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Conservatives face tougher time in elections as urban burbs take on city trends

November 8, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
As urban suburbs grow, they tend to take on characteristics of the cities they surround. This shift in demographics has led these communities to lean more left in elections. Judy Woodruff speaks with Dante Chinni of the American Communities Project to put these trends into the context of the Virginia gubernatorial race.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Next, we welcome back an old friend, Dante Chinni, who was a regular contributor to the NewsHour during our coverage of the 2012 elections.

He now heads up the American Communities Project, a county-by-county look at the U.S. electorate. It’s based at American University. He studied the results of last Tuesday’s gubernatorial race in Virginia.

I spoke with him a short time ago.

Dante Chinni, welcome back to the NewsHour.

DANTE CHINNI, American Communities Project: Thank you for having me.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So tell us about the American Communities Project. What is it? And what — what are you focusing on when you look at the American electorate?

DANTE CHINNI: So, what we do at American Communities Project is, we’re using demographics.

A lot of people talk about demographics. But we’re also talking about demographics in communities, so different kinds of places in America, what kind of people live in those places, demographically speaking, and how they vote. And it gets beyond just white, black, different ethnicities, different races or even different income levels.

We’re trying to merge things together to identify different kinds of communities, with the idea that these different communities vote differently when election time comes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, well, a good example is the state of Virginia, which you focused on…

DANTE CHINNI: Absolutely.

JUDY WOODRUFF: … voted for governor and other offices this week.

So, let’s look right now at how you divide up the state of Virginia.


And so when you look at Virginia, Virginia is made up of many different kinds of communities. But as you can look at that pie chart, this pie chart shows the vote from Tuesday night. Some parts of Virginia hold a lot more people than other parts. And you look at these urban suburbs, urban suburbs, what we think of as Northern Virginia mostly, those areas primarily around Washington, D.C. — there’s also one down by Richmond, African-American south, large — large black populations, military posts, obviously. There’s a big military contingent in the state, working-class country.

The big parts in the state, though, are really these urban burbs that sit outside D.C., mostly in NOVA, and then the exurbs, which kind of sit beyond that. And there’s a big divide in those between liberals — liberal voting tendencies and conservative voting tendencies.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, as you looked at the vote — and you have gone back and looked at the numbers and divided — as you say, divided in these categories — why did Terry McAuliffe win?


JUDY WOODRUFF: What — what groups did he do well in?

DANTE CHINNI: McAuliffe, out of all those groups, only one won three. He won the urban suburbs. He won the African-American south and he wont college towns. But he won them by large amounts.

And, importantly, these urban suburbs, they are the biggest part of Virginia in terms of the population as we see it. And that other thing is, they’re growing faster. So, they’re not only the biggest part in terms of the biggest portion of the pie, when you looked at that pie. Their section of the pie is getting bigger and bigger. And that’s a huge — a huge advantage to McAuliffe.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, we know that he won, but by less than three points.


JUDY WOODRUFF: Ken Cuccinelli, the Republican, came — came closer than I think a lot of people had expected…

DANTE CHINNI: Absolutely.

JUDY WOODRUFF: … based on the polls.

Show us where he did well.

DANTE CHINNI: Well, Cuccinelli essentially won everywhere else in the state besides those three types.

But he did particularly well in these places. He did well in the exurbs, which there’s a lot of people in those exurbs. And, again, it’s the next ring out really in Washington, D.C., from the Northern Virginia suburbs to the exurbs. And it’s really interesting. You’re talking about counties that border each other, but the vote flips in most of these places. It goes from being Democrat to Republican.

That suburb-exurb line is where the vote flipped. And it’s where it flipped in 2012 and it’s also where it flipped on Tuesday.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Flipped from the last governor’s election?


DANTE CHINNI: Well, yes. Well, it flipped from Democrat to Republican.

The interesting thing is, when you look at this — this 2013 election as compared to 2009, Bob McDonnell won those places. In fact, he won them pretty handily. He won in Northern Virginia. So, McAuliffe didn’t just do better than Creigh Deeds, who was the Democrat back in 2009, did.

He didn’t just do better. He really, really overwhelmed the numbers that Deeds had and really just crushed Cuccinelli there. And there are so many voters there. That was what made it happen for him.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, what — as you look at this and you look at the whole country, what are the lessons here for Republicans and for Democrats?

DANTE CHINNI: Well, in my opinion — and there are going to be a lot of opinions because it wound up being fairly close — but when I look at these numbers, what it says to me is Cuccinelli, who’s a social conservative, but who ran as a strong social creativity — he didn’t run from the positions he had kind of espoused for a long time — it really hurt him in these urban suburbs, these urban suburbs around Washington, D.C.

The pattern that we saw here on Tuesday night is the same as we’re seeing in other big cities around the country. There are urban burbs around New York. There are urban burbs around Philly, around Detroit, Chicago, Denver. This pattern is popping up over and over again. And the fact that we saw them in a state election, not just a presidential election, is significant.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And so what is it about those urban burbs, as you say, urban suburbs, as you call them, that would make what Cuccinelli had to say, what his campaign was all about unappealing?


Well, what’s happening and why we call them urban suburbs is they are increasingly taking on the tendencies of the big cities next to them. They are growing more dense. They are growing better educated. They are growing wealthier, but also poorer at the same time. So the top end is growing, but the bottom end is growing.

They’re increasingly looking like cities. And as they look like cities, the vote is shifting Democratic and it’s moderating. It’s hard to be a strong conservative and win in those places. Moderates win in those places.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Any good message in here for the Republicans?

DANTE CHINNI: I think the good message for the Republicans, they held on to the exurbs. The exurb line has held for them. That is — when you look at what’s happened in politics in America I think over the last couple of cycles, the Democrats have held the cities and they have moved out and taken the suburbs.

And now the line now between Democrats and Republicans is the suburbs and exurbs. It’s fine that they held the line, but for them really to get back in the game in national politics and I think even in a statewide race like in Virginia, a purple state like Virginia, they have got to push the line back in. That’s the challenge for them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Dante Chinni, and it’s the Americans Communities Project. Great to you have back again.

DANTE CHINNI: Thank you.