The Suburban Election

Source: Shutterstock | Photographer: Arina P. Habich

Forget the hackneyed language of “swing states.” While the electoral votes of red and blue states count, the factor that swings presidential elections one way or the other manifests itself at a far more granular scale. American politics shifts on a gradient of density—of people per square mile—not the political geography of states.

Cities vote overwhelmingly Democratic. Rural areas vote overwhelmingly Republican. This election, like the past few, hinges on the suburbs.

But—and this may be the biggest and most important but of all—our nation’s future hinges on one type of suburb in particular: older, closer-in, denser suburbs. Instead of talking about swing states, it’s more meaningful to talk about swing ‘burbs.

Donald Trump, of all people, understands this. It’s why he’s made so much noise about the suburbs, with his outlandish pleas for suburban housewives to thank him with their votes for saving their neighborhoods from poor people and minorities.

Rise of the Swing ‘Burb

Here’s the thing: the swing ‘burbs on which this election turns are far from the middle-class, white-dominated suburbs of the 1950s and 1960s that Republican strategist Kevin Phillips identified as bastions of the “silent majority” of conservative-leaning white suburban voters back in 1968. Today’s swing ‘burbs are ethnically and racially diverse, filled with more blue-collar and frontline workers than educated professionals, and suffering from increasing rates of unemployment and poverty. The fact is, they look more like cities than the traditional “Leave It to Beaver” suburbs of the past.

The lower the turnout in these swing ‘burbs, the fewer Democratic votes there will be.

These economically challenged swing ‘burbs were big factors in Obama’s wins and even bigger factors in Trump’s surprise 2016 victory. They tend to vote against the grain of their states. Distressed swing ‘burbs in red states tend to lean left, while distressed swing ‘burbs in blue states increasingly vote for the right. And turnout matters—the bigger the turnout, the more Democratic they tend to vote.

Trump understands that the battle for the presidency is decided by just these kinds of places. That’s why his administration has been trying to suppress and challenge voting by mail and make it harder for voters to get to the polls. It’s why they have been so intent on gerrymandering and pushed as hard as they did to bring the 2020 census to a premature close. The lower the turnout is in these swing ‘burbs, the fewer Democratic votes there will be.

The 800 Rule

The fact of the matter is that this election turns on density. In an eye-opening analysis of the 2012 election, Dave Troy identified the exact point at which places turn from red to blue: it’s where population density reaches 800 people or more per square mile. That’s the density of a typical suburb.

According to the framework for identifying cities, suburbs, and rural areas developed by urban economist Jed Kolko, urban areas have more than 2,200 households per square mile; a city center like Manhattan will be much denser than that. Suburbs range from about 100 to 2,200 households per square mile. And rural areas are those with fewer than about 100 households per square mile. “At about 800 people per square mile, people switch from voting primarily Republican to voting primarily Democratic,” Troy wrote back then. “Put another way, below 800 people per square mile, there is a 66 percent chance that you voted Republican. Above 800 people per square mile, there is a 66 percent chance that you voted Democrat.”

Dave Troy‘s analysis of the relationship between population density and voting patterns in the 2016 presidential election overlaid on voting pattern results from 2012 (in gray). | Courtesy of Dave Troy
Dave Troy‘s analysis of the relationship between population density and voting patterns in the 2012 presidential election overlaid on voting pattern results from 2008 (in gray). | Courtesy of Dave Troy

Density Is Destiny

Working with brilliant data analyst David Montgomery, I sought to put more flesh on the bones of this kind of geographic analysis. We broke down America’s 435 congressional districts into six categories based on their densities, from overwhelmingly rural to overwhelmingly urban. The places on which most elections turn are three types of suburbs: rural-suburban mix, sparse suburbs, and denser suburbs. Those are the real swing areas in America today. We call our measure the Congressional Density Index, and it will help determine not only who wins the presidency, but which party will control the House of Representatives and the Senate.

In 2020, density is our political destiny, and the suburbs remain key. This time more than ever, America’s swing ‘burbs will decide the future of our nation.

Blueprint principal urbanist Richard Florida

Richard Florida is one of the world’s leading urbanists. A noted researcher, professor, and entrepreneur, Richard has penned numerous articles and books, including the award-winning The Rise of the Creative Class and, his latest contribution to the field, The New Urban Crisis.


(Photo credit: Roshan Nebhrajani)


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