Obama, King of Sprawl

MLewyn's picture

In recent years, a variety of commentators have treated national politics as a battle between city and suburb.  On the Right, some have accused President Obama of being anti-suburban. On the Left, others have emphasized the correlation between density and political liberalism.

But the 2012 Presidential election returns show a more complex picture.  To be sure, in the most conservative states (especially in the South), only the most urban neighborhoods are Democratic.   In swing states, however, President Obama steamrolled Republicans in much of suburbia.  For example, let’s look at two of the states that most closely mirrored national results: Virginia and Colorado.

President Obama of course carried the District of Columbia and its most dense Virginia suburbs.  But his support extended far beyond the transit-oriented, traditionally Democratic suburbs of Arlington and Alexandria.  He carried Fairfax County, home of sprawl Edge City Tyson’s Corner, by about a 60-40 margin.  He even carried Loudoun County, home of Dulles Airport, though by only a 51-47 margin.  These suburbs are hardly urban; Loudoun County has less than 600 people per square mile, and out of Loudoun’s 300,000 or so residents, only 1056 used a bus or train to get to work. 

Similarly, in Colorado, Obama carried not only Denver, but all three suburban counties bordering Denver (Adams, Arapahoe, and Jefferson).  All 3 counties have fewer than 800 people per square mile, and have transit market shares in the 3-4 percent range.

In both states, the Republican vote was less suburban than rural; small cities and the most remote, rural-like suburbs voted for Romney.  And in both states, the Democratic strength in the suburbs is a new development.  The last comparable elections were 2000 (in which George W. Bush lost the popular vote by a narrower margin than Romney) and 1992 (in which his father lost the popular vote by a slightly larger margin).  In both these elections, the Republican ticket carried Fairfax and Loudoun Counties in Virginia- Fairfax narrowly, Loudoun handily.  And in both these elections, the Denver suburbs were divided.  Similarly, in Colorado, the Republican ticket carried two out of Denver’s three major suburban counties in 1992 and 2000 (losing Adams)- but lost all three in 2000.

What's going on here? My guess is that as upper-middle-class jobs moved to suburbs, so did upper-middle-class people.  And highly educated professionals have been trending towards Democrats.  For example, Obama lost college graduates, but handily won voters with postgraduate degrees.


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