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It’s true, of course, that suburban voters, once a GOP bulwark, have become more independent recently, and in some areas even reliably Democratic.
Montgomery County, Maryland, and Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, two upscale suburbs (one Washington, D.C., the other Philadelphia), went easily for Reagan in 1980. Reagan won the Maryland suburban county by more than 7 points while he was losing statewide by 3 points, and he won Pennsylvania’s Montgomery County by 26 points while he was winning statewide by just 7 points.
Fast forward to 2004, and the change is stunning.
Republican George W. Bush lost Montgomery County, Maryland, by 33 points at the same time that he was losing statewide by 13 points. Similarly, he lost Pennsylvania’s Montgomery County by more than 11 points at the same time that he was losing statewide by a less than 3 points.
Of course, not all suburbs flipped as much as the two Montgomery counties, and some newer suburbs (and many exurbs) show Republican tendencies.
Still, it’s reasonable to wonder whether suburbs will somehow be immune to dissatisfaction with the president and to voter angst about jobs and the economy.
“There is nothing about the suburbs that makes things better for us,” observed one smart Democratic strategist, adding that strong Democratic candidates certainly can beat weaker Republicans even if the political environment is difficult.
But even if upscale suburban voters care more about women’s and environmental issues and gay rights, and are willing to pay higher taxes than are more rural, downscale or exurban voters, it’s far from clear that suburbanites will show the Democratic bent in 2012 that they did in 2008. They too may punish the president for the economy.
Republican Sen. Pat Toomey lost Philadelphia’s four large suburban counties (Montgomery, Delaware, Chester and Bucks) by about 22,000 votes in his 2010 race — compared with Obama’s margin in the four counties of about 203,000 votes. And that suggests that last year’s national Republican wave was not without an effect even in suburbia.
Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.