Are the suburbs the next political battleground?


JUDY WOODRUFF: We turn our attention now to another way demographic shifts are shaping this election.

The suburbs outside of cities like Denver, Colorado, and Richmond, Virginia used to be pretty reliable Republican strongholds, but now they are trending more Democratic. It's a phenomenon showing up across the country, with clear implications for this election.

The "NewsHour"'s Daniel Bush has spent time looking into what is behind the change, and he's with me now.

So, Dan Bush, you have spent, I know, a lot of effort and time looking at this. First of all, define what we mean by suburbs here.

DANIEL BUSH: Sure, Judy.

So, it's a broad category, obviously, but when demographers and others are looking at this issue, particularly in political terms, what they're talking about is towns and communities that are clustered in greater metropolitan regions around cities like Denver or Richmond, as you mentioned.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And so what did you find?

DANIEL BUSH: So, you know, as you said, for many decades after World War II, suburbs were predominantly white, predominantly middle or upper middle class and also conservative.

These are communities where people voted for Ronald Reagan or Richard Nixon by 30-plus points in many counties around the country. But what we're seeing in the last two decades especially is a demographic shift. Now suburban America is younger, more diverse and more liberal than it's ever been before. And it's having a clear impact on the way that these areas are voting.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, let's take those one at a time and start with younger.

How are the suburbs getting younger?

DANIEL BUSH: I was struck in doing some of this reporting by the amount of people I met who were millennials, people that are age 18 to 35 who live in suburbs not necessarily because it's their first choice.

Sure, there are some people who move out there for all the traditional reasons, for a bigger home, for a better public school district, but a lot of younger people would prefer to live in cities, but they can no longer afford to, because major cities like D.C., like New York City, like Denver and other places, have become so expensive, that it's hard to afford to live, to rent or even buy a home there.

And so they're settling in suburbs and they're bringing sort of a different culture and a different political attitude with them as well.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you're saying at the same time they're getting younger, they're also getting more diverse. How is that happening?

DANIEL BUSH: So, as recently as 1990, census data shows that 81 percent of America's suburban population was white.

By 2010, that number has dropped to 65 percent and it has gone down even further since then. So, as a result, we see that more and more African-Americans, Hispanics and Asians are moving to the suburbs, to the point that now all three of those groups, a majority of those groups live in suburban communities, not in urban areas.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And this may go hand in hand with the other two when you talk about getting younger and getting more diverse. But you're saying the suburbs are also getting more liberal.


As we heard in the last segment, these communities tend to vote more Democratic, whether it's African-American voters or Hispanics or millennials. Those are groups that vote in larger numbers for Democrats. And they're living in a place where, in the past, a majority of the voters were Republican, but now they're there. They're voting Democratic.

And we're seeing a really interesting shift play out all over the country. So, take a county, for example, like Arapahoe outside of Denver, where, through the '50s, '60s, '70s, and '80s, the Republican nominee was getting more than 30 percent of the vote in presidential elections.

By the '90s, that had dropped into the teens. Barack Obama won Arapahoe County for the first time in 40 years. Hillary Clinton is doing very well there. And we're seeing that same trend play out in key battleground states, from Ohio, to Virginia, to North Carolina, and beyond.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Dan, if this is what is happening across the country, what can Republicans do about it? How do they put out an appealing message with these demographics?

DANIEL BUSH: It's a good question, Judy.

This is something that the Republican Party is really struggling with. But there are people in the party who see the suburbs as a sort of key battleground that they can maybe win back or win over if they make a sort of new appeal to suburbanites, especially these younger, more liberal suburbanites that we're talking about.

So, people I spoke with said that if the Republican Party can move to the middle on some social issues, can focus more on taxes and the economy and so forth, instead of same-sex marriage or abortion, and other hot-button topics, they might be able to win over this new class of suburbanites.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And do you have a sense of whether that's already happening?

DANIEL BUSH: Well, it's hard to tell.

It is happening in some places. We're seeing Republicans are hanging on still in some suburban areas. I was down in Henrico County in Richmond, and that was certainly the case. But, overall, it's a big problem for them right now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Daniel Bush on the suburbs, thank you very much.

DANIEL BUSH: Thank you.

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