By Reihan Salam
NEW YORK Nov 27 In a post-election interview
with the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Paul Ryan, chairman of the
House Budget Committee and the GOP's 2012 vice presidential
nominee, said "the president should get credit for achieving
record-breaking turnout numbers from urban areas for the most
part, and that did win the election for him." Ryan's critics
noted that President Barack Obama also fared well in states like
Iowa, where the urban vote is relatively small. Some even
suggested that Ryan's remarks were a kind of racial code, in
which "urban areas" served as a stand-in for black and Latino
voters. Yet Ryan's observation speaks to a deeper truth that
should trouble Republicans.
Although rural regions dominate the map of the contiguous
United States, an overwhelming majority of Americans live in
urban and suburban areas. Democrats have long dominated dense
urban cores. But Democrats increasingly dominate dense inner
suburbs-as opposed to sprawling outer suburbs, where Republicans
still hold their own-as well, and the share of the population
concentrated in dense suburban counties is steadily increasing.
This is true not only among Latino, black, and Asian voters
living in these communities, but of white voters as well.
Consider, for example, the political trajectory of Fairfax
County in northern Virginia, a dense suburban county with a
population of 1.1 million that lies just across the Potomac from
As recently as 2000, the GOP presidential candidate George
W. Bush won Fairfax with 48.9 percent of the vote to Al Gore's
47.5 percent. In 2004, though, Bush lost Fairfax to John Kerry
45.9 percent to 53.3 percent. Barack Obama won Fairfax by an
overwhelming 60.1 percent in 2008, and he won it again by an
only slightly less overwhelming 59 percent in 2012.
One of the most striking numbers from Fairfax is that George
W. Bush's winning vote total in 2000 - 202,181 - is an eerily
close match for Mitt Romney's losing total in 2012 - 206,733. It
just so happens that Obama won 315,273 votes in 2012. And
Fairfax is hardly alone.
Orange County, California-once a hotbed of Goldwaterite
conservatism-backed Mitt Romney by 51.9 percent of the vote, a
sharp decline from the 55.8 percent support George W. Bush
received in 2000.
You'll find the same pattern in Wake County, North Carolina,
DuPage County, Illinois and Jefferson County, Colorado and other
populous inner suburban counties across the country.
In The Emerging Democratic Majority, John Judis and Ruy
Teixeira referred to these communities as post-industrial
"ideopolises," in which economic life revolves around
college-educated professionals working in knowledge-intensive
services and the less-skilled workers who meet their various
Rather than fixate on ethnicity, conservatives would do well
to think more about urbanity. What is it about life in America's
densest, most productive, and most economically stratified
metropolitan areas that persuades voters to back Democrats? When
this phenomenon was limited to the populous coastal metropolitan
areas, it could reasonably be explained away as a product of
regional political polarization. But the leftward trend in urban
areas is chipping away at the GOP's advantage in the South and
the Mountain West as well.
Among conservatives, there is a broad post-election
consensus that America's demographic transformation represents a
serious challenge for a Republican Party that is
disproportionately backed by white Anglos and voters over the
age of 65.
Thus many on the right have called on congressional
Republicans to embrace comprehensive immigration reform as part
of a larger effort to woo Latino voters. The pushback has been
that Latino voters tend to be less affluent and more likely to
rely on anti-poverty programs such as SNAP and Medicaid, and so
it is hardly surprising that they are more inclined to support
What is more striking, however, is that Asian-American
voters, a relatively affluent group, favored Obama by 73 percent
to 26 percent. One possible explanation is that Asian-Americans
are heavily concentrated in dense coastal regions, where they
vote much like white Anglos with similar educational profiles
and religious beliefs. That is, secular college-educated Asian
Americans appear to be about as hostile to the GOP as secular
college-educated white Anglos, which is to say very much so.
Embracing comprehensive immigration reform is relatively
easy for the right, leaving aside the question of whether or not
it is wise. Conservatives can feel relatively comfortable about
bracketing the question of immigration policy from core
ideological commitments. Many conservatives and libertarians see
creating a path to legalization for unauthorized immigrants as a
pro-market, family-friendly measure that should be defended on
its terms while others are willing to compromise on immigration
to keep taxes and spending as low as possible.
Crafting a political message that can appeal to voters in
dense cities and inner suburbs, by contrast, is far more
challenging for conservatives, as it will require a serious
rethinking of the GOP's approach to domestic policy.
For much of the postwar era, Republicans flourished in inner
suburbs, which were in many cases populated by families that had
fled the chaos and disorder of cities plagued by violent crime
and scarred by misbegotten urban renewal projects that drained
cities of vitality. The decades-long crime explosion and the
threat of urban riots created a new constituency for punitive
law-and-order policies and gun rights, and the GOP was keen to
seize the opportunity.
Yet over the past two decades, violent crime has sharply
decreased for reasons that are still not fully understood. Many
credit more effective policing strategies while others point to
broader cultural changes. Regardless of the underlying
explanation for the decline in crime, the politics of
law-and-order is no longer as salient as it was in the wake of
urban rioting or even at the height of the crack epidemic.
And so voters in the inner suburbs now focus on other
issues, like the quality of local public schools, traffic
congestion, and whether or not they are climbing the economic
ladder as fast as they'd like. Republicans are seen as staunch
opponents of tax increases, but most middle-income households
find that the tax burden is a less pressing issue than the cost
of medical insurance or even the cost of commuting. Lisa
Margonelli, author of Oil on the Brain, recently noted that a
typical family of four earning $50,000 will spend $7,900 a year
on cars and gasoline, a staggering sum that outweighs what this
same family spends on taxes and medical care.
So this will have to be the next frontier for conservatives.
Liberals have answers for inner suburban voters. They propose
raising taxes on the top 2 or 3 percent of households to
increase funding for local public schools and infrastructure; to
boost salaries for public employees while also expanding their
ranks; to offer subsidized insurance coverage to the poor and
the middle class; and to subsidize other expenses middle-income
families incur in the course of a lifetime.
The conservative reply is that this approach is not likely
to work, and indeed that it is a recipe for economic sclerosis.
Though this negative reply is, in my view, almost entirely
correct, it is not enough to win back the inner suburbs. Rather,
conservatives will have to explain how and why they can do a
better job of delivering high-quality public services more
efficiently. They need to demonstrate that they can successfully
tackle quality-of-life issues like traffic congestion that are
in many regions vitally important economic issues as well.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's push to reform collective
bargaining in his state is a good example of the kind of policy
conservatives need to champion. Yet this effort has to be
connected to a broader narrative about how to make America's
communities thrive. Until that happens, urban areas will
continue to sink the GOP.