Arguably more than any other group, suburban voters were responsible for returning Democrats to majority control and Nancy Pelosi to the Speakership of the House of Representatives in 2018. In the hours following the election, Politico described the midterms as a “suburban bloodbath” for the GOP, with the vast majority of Democratic gains in districts adjacent to cities.
Just two years previously, then-candidate Donald Trump won the overall suburban vote by five percentage points according to exit polling. That margin fueled his razor-thin wins in the key “Blue Wall” states of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin and kept Arizona, Florida and North Carolina in the GOP column. Trump successfully capitalized on what has long been one of the key bastions for reliable GOP support. Since 1980, “Republicans have lost the suburbs only three times since 1980: in 1992, 1996 and 2008. Democrats won the presidency in all three of those years.”
With less than 50 days until Election Day, President Trump is betting big again on the suburbs, but recent polling suggests that it is a fool’s errand.
Taking a cue out of 1950s messaging, the president last month tweeted that “the suburban housewife will be voting for me” and went on to dog whistle his administration’s priorities with regard to housing policy. Before the president was tweeting these appeals, an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll had the incumbent “receiving just a third of the suburban vote – a significant decline from the nearly 50 percent of support he received in 2016.”
In addition to the public housing appeals, the president spent the summer tying his reelection bid to “law and order” messaging, again hoping to appeal to those “suburban housewives.” What the president has failed to realize heading into 2020 is that the suburbs are no longer the white enclaves of his youth. They have become “more dense, more diverse and less centered on nuclear families.” Indeed, the suburbs of 2020 look much more like the country as a whole.
Labor Day is traditionally the start of the general election campaign season in earnest, and we are just days away from the first presidential debate on Sept. 29 in Cleveland, Ohio. The president is continuing to take his “law and order” message to key battlegrounds, most recently in Wisconsin, North Carolina and Arizona. Of those states, Wisconsin is singular as both a must-win state for both candidates as well as the epicenter of unrest following the police shooting of Jacob Blake. Earlier this month, both the president and former Vice President Joe Biden visited Kenosha, Wis., bringing two very different messages to a community struggling to reconcile questions of race and policing.
Despite the president’s best efforts to portray himself as the tough-on-crime candidate, who will protect that suburban housewife and her family, recent polling suggests that the incumbent’s messaging is actually backfiring.
In battleground Wisconsin, a Fox News poll this month found that Biden is actually leading Trump by 5 percentage points among likely voters on the issues of policing and criminal justice. The Wisconsin poll mirrors national polling on this issue, with POLITICO/Morning Consult finding that “voters trust former Vice President Joe Biden over Trump to handle public safety, 47 percent to 39 percent.”
In recent days, the former vice president and his campaign have stepped up their attacks on Trump using this suburban frame to their advantage. In a speech this week in Wilmington, Del., Biden blasted four years of Trump’s failed leadership declaring, “You know what is actually threatening our suburbs? Wildfires are burning the suburbs in the West. Floods are wiping out suburban neighborhoods in the Midwest. Hurricanes are imperiling suburban life along our coast. If we have four more years of Trump’s climate denial, how many suburbs will be burned in wildfires? How many suburban neighborhoods will have been flooded out? How many suburbs will have been blown away in super storms?” It’s clear the Biden campaign is looking to flip the script on Trump’s attacks, especially in light of the president’s claims that Biden and the Democrats want to “abolish the suburbs.”
Nearly half of American voters live in the suburbs, so any path to the White House will flow directly through those communities. National polling this past month shows Biden ahead of Trump by more than 20 percentage points in the suburbs – and by a better than two-to-one margin among suburban women. If polling remains consistent over these next 50 days, it’s clear the suburbs will be another “bloodbath” for the president and the GOP if they don’t recalibrate their messaging in the closing weeks of the campaign. Indeed, those very “suburban housewives” whom the president has vowed to protect, will make him a one-term president.
Kevin Walling (@kevinpwalling) is a Democratic strategist, Vice President at HGCreative, co-founder of Celtic Strategies, and a regular guest on Fox News and Fox Business and Bloomberg TV and Radio.
Gallery: How does each state usually vote in the presidential election? (SMG)