him a comfortable lead.

Rural and small towns

0

400k

Trump gained

438,800 votes

But urban voters for Clinton provided a counterbalance to Trump’s rural support.

Big urban areas

Clinton gained

583,200 votes

Suburban counties favored Trump, giving him the state’s 20 electoral votes.

Suburbs and midsized metros

Trump gained

188,700 votes

Trump won overall

by 44,300 votes

Pennsylvania 2016 presidential vote,

by county urbanization

Trump won rural counties by a large margin, giving him a comfortable lead.

0

400k

Rural and small towns

Trump gained

438,800 votes

But urban voters for Clinton provided a counterbalance to Trump’s rural support.

Big urban areas

Clinton gained

583,200 votes

Suburban counties favored Trump, giving him the state’s 20 electoral votes.

Suburbs and

midsized metros

Trump gained

188,700 votes

Trump won overall

by 44,300 votes

Pennsylvania 2016 presidential vote,

by county urbanization

Trump won rural counties by a large margin, giving him a comfortable lead.

0

400k

Rural and small towns

Trump gained

438,800 votes

But urban voters for Clinton provided a counterbalance to Trump’s rural support.

Big urban areas

Clinton gained

583,200 votes

Suburban counties favored Trump, giving him the state’s 20 electoral votes.

Suburbs and midsized metros

Trump gained

188,700 votes

Trump won overall

by 44,300 votes

A similar suburban swing powered Trump’s one-percentage-point victory in Florida, a win that, together with Pennsylvania’s, sealed an electoral majority. Suburban voters also had the potential to be decisive in other swing states such as Michigan, Ohio and North Carolina because they were the largest voting blocs.

So the drama of Tuesday’s election begins with whether Republicans can keep their hold on the House. Looking ahead, the question is whether any shifts, especially in the suburbs, would be a temporary retreat from 2016 or persist into 2020.

It’s not unusual for midterm House elections to set back the party in the White House. Also, this year's battlegrounds may not be typical, because income, education and diversity in contested districts are generally higher than U.S. averages. In the battleground suburbs, for example, the typical income of $71,600 is almost 20 percent higher than the nation’s suburban average. Still, there are signs that next week’s House races may be closer than the Trump-Clinton numbers, perhaps in surprising ways.

Results of a Washington Post-Schar School poll across battleground districts suggest that Democrats still hold an advantage in big urban centers but one not as lopsided as in the presidential race two years ago. About 51 percent of respondents supported Democratic candidates in their House district, and 44 percent supported Republicans.

The poll found Democrats with a close advantage of 49 percent to 46 percent across suburbs, where Trump had won by about five percentage points. And in rural areas and small towns, where Trump won overwhelmingly, House Democratic and Republican candidates were tied 48 to 48.

Special elections are uncertain examples because their environment is so out of the ordinary, but one in Pennsylvania’s old 18th District also showed a Democratic shift. In April, Democrat Conor Lamb eked out a 0.3-point win where Trump had won by 20. Lamb’s win was powered by a Democratic surge in urban precincts on the west side of Pittsburgh. Republican margins dropped by double digits from Trump’s share, across suburbs with a history of auto-plant closings and rural coal-mining communities. In Ohio’s 12th District, Republican Troy Balderson won less by than a percentage point where Trump had won by more than 10.

Trump won in 50, or more than two-thirds, of the House districts now being contested. But in the last week of campaigning, his appearances are focusing mostly on statewide governor and U.S. Senate races, and the scheduled visits are mostly to areas with House races rated as solidly Republican, not competitive. That goes for Fort Myers, Fla.; Columbia, Mo.; Chattanooga, Tenn.; and Macon, Ga. From Indianapolis, the nearest competitive House district will be 150 miles away, and from Pensacola, Fla., 300.

About this story

Sources: Demographics from Census Bureau and Esri; David Leip's Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections; urban-rural groups based on National Center for Health Statistics categories; The Washington Post-Schar School battleground-district poll of 1,269 likely voters in 69 battleground districts, from Oct. 15 to 21, with an error margin of +/-3 percentage points.

Trump margins in redrawn Pennsylvania congressional districts were tabulated from precinct results.

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