Suburbia is an ever-changing 'microcosm of America' that could dominate the upcoming election

  • Suburban voters constitute approximately half of the US electorate. 
  • They also represent a key middle ground of American voters between largely blue cities and red rural areas.
  • Due to years of changing demographics and political fallout from the 2016 presidential election, the suburbs are no longer monolithic.
  • Voting experts and suburban residents told Business Insider how much the suburbs have changed and why they'll remain a key battleground for November.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Politics weren't "really on the radar" for Kimberly Fasking's suburban community.

It was rare you saw yard signs while driving in the neighborhood, and political commentary on the local Facebook page was scarce, Fasking, a 48-year-old resident of the Birmingham suburb, Mountainbrook, Alabama, told Business Insider. 

"Ever since the 2016 election," Fasking said, politics in her community has "become very public, out in the open, and very antagonistic."

On her own lawn are signs for Black Lives Matter, Democratic Sen. Doug Jones, and support for wearing face masks during the coronavirus pandemic. Fasking said she's still waiting on a sign for Democratic nominees Joe Biden and Kamala Harris to arrive.

"Before 2016, I just hadn't been political," said Fasking who first moved to Mountainbrook 15 years ago from a suburb in Chicago. Vocalizing her political views — by either posting on Facebook, knocking on doors, phone banking for campaigns, or delivering signs for others to put in their yards — has "made me and my children a target," she said. 

In one instance, Fasking, who lives in a state that has voted Republican for the past four decades, said she was asked: "Why do you want your neighbors to hate you?"

Suburban voters are increasingly leaning into politics 

Since 2016, voters like Fasking who are based in the suburbs have displayed a newly motivated interest in politics, leaning increasingly to support Democrats, as nationwide trends attest.

Suburban voters make up half of the US electorate and represent a key middle ground between more easily predicted votes out of cities and rural areas. Michael Li, a senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice who focuses on voting rights and elections, told Business Insider that the massive population of suburban voters will be a crucial election battleground for the next presidency and seats in Congress.

"The suburbs are where the play is at," Li said.

Amid demographic changes in the suburbs and increasingly active voters, the massive voting bloc is one of the most volatile grounds for 2020. That's because it represents "a microcosm of America," Brookings Institute senior fellow William H. Frey told Business Insider.

"It's one that's changing over time," Frey said. "It increasingly looks more like America."

The motivated bloc of suburban voters will likely tip favor towards Democrats

Though exit polls found suburban voters were an important base for Trump in 2016, data since that election year has shown growing support for Democrats in the suburbs. An analysis of the 2016 presidential election and the 2018 midterm elections found that large inner suburbs (areas that are 75-95% urbanized) have more consistently supported Democrats, according to Frey's analysis of US Census Data and Davie Leip's Analysis of US Presidential elections.  Large outer suburbs (suburbs that are less than 75% urbanized) are still largely voting Republican, but the margin has decreased by more than 8% between 2016 and 2018.

 

"Even though Trump was not technically on the ballot" in the 2018 election, Frey said, a lot of voters consider the president's agenda while casting their vote, and this data could suggest a shift towards more Democratic support for the upcoming election.

According to several polls from recent months, Biden led Trump in the suburbs of several key battleground states throughout the summer. A Fox News Poll said in July Biden took a 50-41 lead over Trump among suburban voters in Michigan, 50-38 among suburban voters in Minnesota, and a 58-32 lead over suburban voters in Pennsylvania. A Fox News Poll from June recorded a 56-36 lead for Biden among suburban voters in Georgia and a 56-35 lead for Biden in suburban voters in North Carolina.

More white, college-educated voters are supporting Democrats — and they are moving to the suburbs

"One of the big stories in 2020 is that white, college-educated voters are becoming more Democratic than they were even in 2018," Li said.

In the 2016 election, exit polls showed that 48% of white college graduates voted for Trump while 45% voted for Hillary Clinton. In the exit polls for the 2018 midterm election, 53% of white college graduates voted Democrat. In June, a New York Times/Sienna College survey showed Biden holding a 55-34 lead over white college graduates — an 11 point increase from last October.

These white, college-educated voters have been making homes for themselves in the suburbs, where more millennials are moving to find affordable housing and an escape from the challenges of urban life.

In addition to younger, more Democratic voters, suburbs are facing another significant change that is disrupting the stereotypical image of suburbia as white.

While "white, college-educated voters who are a huge part of the suburbs are becoming less enamored with the Republican party and they're rejecting Donald Trump," Li said, "at the same time, the suburbs are becoming more non-white."

Demographic changes in recent years mean suburbs are no longer a monolithic voting bloc

Historically, "there was a real tight connection between the suburban ideal and that being a white space," said UCLA historian Becky Nicolaides told Business Insider.

"The suburbs arose as an escape from the city," Nicolaides said. White homeowners sought escapes from populations of working-class, racial minorities that dominated cities. Several political tools that shaped discrimination, like racially restrictive covenants and zoning, fostered for their "white flight."

Then, in 1968, the Fair Housing Act (FHA) legally prohibited segregation in housing. Although barriers to inclusive communities persisted through the following decades, Nicolaides said that the FHA was a turning point for racial and socioeconomic diversification in the suburbs throughout the 1970s and 80s.

"That post-war white suburban ideal that Trump has been talking about a lot, that just isn't reality anymore," Nicolaides said. "There's a lot of people of color in the suburbs. A lot of them are homeowners."

By 2016, people of color comprised around one-third of suburban residents, according to the Pew Research Center. From 2000 to 2020, the white share of eligible suburban voters declined from 82% to 68%, according to Frey's analysis of the Census Bureau's Current Population Survey.

In addition to changing the demographic landscape of the suburbs, efforts led by people of color are actively shaping the politics of their suburban towns.

Amanda Tapia, 26, and Veronica Hernandez, 24, who grew up in South Gate, a suburb of Los Angeles, are Latina and lead a group, "The People of South Gate," which calls for the defunding local police.

Their suburb has grown increasingly diverse. In 1980, South Gate was nearly 38% white, but in ten years that population dropped to roughly 14%. By 2000 the population fell to 6%, and the current non-Hispanic white population is at a little over 3% while 95% of the population is currently Hispanic or Latino, according to census data.

Even so, "the white, nuclear family ideals still remain in South Gate," Hernandez told Business Insider. Tapia pointed out that the remnants of South Gate's past as a white suburb still manifest in "antiquated policies and norms that were never built with us in mind."

Tapia and Hernandez's group has organized protests and informed the community on how to attend local council meetings.

But Tapia said they have suffered personal attacks from their community. Both she and Hernandez said younger, progressive community members have been dismissed as "uneducated" and "anarchist."

Many of the people in power in local government have been in power for almost all of their lives — for example, South Gate's mayor was first elected to the city council in 2003 and is currently in her third term as mayor since first taking on the role in 2006. 

Tapia said that it "unsettles" her to describe South Gate as a suburb while Hernandez said she "always associated suburbs with whiteness, but that's not what I saw around me." 

"My personal experience doesn't match this narrative of white suburbia and the image that comes to mind when I think of the suburbs," Tapia said.

Madison Hall contributed to data visualization in this report.

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