Suburban voters make a president, and they can break him, too

Trump gains on Clinton in once-solidly blue Michigan
Trump gains on Clinton in once-solidly blue Michigan

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Story highlights

  • Once again, suburban voters play a critical role in selecting the winner of the US presidential election
  • Lawrence C. Levy: Trump must listen to and address the concerns of his suburban electorate, or he will pay a price

Lawrence C. Levy is executive dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University and a former columnist and editorial writer at Newsday who has covered seven presidential elections. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.

(CNN)Once again, as they have almost every four years since they became the dominant voting bloc, the "swinging" suburbs picked the winner of a US presidential election.

But if suburbanites hold the keys to the White House, as well as control of Congress, these independent-minded voters also offer a doorway to winning after the election. If the President-elect and leaders of both major parties want to build coalitions for legislation, they will look to the centrist sensibilities of suburbanites for policy compromises that might isolate partisans on the far right and left.
Lawrence C. Levy
Neither predictably "blue" like Democratic city voters nor reliably "red" as their rural counterparts, suburbanites have migrated to the "purple" middle of American politics. And the winning national candidates are usually the ones who build a bridge to the 'burbs from their city or country bases.
This year, enough suburbanites leaned right toward their rural counterparts -- especially in a handful of the most competitive swing states -- to give the Republicans the presidency and continued control of Congress.
That wasn't widely expected. Many suburbs are becoming more diverse demographically and politically, with a surge of new immigrants and other minorities turning these places from red to purple, if not blue -- and doing so in local and state elections, as well as national. These places should not have been hospitable to Trump. And during the primaries, they weren't: Trump did relatively poorly in suburbs against his Republican opponents, even in states he won.
As expected, Clinton crushed Trump in many so-called "inner ring" suburbs in most of the competitive states. The suburbs immediately outside Cleveland and Columbus, Ohio, went strongly for Clinton. The suburbs outside Miami and Fort Lauderdale, Florida, also supported Clinton, along with those outside Denver and Las Vegas.
Even in two of the three arguably blue states that ultimately cost Clinton the election, Pennsylvania and Michigan, she performed as well as Obama did in most of the suburbs that ringed major cities. In Oakland County, a prosperous, GOP-leaning suburb of Detroit, Clinton maintained an eight-point edge. The "big four" suburban counties contiguous to deep blue Philadelphia provided Clinton with a collective margin of nearly 200,000 votes, more than enough to win that coveted state in a "normal" year.
But this wasn't a normal year.
According to exit polls, Trump took the suburbs nationally by 5 points. Even if that number should shrink as Clinton's lead in the popular vote expands, the margin is likely to be more than any presidential candidate since George H.W. Bush.
Trump did it by playing tactical hopscotch. His campaign skipped many of the near-in suburbs that lean more Democratic and focused heavily on "outer-ring" suburbs and rural-suburban places called "exurbs." He went after both wealthier lifelong "McMansion Republicans" and looked for the Trump version of "Reagan Democrats" in relatively poorer enclaves -- a number of whom had supported Obama and Bill Clinton. However hard she may, or may not, have tried, Hillary Clinton couldn't pry away the GOP loyalists or retain the blue-collar Democrats.
In Pennsylvania, where Clinton dominated Philadelphia and its inner suburbs, the story was different in the next rings out. Take Berks County, where Obama lost in 2012 by 1 point: Trump won by 10. In the exurb of Carbon County, where Obama lost by 6, Clinton was buried by 24. In Luzerne, which Obama carried by 5 points, Trump won by 20.
If Clinton had managed to hold onto outer suburbs that Obama won or had done nearly as well in losing them, it's likely she would be president-elect, regardless of the surge of voters in small rural towns.
Critical Counties — Jefferson, Colorado: The growing suburbs
Critical Counties — Jefferson, Colorado: The growing suburbs

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But now that the campaign and number-crunching is over, another arguably more important campaign has begun. And that is the one to move the country forward by governing.
The lesson in these numbers is that if leaders don't heed suburbanites, they could pay a price politically and miss an opportunity for sound policy.
Almost every one of the approximately 40 congressional seats identified by both parties as competitive this year were wholly or substantially suburban. They're filled with moderates who "vote the person, not party" -- but who will and do punish those who let them down with partisan or ideological lurches from the mainstream. The whipping that the Democrats took in 2010, when they lost control of Congress, isn't the first time presidents and parties faced a quick backlash to voters' remorse.
On the policy front, mobilizing these swing suburban voters and their representatives could pay dividends in generating bipartisan coalitions to pass major legislation on transportation, health care, environmental protection and other issues that less-centrist politicians wouldn't approve because they "went too far" or "not far enough." The same could be true in blocking controversial efforts such as rolling back abortion rights or workplace protections.
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If Trump wants to retain the affection of the suburbanites who backed him -- and perhaps gain among those, particularly in swing states, who rejected him -- he will pay attention to what's going on in these communities. Many suburbs are facing the same problems of the cities from which people once fled to outer counties: rising crime and drug addiction, more failing schools, crumbling infrastructure and inadequate health care for a growing portion of the population.
Yet, unlike cities in particular, suburbs are often a mishmash of small governments that may have been charmingly quaint a generation ago but are spectacularly unprepared -- fiscally, professionally and politically -- to deal with these complex and expensive problems.
In short, Trump and Congress need to disabuse themselves of the myths of suburban wealth and wellness that mistakenly make them a lesser priority for policymakers.