The Democrats’ Tenuous Hold on the Suburbs
It Could All Come Apart in 2024
Democrats are feeling good about their prospects in 2024. There appears to be little interest in changing their party’s image, which remains pretty terrible in most voters’ eyes. As President Biden put it, when asked what he might do differently in the next two years to change voters’ perceptions:
Nothing, because they’re just finding out what we’re doing. The more they know about what we’re doing, the more support there is.
Well….maybe. So far it doesn’t seem to be getting through. A recent poll found that just 22 percent of voters in battleground states could name a specific thing that President Biden and the Democratic majority in Congress have done in the last two years that has directly helped them in their lives.
The reason for Democrats’ odd complacency may be found in the story Democrats’ are telling themselves about the 2022 election and what it portends for 2024. It goes like this.
The Republicans are a semi-fascist party in thrall to Donald Trump and the MAGA movement. Voters, sparked by the Dobbs decision and ongoing threats to democracy, realized this, especially suburbanites, and voted accordingly. Therefore, it is not a question of whether/how voters have been directly helped by Democratic rule but rather what Democrats can guard against from the other side. Since Republicans are hopelessly MAGA and will not change, Democrats should be able to run the same playbook in 2024. QED.
Time for a reality check.
Start with the demographic contours of the suburban vote. The idea seems to be that the suburbs are full of liberal, highly-educated voters who are likely to be permanent recruits to the anti-MAGA army. There are certainly some, but actually-existing suburban voters are quite different—and more complex—than this caricature.
Contrary to popular perception, less than a third of the suburban vote nationwide is made up of college-educated whites, the presumed locus of maximum appeal for anti-MAGAism. In fact, about three-fifths of suburban white voters are working class (noncollege).
It is widely misunderstood how vital the latter voters were to Biden’s victory in 2020. While suburban white college voters shifted around 10 margin points toward Biden, suburban white working class voters also had a solid 5 point pro-Democratic shift. Because of this group’s larger size, their shift toward Biden contributed almost as much to the Democrats’ improved margin over Trump in 2020 as suburban white college voters.
And just how liberal are these college-educated voters anyway? Overall, according to Gallup, just 30 percent of adults with a four year degree only describe themselves as liberal and 36 percent of those with some postgraduate education (the less numerous group) do so. Putting this together with the data about suburban demographics, this implies that perhaps one-ninth (a third of a third) of suburban voters are white college-educated liberals. Perhaps the figure is a bit higher but I doubt that it’s much higher.
To drill down a bit further, consider some illustrative data from once and future battleground states. In Pennsylvania, suburban voters are either around urban cores in large metro areas (Philly, Pittsburgh, Allentown, Harrisburg, Scranton) or in small metro areas (Erie, Reading, Lancaster, York, etc). According to analysis by William Frey of Brookings, the former areas are 58 percent white noncollege to 29 percent white college, while the latter areas are 64 percent white working class to 23 percent white college.
In Wisconsin, the situation is no different. Suburbs around Milwaukee and Madison are 53 percent white working class to 37 percent white college while Wisconsin’s smaller metro areas (Oshkosh, Green Bay, Appleton, etc) are 65 percent white noncollege to 25 percent white college.
And in Georgia, the Atlanta and Augusta suburbs are 49 percent white working class to just 19 percent white college, while the small metro areas (Savannah, Macon, etc.) are 42 percent white noncollege to 18 percent white college. There are large proportions of black and secondarily Hispanic voters in these suburbs but they are generally less liberal than white college graduates and more focused on economic issues (only 33 percent of black voters and 22 percent of Hispanic voters in battleground states could name a specific thing that President Biden and the Democratic majority in Congress have done in the last two years that has directly helped them in their lives).
This suggests that Democrats’ hold on the suburban vote—such as it is—is far more tenuous than might be implied by the popular image of socially liberal, college-educated suburban voters who can no longer countenance voting for the GOP under any circumstances. Democrats’ target suburban voters must necessarily include legions of moderate and/or working class voters who might not draw as much sustenance from a steady diet of anti-MAGAism as Democrats anticipate.
And just how much hold do the Democrats have on suburban voters anyway? In the AP/NORC VoteCast survey, the most reliable election survey available, Democrats carried suburban voters nationwide by a single point in 2022. That’s a slippage of 9 points from the Democrats’ 10 point margin in 2020. Interestingly, the slippage in Democratic support from 2020 to 2022 was actually larger among nonwhite than white suburban voters.
These data indicate strongly that Democrats might not be in quite the catbird seat they think they are with suburban voters and therefore with the 2024 election. But they appear to have a touching faith that the anti-MAGA playbook will work anytime anywhere. As Jenifer Fernandez Ancona of the leftwing voter mobilization group Way to Win puts it:
I don’t think these fundamentals are going to drastically change. The pieces are in place right now for us to be able to continue to grow this anti-MAGA majority.
But what if Donald Trump is not the candidate in 2024—surely a very real possibility and one that might complicate their playbook? No problem says Simon Rosenberg, noted Democratic optimist and militant defender of the anti-MAGA strategy:
Ron DeSantis is every bit as MAGA as Donald Trump. This idea that he is some more moderate version of Trump is just farcical.
Therefore, the anti-MAGA playbook will be just as effective and we will win. QED. And what of the Republicans who might run for President or in Senate races who aren’t Trumpy loons blessed by the Orange One? You guessed it:
[Republican X] is every bit as MAGA as Donald Trump. This idea that he [or she] is some more moderate version of Trump is just farcical.
Well, it does have the virtue of simplicity. But these results from a new national Marquette Law School poll should provoke some caution on this approach. The poll found that Trump would lose smartly to Biden in a rematch but DeSantis would tie Biden. And, very interestingly, the poll found that DeSantis would carry every educational group but postgraduates. He carries high school dropouts by 16 points, high school graduates by 12 points and both the some college and four year college degree only groups by 2 points. But Biden carries the grad school contingent by 23 points!
Hmm. Maybe the Democrats should exchange their anti-MAGA playbook for a normie voter playbook. It just might come in handy in 2024.