by Meredith Conroy, Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux and Erin Cassese, 538
Over the past few months, President Trump has framed the 2020 election as a defense of suburbia. In a Wall Street Journal column in August, he and Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson promised to protect the suburbs from being transformed into “dysfunctional cities.” And in a tweet several days later, Trump warned that suburban women should be wary of Democrats, as they would allow crime to drift into suburban communities. More recently, the president has grown less subtle, imploring suburban women at his rally in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, last week to like him. “[C]an I ask you to do me a favor, suburban women? Will you please like me? Please. Please. I saved your damn neighborhood, OK?”
The suburbs, in Trump’s telling, are under siege — and a Joe Biden presidency would transform them beyond recognition. But it might be that Trump doesn’t actually recognize what suburbia looks like today.
Establishing what constitutes a “suburb” is hard; there is no single definition, and what’s more, in the past 40 years, the suburbs have become much more diverse. This is bad news for Trump, as his vision of suburbia seems largely stuck in the 1950s — a manicured lawn, a husband heading into the city to work at a white-collar job, and a “housewife” tending to the children and preparing dinner. Only this version of suburbia doesn’t really exist anymore.
It wasn’t that long ago, though, that Trump had an edge among suburban voters. In 2016, Trump won them, 47 percent to 45 percent, according to an analysis of validated voters by the Pew Research Center. But by 2018, 52 percent of suburban voters supported Democratic candidates for Congress, compared with 45 percent who supported Republican candidates. And according to our analysis of polling data from Democracy Fund + UCLA Nationscape, Trump is losing suburban voters to Biden, by 54 percent to 44 percent.1
What is driving this move away from Trump and Republicans in the suburbs? According to our analysis of Democracy Fund + UCLA Nationscape data, beyond the diversification of the suburbs, it’s mostly because of white suburban women: 54 percent of them support Biden, while just 45 percent support Trump (very few are undecided).2 Meanwhile, white suburban men haven’t stopped backing Trump — he’s winning them 57 percent to 41 percent. (The reason we’re zooming in on white suburban voters is that nonwhite voters in the suburbs are much more likely to say they’ll back Biden — 83 percent of Black, 69 percent of Asian/Pacific Islander, and 57 percent of Hispanic likely voters said they supported Biden, according to our analysis.)
There is, of course, still a significant share of white women in the suburbs who are on Trump’s side (45 percent), but as you can see in the chart above, white men support Trump much more overall. And Trump may actually be reaching those men with pleas ostensibly geared toward women, according to Jane Junn, a political science professor at the University of Southern California. “When he talked about suburban housewives, I think the message was as much to men as it was to women,” Junn said. “It was a shoutout to their masculinity.”
One reason why white suburban men might be more receptive to Trump’s racially coded appeals and callouts to traditional gender roles is that white suburban men tend to score higher than white suburban women on questions of racial resentment and hostile sexism, even among Democrats.3The one exception to this, as the chart below shows, is among white suburban Republicans. In this case, men’s and women’s racial resentment scores are basically the same, which is somewhat expected as partisanship is a big driver of issues like racial discrimination and sexism.
However, white suburban Republican women were less likely to score high on the question we used to measure gender resentment, about whether women who complain of harassment often cause more problems than they solve. This signals that, compared with white men, they may be less receptive to Trump’s rhetoric concerning women this time around. And that could be a big problem for Trump since sexist attitudes strongly correlated with support for him in 2016.
The same is true of some of Trump’s core campaign issues, like immigration, which don’t seem to resonate as much with white suburban Republican women as with white suburban Republican men. Of the five issues we looked at, white Republican women in the suburbs were far less hard-line than their male counterparts. On some issues, like support for building a wall along the southern U.S. border with Mexico, there wasn’t much difference, but on the question of separating a child if their parents could be prosecuted for entering the U.S. illegally, the gap in support was huge: Just 25 percent of white suburban Republican women supported that policy compared with 46 percent of white suburban Republican men. There was also a sizable gap on support for the deportation of all undocumented immigrants.
While not directly related to the law-and-order rhetoric that Trump has been leaning into recently, immigration is a good example of why Trump’s presidency may have had a souring effect on white women, but not on white men. Claiming that immigration and crime are threats to the suburbs is a strategy that often works to remind white Republican women why they’re Republican, according to Jessica Trounstine, a political science professor at University of California, Merced, but this might not land with voters in the same way this year. That’s because the white women most likely to find Trump’s messages appealing are probably the ones who stuck with the Republicans in 2018. In other words, according to Junn of USC, the white women who abandoned Republicans in 2018 aren’t likely to be persuaded to come back based on this messaging.
White suburban men, however, don’t seem to be as badly shaken, and because their more traditionalist gender views make that retro vision of the suburbs more appealing, their support for the president might even be reinforced by his talk about suburban women. The trouble for Trump is that simply holding onto the votes of white suburban men isn’t enough — he needs to make up for lost ground among white suburban women, too. But with only two weeks left until Election Day, there might not be much he can do to bring them back.
Meredith Conroy is an associate professor of political science at California State University, San Bernardino, and co-author of “Who Runs? The Masculine Advantage in Candidate Emergence.” @sidney_b
Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight. @ameliatd
Erin Cassese is an associate professor of political science at the University of Delaware. Her research focuses on political psychology and the role of gender in American campaigns and elections. @ErinCassese