Presidential election contests are increasingly decided in the suburbs of major American cities. Whether discussing Bucks County, Pennsylvania; the “I-4 corridor” in Florida; Macomb County, Michigan; or Racine County, Wisconsin, suburbs are the site of the most pitched campaign battles for swing voters. So far, the 2020 race is no different.
However, to the extent the electoral map has expanded — into places like Gwinnett County, Cobb County or north Fulton County — in the race between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden, it is because of their competing appeals to these suburban swing voters.
Suburbs are increasingly competitive because they are increasingly diverse. Whereas suburbs were once largely the domain of middle- and upper-middle-class Whites who voted in large majorities for Republicans, suburbs are becoming more socioeconomically and racially diverse. There are more working-class voters, who tend to vote for Democrats, and college-educated voters are moving slightly in the direction of Democrats as well. Additionally, the nature of candidate-centered campaigns and the decrease in party identification among suburban voters makes for the perfect concoction of swing and persuadable voters.
In the 2020 race, the campaign appeals to suburban voters represent divergent views on who these potential voters are and what they want out of federal policy.
It is often the case that Republican and Democratic campaigns use different appeals to attract would-be swing voters, but their differences are often marginal and often quite subtle. In the case of the Trump and Biden campaign efforts to appeal to suburban voters, this could not be further from the truth. The differing messages emerging from the Trump and Biden campaigns stem from a difference in conceptualizing what suburbs are and who lives there.
The Trump campaign, as evidenced by the president’s tweets and statements at his rallies, sees the suburbs as havens for people who are fearful of crime and population density associated with major cities. The president’s statements about “suburban housewives” who want to be sheltered from “invaders” evince an image of the American suburb that may have been accurate a few decades ago but does not reflect most suburban residents today.
However, beyond the surface level, the president’s tweets and statements do strike at an important aspect of suburban living: housing and zoning regulations. As suburbs become denser, there is more significant attention on and response to changes to the regulatory environment. The Trump campaign’s calculation seems to be that these appeals will generate activity among those who would be most attuned to those changes, and these are the types of voters who they think are most likely to turn out to vote.
Contrary to the Trump campaign, the Biden campaign focuses its message to suburban voters primarily on healthcare rather than on suburban living as such. Recent polls by the Kaiser Family Foundation and The New York Times/Siena College suggest that the Biden campaign may be on the right track. Suburbs and their residents are not monolithic, but KFF polling focusing on Sunbelt suburbs suggests healthcare access and costs are a top concern, while the New York Times/Siena College poll from Midwestern states shows housing and zoning are not top-of-mind for voters. Though Biden and Trump split voters’ sentiments on the economy — another top concern among suburbanites — Biden is viewed more capable on dealing with healthcare and handling the coronavirus pandemic.
Though these conceptions of suburban voters and the issue they care about — zoning and lifestyle versus healthcare — diverge, the underlying theme among both campaigns is fear. The Trump campaign thinks suburban voters are fearful about the influx of new people and changes to their outlying communities. Conversely, the Biden campaign thinks suburban swing voters are going to be fearful about losing the guarantees for health coverage in the Affordable Care Act as well as the fear of the unknown regarding the ongoing pandemic. The question, again, turns on which of these campaigns is more accurately reflecting the mood and concerns of modern American suburban voters.
Furthermore, with the news of President Trump’s positive COVID-19 diagnosis, it is possible none of this messaging will matter. Now that the president of the United States has contracted coronavirus, voters may be primed to evaluate the campaigns on this issue alone. The question becomes how they evaluate it: Will they rally around the flag as happens in times of national crisis, or will they see this as a logical result of feckless leadership and pell-mell policy response since the pandemic began?
We will not be able to answer that question until after Nov. 3, 2020. Nonetheless, as the fall presidential campaign season heats up metro Atlanta’s airwaves, it is easy to see why. Metro Atlanta, like the long-watched suburban areas in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan and fellow Sunbelt state North Carolina, has an increasingly diverse population. Coupled with the movement of college-educated voters drifting more towards the Democratic Party generally, we see the amalgam of people in the Atlanta suburbs are exactly those swing, persuadable voters campaigns so desire to target. The trick for both campaigns is to find those voters, mobilize them with their message of fear about what the other candidate will do, and make sure more of their preferred voters cast ballots than voters motivated by the other campaign.
While these objects may seem straightforward, it takes a lot of effort and message repetition for a campaign to mobilize their voters. So, if you are tired of seeing campaign commercials on television and hearing them on the radio, settle in, because they are not going anywhere.