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With Trump Off The Ballot, Republicans Look To Regain Votes In The Suburbs

Residents line up outside the Montgomery County voter services office in October in Norristown, Pa. Last year, Joe Biden ran up the vote margins in the collar counties of Philadelphia, including Montgomery.
Residents line up outside the Montgomery County voter services office in October in Norristown, Pa. Last year, Joe Biden ran up the vote margins in the collar counties of Philadelphia, including Montgomery.

The suburbs used to belong to the Republican Party. But those days are gone.

Driven by demographic change and increasing diversity, the political leanings of the suburbs have shifted. In many areas, those shifts accelerated in recent years, because a large number of suburban voters disliked former President Donald Trump. On top of that, a lot of them are turned off by a GOP that has fully embraced Trump-style populism and grievance, and an eagerness to put culture wars front and center.

The question for Republicans and Democrats alike, then, is whether suburban voters move at all back into the GOP tent, with Trump no longer on the ballot.

The two main parties trade voters

Political strategist Sarah Longwell — a lifelong Republican, but one of the key figures in the so-called Never Trump movement — describes the shift that's occurred in party coalitions as a trade.

She said the GOP is "trading what have historically been some of their key voters, which are college-educated voters in the suburbs. And they're trading them for white working-class voters in more rural and exurban areas without college degrees."

On the other side of the ledger, Longwell said, "Democrats are picking up in that trade college-educated suburban voters and especially women," while seeing declining support among white working-class voters.

That trend is having an outsize impact in many of the locations where key elections are decided — places such as the suburbs surrounding Phoenix or Atlanta or Detroit. Then there are the four collar counties outside Philadelphia — Chester, Delaware, Montgomery and Bucks — where the shift took hold in a big way in 2020, helping Joe Biden carry swing-state Pennsylvania on his way to the presidency.

Montgomery County Republican Party Chair Liz Preate Havey has watched this transition from red to blue play out. In some of the Philadelphia suburbs, the tipping point arrived in just the past few years. For others, that transition happened more than a decade ago. But Preate Havey said the shift actually began long beforehand.

"If you look at the trends, this has been happening for many, many years," she said. "When I moved into Montgomery County 21 years ago, it was already starting to change."

The reason, in part, was increasing diversity, especially in neighborhoods and subdivisions closer in to the city, but suburban voters were also always more moderate than the GOP as a whole. Outlying suburbs, which are still more rural, have remained reliably Republican.

"He's gone now"

In 2016, Hillary Clinton beat Trump in the collar counties, but not by enough to overcome Trump's strong showing in the state's rural areas. Clinton lost Pennsylvania, a state she couldn't afford to lose.

In 2020, Biden racked up huge margins in the Philadelphia suburbs, cementing his 81,000-vote victory in Pennsylvania.

Now, the two main parties are gaming out how to approach future elections in the state, starting with the 2022 midterms, when there'll be an open U.S. Senate seat and a race for governor headlining the contests.

Preate Havey said she thinks Trump's absence from next year's ballot will help Republicans do better in the suburbs in those statewide races. Her hope is that moderate voters — including Republicans and independents who just couldn't bring themselves to vote for Trump — will be open-minded in 2022.

"Now that they don't have Trump, who people voted against because they didn't like him as a person — he's gone now," she said, "and so people are actually looking at issues now and things that affect them on a day-to-day basis."

"Parent, taxpayer, homeowner"

It's hard to say if the suburbs are seeing a longer-term realignment. University of Michigan professor Matt Lassiter, a scholar whose specialty is the history of American suburbs, cautions that easy political labels don't always apply to these voters.

"I personally believe that their main political identities are not as Democrats, but are parent, taxpayer, homeowner," he said.

And while every election has its own set of issues that may dominate the debate, Lassiter added that the suburbs have their own overlay that shouldn't be ignored.

"The way they think about politics broadly is the things that we don't talk about a lot, like zoning, like school boundaries, that those things matter more at the local level than who they vote for every four years in a presidential election," he said.

That doesn't mean suburban voters don't have strong opinions in national elections, but that these kinds of local issues have a tendency to keep them closer to the middle of the political spectrum. And that's what gives Republicans hope that every election cycle, they can lure enough of them to make a difference in close races.

Voters wait in line to cast ballots outside the Bucks County government building in Doylestown, Pa., in November .
Mike Catalini / AP
Voters wait in line to cast ballots outside the Bucks County government building in Doylestown, Pa., in November .

Aligned against Democrats

Given what happened in 2020, there will certainly be an argument — and not just from the Never Trump elements of the party — that Republicans need candidates with suburban appeal. For many that would be a centrist.

But Montgomery County's Preate Havey counters that in contests for president or senator or governor, conservatives who appeal to Trump voters can do well enough in the suburbs as long as they don't alienate moderates the way Trump did.

"I don't think the answer is we need to go back to the centrist, Mitt Romney-type candidate in the suburbs. I really don't," she said.

Preate Havey said that Democratic policies will play a role as well. She points to multitrillion-dollar legislation Biden has championed in his first months in office.

"You know, the Democrats are providing us with a lot of far-left policies. Biden is not a unifier. He is not a centrist," she said. "And Republicans don't like what they see on the left. And some of those are Never Trumpers who don't like what they see."

She also is banking on history, which shows the party that controls the White House usually losing seats the next midterm.

For the record, Preate Havey does not think Trump will run for office again. She does, however, want him to stay involved and to work on behalf of GOP candidates up and down the ballot, including by helping with fundraising and by making campaign appearances.

Democrats adapt to life without Trump

On the Democratic side, the challenge becomes keeping independents and disaffected Republicans in the fold when Trump is not seeking office himself. That was a powerful motivator for driving turnout, and it may now be gone.

Marian Moskowitz is a Democrat and the chair of the County Commission in Chester County, just outside Philadelphia. She acknowledges that running against Trump won't work the way it did last time. "I don't think you can run a race in 2022 on Trump," she said.

She added the Democrats will be running on their record. That includes Biden's record as president, but also the performance of state and local elected Democrats.

And she said she personally thinks of Chester County as a purple county, neither red nor blue. It's a sign that she takes nothing for granted come Election Day.

But she allows that Trump has not disappeared as a device that Democrats can use to fire up their base. A lot of it depends on what kind of candidates Republicans nominate. If the GOP slate come 2022 is proudly waving the Trump banner, Moskowitz said, "Certainly, if they are pro-Trump people running, then yes, we're going to use Trump, I'm sure." She even chuckles just a bit as she finishes that comment, an indication that she'd relish the opportunity.

Such comments are a measure of how much Trump does still hang over things — for now at least — even out of office.

Moskowitz offers one more prediction when it comes to the Democratic vote: Women will continue to turn out in large numbers. She said they are motivated with or without the chance to vote against Trump, and she expects them to be a driving force in suburban politics going forward.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.