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Robert David Sullivan

GOP's suburban advantage fading with time?

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Robert David Sullivan
July 7, 2008

IT'S OFTEN said that people get more conservative as they grow older, but places seem to get more liberal or, at least, more Democratic as they mature.

For several decades, the Republican Party has thrived in fast-growing communities, first in the West and then in the South. In 2004, President Bush won 84 of the 100 counties with the greatest percentage increase in votes since the previous presidential election, doing especially well in the low-density "exurbs" of Atlanta, Dallas, and Nashville. In Georgia's Paulding County, the number of votes was up 67 percent (from 24,000 to 40,000), and Bush won by almost 3 to 1. Statistics like these reinforce the impression of the GOP as the party of the future, ready to take advantage of American migratory trends.

So why is the Republican Party in danger of losing the White House? One reason is that while the GOP is popular in settlement suburbs, it seems to lose appeal when those suburbs mature and become more crowded. Consider another statistic from 2004. The 100 counties with the greatest raw increase in votes like Los Angeles, where a 9 percent increase in turnout meant 250,000 more ballots, split down the middle, with Bush winning 50 percent of them. Not only did Senator John F. Kerry win central cities, he also won older suburban areas such as Oakland County (close to Detroit) and DeKalb County (next to Atlanta). There seems to be a tipping point for suburban counties; when they get dense enough, Democrats promising mass transit become more appealing than Republicans promising to protect gun ownership.

The accompanying map shows where the electorate has grown the most over the past half-century - counties that in 2004 cast at least 10,000 votes and at least double the votes cast in the 1960 race between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon. In just about every major metropolitan area, Democrats are strongest in the center and Republicans fare best farther out, but the patterns depend on how long ago the suburbs began to grow.

In the oldest metropolitan areas, there are outlying counties that were solidly Republican in the 1960s and 1970s, but have trended Democratic as development has cooled down. (They include Barnstable County in Massachusetts. Southern New Hampshire, past its peak rate of growth, is heading in the same direction.) This phenomenon has had a significant impact on presidential elections. When California was one of the fastest-growing states, it was reliably Republican, but it became safely Democratic in the 1990s, when its population growth rate fell sharply.

This year, Senator Barack Obama, the Democratic presidential candidate, hopes that Virginia goes down the same road, though its slowdown has been more gradual.

Other areas are at earlier points in the process. Minneapolis and Indianapolis had relatively late population bursts in their suburbs, and Bush was still able to carry their "ring counties" in 2004. In Atlanta, as noted above, there's a political arms race, in which every Democratic gain in older suburbs has been more than matched by Republican gains in the ever-expanding outer area of the region; that's kept once-Democratic Georgia solidly Republican in presidential races.

Sprawl has kept Republicans competitive at the national level, but the "frontier vote" may be reaching its limit. The rising price of gasoline and a soft housing market (made worse by the foreclosure crisis) have had more people questioning the value of long commutes and mansion-sized houses.

A sharp reduction in exurban development would also choke off the GOP's most reliable source of new votes. The question would then be whether Republican candidates can modify their views enough to win back votes in close-in suburbs, such as those within Route 128 in Massachusetts.

If John McCain starts promising federal funds for subways, or comes up with a tax plan to benefit apartment dwellers, we'll know that we've reached the end of a political era.

Correction: The quote attributed to Pauline Kael in my June 30 column ("I don't know how Richard Nixon could have won. I don't know anybody who voted for him.") is in dispute and is probably apocryphal. According to The New York Times, she did tell an audience, "I only know one person who voted for Nixon. Where they are I don't know."

Robert David Sullivan, a guest columnist, is the managing editor of CommonWealth magazine.

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