Opinion

All Is Not Lost for Republicans in the Suburbs

Party can regain its suburban advantage with a clearer economic message

Supporters of Rep. Barbara Comstock, R-Va., cheer during an Independence Day parade in Leesburg, Va., in the suburban 10th District, which flipped to the Democrats this year. Republicans can regain their advantage in the suburbs by refocusing on household economic issues, Winston writes. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

OPINION — Will Ferrell once joked about his all-too-normal, stress-free upbringing: “Maybe that’s where comedy comes from, as some sort of reaction to the safe, boring suburbs.”

Safe? Boring? Not any more, especially not for Republicans this year. It was suburban voters — women and men — who voted Republican in 2010, 2014 and 2016 but leaned Democratic this year who played a major role in Republicans losing the House.

The suburbs represented 51 percent of the midterm vote — roughly the same as 2010 (50 percent) and 2014 (52 percent). There was a lot of debate before and after the election about suburban female votes and whether their vote would play a major role in the election outcome. It did. But they weren’t alone.

Both postelection surveys and the exit polls show that an identical 13-point switch by both suburban men and women was a crucial factor .

In 2010, the GOP won all suburban women by 5 points; in 2018, they lost them by 8 — a 13-point drop. But suburban men were no different. In 2010, Republicans won them by 23 points; in 2018, by only 10 — again a 13-point decline.

While there has been a lot of talk about the impact of the women’s vote, especially in the suburbs, one group has gotten less attention — suburban independents, who pose an even bigger challenge for the GOP. In this election, the biggest change in voter preference came among suburban independents who backed Republicans by 25 points in 2010 but went Democratic by 6 this fall. That’s an amazing 31-point change in eight years.

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Holding on to its edge

Republicans clearly have their work cut out for them in the suburbs. But some of the underlying fundamentals in the suburban electorate offers the party some hope.

In terms of party identification, suburban voters broke 33 percent Democratic, 36 percent Republican and 31 percent independent. Republicans can regain their partisan advantage if they can reconnect with independents. The GOP also holds an advantage in terms of ideology — according to the exit polls, 25 percent of voters in the suburbs self-identified as liberal, 39 percent as moderate and 36 percent as conservative. The suburbs, like the country, remain center-right in their politics.

Suburban votes listed their top three issues as the economy/jobs (slightly over 22 percent), health care (22 percent) and immigration (15 percent). In the Winston Group’s Winning the Issues postelection survey, when we asked voters to rank the top twenty topics or news stories discussed during the campaign, four of the top five were household economic issues such as jobs and the cost of living. With the right policies and the right messaging on those issues, the GOP could once again find suburban appeal.

We asked suburban voters to tell us what messages they heard from each party and whether those messages made them more or less favorable toward the party’s congressional candidate.

The top Democratic messages they heard were:

  • The Affordable Care Act/health care (54 percent more favorable/33 percent less favorable)
  • Allegations of President Donald Trump’s ties to Russia (24 percent more favorable/67 percent less favorable- 67LF)
  • Pre-existing conditions (54 percent more favorable/24 percent less favorable)

The Republican messages they heard were:

  • Immigration (34 percent more favorable/60 percent less favorable)
  • Economy/jobs (79 percent more favorable/12 percent less favorable)
  • Border/caravan (28 percent more favorable/67 percent less favorable)

As we saw nationally, the immigration message cost Republican suburban voter support while the economic message could have been a winning message if it hadn’t been overwhelmed by the Republican and media focus on the caravan, especially the final weekend before Election Day.

About twice as many suburban voters heard the immigration/caravan message as the economy/jobs message.

The winning message

Forty-five percent of suburban votes approved of President Trump, compared to 51 percent who disapproved. His economic job approval rating was more positive: 46 percent approved, 45 percent disapproved. But when asked whether President Trump’s policies or President Barack Obama’s were more responsible for the improving economy, Trump won that question 53 percent to 32 percent.

Forty-four percent of suburban voters said the country was on the right track, compared to 47 percent who said it was heading in the wrong direction. But when asked about the direction of the economy, these voters flipped with 52 percent saying the right direction and only 30 percent disagreeing.

Again, the Republican economic message was a winning one, but because the suburbs didn’t hear it clearly, the GOP lost its advantage.

Writer Harlan Coben once called the suburbs “the final battleground for the American dream.” The 2020 presidential election will be waged in 50 states but suburbs — from Philadelphia to Atlanta, Houston to Cincinnati, and into the West — will see some of the most critical fights.

Republicans need to re-engage with suburban voters on issues that matter to them — household economic issues — if they’re going to rebuild a majority coalition.

David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations, and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, and is an election analyst for CBS News.

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