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Commentary: Suburbs' pain could swing election

  • Story Highlights
  • Lawrence Levy: Suburbs have provided swing vote in past 5 races
  • Suburban voters are feeling great economic pain, Levy says
  • Some took out sub-prime mortgages they couldn't afford, he says
  • Levy: Candidates should address economy, education and environment
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By Lawrence C. Levy
Special to CNN
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Editor's note: Lawrence C. Levy is executive director of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University, which is hosting the third and final presidential debate Wednesday night. A former columnist and editorial writer for Newsday, he has written widely on political and social change in the suburbs.

Lawrence Levy says suburban voters, feeling economic pain, could be crucial in choosing the next president.

(CNN) -- As they have for the last five elections, moderate "swing" suburbanites are almost certain to decide who will be the next president.

No wonder: More people live and vote in the suburbs than either cities or rural areas. And in these once rock-ribbed Republican communities, more suburbanites divide their loyalties between the major parties.

According to new research, the counties with the closest margins of victory in the last few presidential and statewide elections were all suburban -- most of them in the most competitive "purple" states, such as Ohio, Florida, Colorado, Nevada, New Hampshire and Virginia.

But suburban voting power has been on the rise for years. What's new in this election year is the surprising level of economic pain suburbanites are feeling and the extent to which it will drive their decision between Barack Obama and John McCain.

The economy has been especially tough on the least prosperous homeowners, many of whom are new immigrant and minority groups diversifying suburbia, who took advantage of -- or were taken advantage by -- sub-prime mortgage loans they eventually couldn't afford.

The plunge in the housing and financial markets, and the spiking of energy prices, have assured that the economy will be the top issue among rich and poor alike.

And the pain is real. The Hofstra National Suburban Poll indicates that almost half of all suburbanites have lost a job or know someone who has. In an especially stunning number, more than a third reported "living paycheck to paycheck."

No place is more dependent on the car than suburbia. And high energy prices have changed driving habits. About six in 10 suburban residents report cutting back significantly on how much they drive and on household spending to compensate for higher gas costs. One in five have switched to a different way of getting around.

The silver lining in this very dark cloud is that suburban communities, which once rejected higher-rise housing even around their commuter train stations, may now be more receptive if it will help create more walkable, sustainable neighborhoods.

Seven in 10 Obama backers in the suburbs say they have been hurt by the economy, compared with one in six McCain supporters. And the higher level of pain being felt by Obama supporters in swing counties such as Rockingham, New Hampshire, between Boston and Manchester, or Orange County, Florida, the home of Orlando and of part of Disney World, offers the Democrat a great opportunity.

Although the Suburban Poll showed McCain held a slight lead among suburban voters, a strong surge by Obama could give him almost all the states still considered up for grabs -- and a landslide.

But all is not lost for McCain in the suburbs. He could do well in places like Arapahoe County, Colorado, a newly competitive suburb of Denver, and Hamilton County, Ohio, whose suburban Cincinnati voters may be the most volatile in the most prized of swing states.

Both of these counties are doing better economically than the rest of their states. McCain can also take solace in that more suburban voters feel he shares their values.

In the end, however, neither candidate will succeed unless he reaches suburban voters, intellectually and viscerally, and relates to their concern about an economy that has clobbered them.

When politicians talk to suburbanites, tone and style can be as important as substance. They tend to be ideologically moderate -- fiscally conservative and socially progressive -- especially the fabled "soccer moms" who are the swing voters among swing voters.

Suburbanites turn off to extremism, alternately punishing Republicans and Democrats who stray too far from the middle of the road. As a bloc, suburbanites are the best educated and tend to be politically sophisticated.

They may complain about taxes, but they are willing to spend, especially on education and the environment, if they feel they are getting value for their dollars.

But the economy is, by far, the issue of the day -- elbowing out race, which before the economic downturn might have been more of a concern to voters in communities that remain among the nation's most segregated. Suburbanites will vote for the candidate they think can lead them out of this mess, white or black.

So first, McCain and Obama must show suburbanites, as Bill Clinton once did running during another recession, that they feel this new pain. They have to sound smart, but not sound like smarty pants.

Both Obama and McCain get this part, as they are trying to sound as sober and sympathetic as they can. And they're spending a lot of time in suburban battlegrounds. But they're not recognizing the deep problems the suburbs face -- beyond the current crisis.

One suggestion: The candidates might try to reach suburbanites by talking about the intersection of the economy, education and environment -- all issues suburbanites care about. They could show they know how these communities' economic future depends on the success of their schools (influencing the value of housing and the appeal of its workforce) and on the amount of open space, pollution and congestion (affecting personal health, commuting time and shipping costs).

In general, beyond any specific plan or policy, McCain and Obama should assure suburbanites that their needs won't be forgotten when it comes to federal priorities.

That's especially appropriate with the final debate on suburban Long Island, where 60 years ago a developer first brought mass-production techniques to home construction and altered the destiny of America and its politics.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.

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