Wealthy Suburbs May Not Hold the Key to 2010 Elections

BY Larisa Epatko  May 11, 2010 at 11:23 AM EDT

The nation’s wealthy suburban areas, places we call the Monied ‘Burb counties in Patchwork Nation, are often the fulcrum of election night.

Home of famously independent (or fickle) voters, the decisions voters make in the Burbs, which hold some 69 million people, can often decide an election. In 2008, a huge swing in the Burbs for Barack Obama – some 11 percentage points – were at the root of his winning the presidency.

But looking at voter trends and listening to comments in our Patchwork Nation communities, 2010 is shaping up to be a very different kind of election, one perhaps driven less by the wealthy, somewhat muddled middle and more by other kinds of places.

The 2010 trend most discussed by the news media, the angry voter, seems to be bypassing many of the Monied ‘Burbs. And as of this spring anyway, it seems many of the most heated congressional elections fights will be taking place in districts where the Burbs aren’t much of a factor.

Those numbers are subject to change, of course. The 2010 political environment seems very fluid. But for whatever reason, the counties holding many of the nation’s wealthy suburbanites don’t look particularly angry or engaged as the primary season comes upon the electorate.

Shrugs and sighs, not pitchforks

Out in Los Alamos, NM, a Monied ‘Burb county that swung to then-Senator Obama in 2008, there is some “buyers’ remorse,” resident James Rickman says in an e-mail, but it’s hard to get a grip on the voters’ plans.

“I guess if I had to say the one distinct, palpable change I have noticed — and this on both sides of the political spectrum — is that distrust of Washington and politicians and government in general is at an all-time low,” Rickman writes. “I suspect what may happen is we may see incredibly low voter turnout this time around. A lot of people seem to feel like elections no longer matter, and with hard times in the economy, I’m betting a lot of people may think they have better things to do with their time than to vote.”

Ron Dolin, who is head of the Republican Party in Los Alamos County, says he doesn’t see big anger either or excitement either. “Los Alamos will probably go GOP in the governor’s race unless the GOP candidate really screws up. Beyond that, there is a sense of fatalism that nothing that happens at the polls matters. Look at Massachusetts the GOP won the right to stop health care but the rulers passed it anyway.”

And up in Nashua, N.H., a very different Monied ‘Burb, there is also some uncertainty about what moderate voters will do. “I only hope that by the next election, that I’ll be able to support and vote for candidates who will truly represent me in Washington. (Right now, I’m not feeling really confident about that happening.),” writes Nashua resident Sandy Belknap. “I also have a lot of conservative friends. The ones who voted for Obama seem to be just as upset as I am right now re: their party and I think that the tea party movement will continue to force them to vote D[emocratic], so I see swing voter potential in mid term elections.”

What’s behind those attitudes? Remember that the ‘Burbs on the whole not only tend to be less ideological in their politics, they also tend to be wealthier. They have seen some of the bounce from the recovery before others – particularly in the rise in the stock market, where they tend to be more heavily invested than people in other places.

The Dow is up about 2,400 points since President Obama took office. And as this blog has noted in the past, there does not appear to be especially wide support of the tea party in the Burbs.

Less Impact

For Democrats in Washington, all of that may sound like welcome news considering the role the Burbs played in Mr. Obama’s election in 2008. But it’s not all positive for them.

Looking at the 29 House seats that analyst Charlie Cook says are true toss-ups for 2010, only nine of them have large Monied ‘Burb elements. The other 20 do not. And in fact those counties have large numbers of more exurban Boom Town and small town Service Worker Center counties. Those counties tend to lean more conservative and the GOP probably stands to do better in them.

And those are just the pure “toss-up” districts. When you figure in places that are only leaning Democratic or Republican – another 31 seats by Cook’s count – there are 12 more districts with sizeable Monied ‘Burb populations. On the whole, the overwhelming majority of congressional seats that Cook believes to be very much “in play” in 2010 are not big Burb districts.

That means one should be wary of stories about suburban swing voters this fall. They may end up being slightly less important. The Burbs may look to be a bit safer for the Democratic Party, but the real action in this election will likely be elsewhere.