Why Democratic gains in the suburbs will outlast Trump

by Ryan Matsumoto

One of the most dominant electoral trends in the Trump era has been the polarization of voting by geography. In 2016, Donald Trump won the presidency thanks to historic gains with white voters without a college degree in the rural midwest. But in 2018, Democrats won back control of the House of Representatives thanks to increased strength with college-educated voters in the suburbs. And in 2020, Joe Biden rebuilt the ‘Blue Wall’ thanks to gains in the suburbs of Milwaukee, Detroit, and Philadelphia.

A key question moving forward is if Democrats will continue to excel in the suburbs, or if many of these anti-Trump suburban voters return to the GOP once Trump leaves the White House.

Although Trump has been a catalyst for Democratic gains in the suburbs, it is likely that these trends will outlast his presidency.

Trends in down-ballot elections

Looking at down-ballot elections, it seems like most of the suburban voters Democrats have gained at the presidential level are perfectly willing to vote for other Democrats down-ballot. Although there have been notable exceptions, gains at the presidential level have generally trickled down to House, Senate, and state legislative elections.

One key example is the Colorado Senate race. In 2014, Republican Sen. Cory Gardner was very competitive in the highly educated suburbs of Denver. Gardner lost Jefferson County by just 0.3 points and lost neighboring Arapahoe County by 2 points. But in 2020, Gardner lost Jefferson County by 14 points and lost Arapahoe County by 19 points.

Another example is the Georgia Senate race. Although some analysts have correctly noted that a potentially critical sliver of Joe Biden voters also voted for Republican Sen. David Perdue, Democrat Jon Ossoff did extremely well in the Atlanta suburbs. In 2014, Perdue won Gwinnett County by 10 points and won Cobb County by 13 points. But in 2020, Perdue lost Gwinnett County by 16 points and lost Cobb County by 11 points.

The Democratic surge in the Atlanta suburbs also extended to House races, where Democrats flipped Georgia’s 6th district in 2018 and Georgia’s 7th district in 2020. Democrats also flipped several state legislative districts in the Atlanta suburbs.

Increasing diversity and population growth

Much of Democrats’ recent strength in the suburbs is thanks to gains with college-educated white voters. While this group historically leaned Republican, it has shifted pretty decisively towards Democrats over the past four years.

But college-educated whites are not the only reason why Democrats have improved in the suburbs. Two other important trends have also been at play: increasing racial diversity and population growth.

In Georgia, suburban Gwinnett County is now a majority-minority county at just 35 percent Non-Hispanic White, with substantial Black, Latino, and Asian populations. Gwinnett’s population has also grown 16 percent since 2010, well above the national average. The newcomers are generally younger, more diverse, and more highly educated than longtime residents, pushing these counties towards Democrats.

These demographic trends will continue no matter who is president, helping Democrats make major gains in suburban counties across the South. Gwinnett and Cobb counties in Georgia could very well follow the path of Fairfax County in northern Virginia, which flipped Democratic in 2004 and has gotten continually more liberal since. In 2020, it voted for Biden by 42 points, putting the entire state of Virginia well out of reach for Trump.

Historical and international trends

It’s also important to note that recent voting trends were already happening before Trump descended the golden escalator in 2015. In particular, the movement of white voters with a college degree towards Democrats has been happening since the 1980s. Although Trump may have accelerated this trend, it has still been happening independent of him.

We also see many of the same trends in international elections. As political analyst Evan Scrimshaw noted, highly-educated suburban areas in Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia have moved towards left-wing parties in recent years. The presence of this trend in other western democracies suggests it may be durable in America.

Trump’s influence on the Republican Party

Another important factor is that Trump will likely continue to be a major force in Republican politics. Although he lost his bid for re-election, he remains very popular with Republican voters. As long as that remains true, Republican politicians will try to gain his favor, adopt his positions, and court his supporters.

We are already seeing signs of Trump’s continued iron grip on the party. In Georgia, Perdue and Sen. Kelly Loeffler campaigned with the outgoing president in advance of the Senate runoff elections. Sen. Marco Rubio has advocated that Republicans create a ‘multiethnic, multiracial working-class coalition’ by building on Trump’s successes with working-class voters and adopting his more protectionist positions on trade. And earlier this month, Republican attorneys general in 17 states backed the president in his attempt to challenge the results of November’s election.

It’s also not impossible that Trump could run for president again. Recent polls have suggested that Republican voters would support the president if he sought the nomination in 2024. We could also see other Trump family members run for office in the 2022 midterm elections.

If Trumpism continues to be a dominant force in Republican politics, newly Democratic suburban voters who may have voted for Republicans in the McCain/Romney era may be reminded of why they left the party in the first place. And that would probably help keep them in the Democratic column for the foreseeable future.

Ryan Matsumoto is a politics and elections analyst for Inside Elections, which provides nonpartisan analysis of campaigns for Senate, House, governor and president. His articles have been published at FiveThirtyEight and NBC News, and he has been cited by The Washington Post, The Atlantic, New York Magazine and more. Follow him on Twitter @ryanmatsumoto1.

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