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Have Republicans lost the suburbs?

The suburbs outside of Denver, Colorado used to be a Republican stronghold, but are now trending Democratic. The shift is part of a national trend, as voters in suburbs become younger, more diverse and increasingly liberal. Video by Getty Images

For decades, the National Western Stock Show was Denver’s marquee event. Cattle would take over the city, including the ballroom of the famous Brown Palace Hotel. In 1945, two champion steer were auctioned off in the hotel’s ballroom under a ceiling of Tiffany glass, launching an annual tradition. A bull escaped from the hotel one year and wandered down 17th Street, headed for the state capitol building, before being chased down by a bartender and a bellhop.

Back then, Denver was a regional agriculture hub, a “cow town in the truest sense of the word,” said Tim Thomas, a 63-year-old Denver native who works in real estate. The city was also a Republican stronghold, and before Colorado’s Front Range was paved over by subdivision after subdivision, so were its suburban outskirts. Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan—it didn’t matter who was at the top of the ticket. For years after World War II, suburban voters across the state — like a majority of suburbanites nationwide — overwhelmingly supported the party’s presidential nominee. Most were “Rockefeller Republicans,” a term that emerged in the 1960s for voters who were socially moderate and fiscally conservative.

But in recent years, the region surrounding Denver has undergone a cultural and political transformation. Farmland has given way to suburbs, and the population has swelled. Today, 83 percent of Colorado’s 5.4 million residents live on the Front Range—and unlike in the past, a majority of them vote Democratic. This shift is not unique to Colorado. It mirrors changes in much of suburban America. As a group, people living in suburbs — even in states that voted reliably Republican for decades — are younger, more liberal and more diverse than ever before, census data shows. A growing number are also less affluent, and are moving to suburbs because they can’t afford to rent or buy homes in cities.

“In 1950, if you said you lived in the suburbs, people would conjure up an image of a white picket fence, a single-family dwelling, car in the garage, two kids, mostly white and middle income. And if you said you lived in the city, you could be anything,” said William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution. “Now it’s almost reversed.”

These changes present a crisis for the Republican Party. The party came to rely heavily on suburban voters in the post-war era. Running up big margins in the suburbs helped Republicans neutralize the Democratic Party’s advantage in cities. But that balance of power began eroding in the 1990s, when Bill Clinton narrowed the gap in suburban counties where Republicans used to win by a landslide. Since 2000, Democrats have consistently won vote-rich suburban counties in swing states like Colorado, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

As the 2016 election draws to a close, both campaigns are focusing a lot of attention on suburban voters, and suburban women in particular. Hillary Clinton was leading with this crucial voting bloc before a video surfaced of Donald Trump bragging lewdly about sexual assault. Trump’s poll numbers dropped even further after his “locker room talk” defense of the video and performance in the first three presidential debates.

But even if Clinton carries the suburbs easily, Democrats shouldn’t take them for granted. Suburban voters could still swing back in the other direction, assuming Republicans find a way to win over left-leaning millennials. That could happen if the GOP moves to the center and cedes ground on a handful of conservative social issues, such as abortion, a shift that would have been unthinkable for the party just a decade ago. It’s a difficult pivot, but not impossible. “Political arrangements are inherently unstable. So are all demographic ‘locks,’” Paul Taylor, a former executive director of the Pew Research Center, wrote in his 2014 book “The New America”. He added, “circumstances change, history surprises, coalitions unravel, parties adapt. Just ask Donald Trump.”

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On a recent morning, Nathan Chavez met another Democratic organizer at a coffee shop near his apartment in Littleton, a suburb 20 minutes south of Denver, to map out their canvassing route for the day. With a plan in place, Chavez, who is volunteering for Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the state Democratic Party, drove his Subaru to a quiet, tree-lined street near the town’s shopping district. He parked and took a moment to review a list on his clipboard of likely Democratic voters who lived in the area.

VOLUNTEER – Nathan Chavez, 28, checked a list of likely voters during a recent door-knocking swing through Littleton, a suburb of Denver. Chavez, who is volunteering for Hillary Clinton’s campaign, is part of a growing wave of millennials settling in suburbs instead of cities. Photo by Janine Trudell


Chavez, 28, and his wife, Alicia, 29, grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The couple moved to Colorado last year in search of steady-paying jobs. Denver was their first choice for a place to start over, but it was too expensive, so they settled for the suburbs. So far, Littleton has exceeded expectations, said Chavez, who works as an insurance salesman. It’s affordable, and has a surprisingly hip downtown full of businesses – two pottery studios, craft beer bars, the “Ancient Art Health Center” – that cater to the town’s changing population. “I prefer the hustle and bustle of the city,” Chavez told me. “But we’re an easy walk to nearby restaurants and boutiques, and it’s also centrally located on the light rail.”

Once Chavez had identified the addresses he wanted to visit, he tucked his clipboard under his arm and set off down the street. His first stop was a modest, single-story grey house with dark blue trim. A Honda Civic hatchback was parked in the driveway. Stephanie Jones sat outside, on a small front porch, drinking coffee. Chavez walked up and asked Jones if she was free to chat.

“Are you supporting Hillary Clinton?”

“I don’t know yet,” Jones answered.

“So you’re still undecided?” Chavez asked.

The conversation lasted another few minutes. Then Chavez thanked her and went on to his next door-knock. I was tagging along with him for this story, and stayed behind to speak with Jones some more. She’s 32, and originally from Colorado. Jones bounced around the state, with stints living in Colorado Springs and Denver, before moving to Littleton for a job at a bike shop. She now works for Trek Bicycle Corporation, the bicycle manufacturing company.

As she sipped her coffee, Jones told me she was frustrated with the political status quo in Washington, and did not feel particularly loyal to either party. “I’m not super enthusiastic about a lot of politics,” Jones said. But given her options this year, Jones said she would probably vote for Clinton over Trump. “I’m a Democrat, if I had to identify myself,” Jones said. She added that she couldn’t bring herself to vote for a conservative candidate. “The social policies that Republicans tend to adhere to bother me,” she said.

Jones isn’t wildly liberal by modern-day suburban standards, but that’s a relatively new development. Republican presidential candidates won Arapahoe County, where Littleton is located, by an average of 33 points in every presidential race in the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s (with one exception, in 1964). Republicans won the rest of the state’s suburban counties by similarly large margins.

That changed in the 1990s. People began moving back to cities and suburbs, both in Colorado and across the country, for new jobs in growing fields such as healthcare and telecommunications. The tech boom brought new, left-leaning voters to suburban areas, sparking a political realignment that is still underway more than two decades later. Today, more and more people like Nathan Chavez are moving to the Front Range and other suburban regions, said Richard Wobbekind, a professor at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Leeds School of Business. “But they’re not going out there with the same mentality as they may have had 40 years ago.”


Keep a close eye on the counties around Denver and Boulder, the areas with the biggest impact on elections in the state. Roughly 83 percent of Colorado’s population lives in the Front Range region. Darker colors indicate larger margins of victory.

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This new suburban mentality has translated into changes at the ballot box. In 1992, George H.W. Bush won Arapahoe County by three points, a far cry from the GOP’s routine 30-point routs in the county under Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan. In the next three presidential contests, the Republican nominee also won the county by less than 10 points. Finally, in 2008, Arapahoe went blue for the first time in four decades. President Obama carried the county again in 2012, and Hillary Clinton appears poised to win Arapahoe this year. Some of Clinton’s support comes from longtime Republicans who don’t want to vote for Trump. But a lot of it is has to do with larger economic and cultural forces that transcend the candidates competing in this year’s presidential election.

“I have four sons. All of them graduated from the University of Colorado, all of them are millennials, and they’re all Democrats,” said Tim Thomas, the Denver native who recalled the capitol’s cow-town past. Thomas, a Republican-turned-Democrat, raised his sons in the suburbs. Now that they’re adults, he said, “they wouldn’t even think of being a Republican.” Chavez told me the same thing, in an interview after he finished door knocking for the day. “Let me put it this way. I disagree with a lot of things that Republicans stand for,” he said. “At this point in my life, the Democratic Party represents my views.”

* * *

Minority population growth in the suburbs has also helped alter the political landscape. Much is made of the rise of the country’s Hispanic population (which now stands at more than 55 million) and its growing importance in presidential elections. The top-line numbers matter, certainly. But they don’t tell us where people are choosing to live and why. The geographic distribution of minority voters matters, too—especially when it comes to winning the Electoral College vote, which hinges on targeted turnout efforts in specific communities at the state and local level.

The country’s three largest minority groups — Hispanics, African-Americans and Asians — are relative newcomers to the suburbs. As recently as 1990, whites made up 81 percent of the country’s suburban population, according to Frey, the Brookings Institution demographer, who documented these changes in a book called “Diversity Explosion: How New Racial Demographics are Remaking America”. The number dropped to 65 percent by 2010, and has gone down even further since. Eventually, like the rest of the U.S., suburbs will be majority-minority.

The white share of the suburban population is declining for several reasons. A generation of older white suburbanites is passing away; some younger whites are moving back into cities (a trend that has slowed in recent years); and the rate of minority migration to the suburbs is rising rapidly, to the point that minorities now account for most of the nation’s suburban gains. Between 2000 and 2010, Hispanics alone accounted for roughly 50 percent of all suburban population growth, according to Frey. The 2000s were also a turning point for “black flight” to the suburbs. During that decade, for the first time in history, the total black population in the country’s biggest metropolitan areas declined, as African-Americans in cities like New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. moved out to the suburbs. By 2010, a majority of Hispanics, Asians and African-Americans lived in suburbs, not cities, also a first. This shift has huge implications, Frey wrote in his book. “New minorities and their later generations are poised to become the backbone of future suburban growth in ways that will transform the nation.”


This transformation is already underway on Colorado’s Front Range, but also in places like Henrico County, the suburban strip mall-land around Richmond, Virginia. Indeed, the largest concentration of “melting pot suburbs,” according to Frey, is located in the South and West. Richmond’s suburban population is now more than one-third minority, split between African-Americans, Asians and a small but growing Hispanic community.

When I visited the Clinton campaign’s Henrico County field office in late August, a diverse group of volunteers were busy making calls to Democratic voters. Rodney Hall, a 50-year-old phone bank captain from eastern Henrico, said he believed an improved local economy was attracting a mix of new residents to the area. In 2014, Mondelez Global announced a $40 million expansion of its plant in Henrico, which manufactures Nabisco cookies, Ritz crackers and other snack food brands. Last year, Altria Group, a tobacco corporation headquartered in the county, also expanded its operation there. “Business is bringing in people from outside, and the demographics are changing,” said Hall, a former Richmond public school teacher. He said the changes have started to break down the long-standing racial divide between the eastern end of the county, which is largely black, and the western end, which is majority white, though he acknowledged that race relations are still fraught.

“I’ve seen attitudes change,” said Hall, who is African-American. “There was a time growing up when if you went to the west end of Henrico, being a black guy, people didn’t even talk to you.” Now, he said, “when you talk with different people, you find out ‘Oh, it’s the same issues I have.’ How do I refinance my mortgage? How do I make my other bills work?’”

Democrats have benefited enormously from Henrico County’s growing diversity. Henrico used to be Republican territory; in keeping with a now-familiar pattern, Nixon, Ford and Reagan all won the county by 30-plus points, as did George H.W. Bush in 1988. But four years later, Bush’s margin of victory slipped to 19 points. Bob Dole won the county by 13 points in 1996, and George W. Bush’s back-to-back wins came by an average of 10.5 points. Obama won Henrico in the next two elections by 12 points apiece. Clinton is expected to win Henrico this year, even if she fails to match Obama’s support among minority voters.

“Henrico is a microcosm” of the demographic changes happening nationwide, Cheryl Zando, the chairwoman of the Henrico County Democratic Committee, told me in an interview at a Starbucks near Clinton’s field office. “Republicans are keeping their traditional base of older white men, and that base is shrinking.”

Local Republicans are coming to terms with this in different ways. Eddie Whitlock, the chairman of the Henrico County Republican Committee, acknowledged that the county looks different today than it did three or even two decades ago. “There are non-white voters moving in,” Whitlock said, but “there are also voters coming into the county and the commonwealth of Virginia who vote conservatively regardless of their nationality or background.” He also noted that his group had recently launched a youth subcommittee to attract more millennials to the party. Within five days, more than 40 people asked to join, Whitlock said. He added, “We’ve never had a young Republican subcommittee. That to me shows that young people are interested in getting involved.”


The day we spoke, the Henrico GOP machine happened to be hosting a social event, and Whitlock invited me to attend. The evening meet-and-greet took place at a Vietnamese restaurant in a strip mall on the outskirts of Richmond. Whitlock had reserved a private room. When I arrived, a dozen or so people were drinking beer and snacking on a spread of spring rolls, dumplings, and other appetizers. All told, 20 people showed up. Of that, 19 were white and 15 were men. Just four of the attendees appeared to be under the age of 40. (An activist who attended the event insisted, on background, that the turnout didn’t represent the county’s Republican electorate).

One of the group’s younger members, Mallory McCune, told me that she believed the Republican Party needed to make some major adjustments, starting with a better outreach effort to millennial and minority voters. “I know a lot of people have been frustrated with this election year in particular,” said McCune, 23, who sits on the committee’s executive leadership team. “As a party we need to step up and grow with the changing dynamic of Henrico County and Virginia, and see how we can relate to people.”

Paula Escobar, a 20-year-old Ecuadorian immigrant who lives in Henrico County, is exactly the kind of person the GOP needs to attract to expand its base. Escobar works at El Jardin Latino Market and Restaurant, directly across the street from the Vietnamese restaurant where Whitlock’s event took place. Escobar told me that she couldn’t imagine voting for a Republican presidential candidate, in part for policy reasons, but also because she felt ignored by the party. Escobar said that she hadn’t seen a single Republican field organizer in her Latino neighborhood this year. “They’ve never reached out to us,” she said. “They’ve never tried to reach out, going door to door to the Latino community.”

* * *

The demographics are trending in the Democratic Party’s direction. But what if voting patterns change, or the Republican Party adapts, as McCune suggested? Millennials, for one thing, could become more conservative as they age. Experts have long argued that people shift right as they get older and their expenses, including taxes, go up. “Think of the Baby Boomers that were in Woodstock in 1969,” Frey said. “A lot of Baby Boomers now vote Republican.”

But flip-flopping between parties is less common than we think, and, unlike voter turnout, it has little to do with age. In his book “The Next America”, Taylor, the former executive director of Pew, analyzed 70 years-worth of election results and found that party allegiance is heavily influenced by the era in which people reach voting age. A majority of people from the “Greatest Generation” — those born before 1928 — who joined the Democratic Party as young adults when Franklin D. Roosevelt was president continued voting Democratic for the rest of their lives. Most Gen Xers aged 50 and under who came of age under Reagan and voted Republican in their twenties remain committed to the party today.

Young voters’ attitudes appears to be hardening at an even faster pace in today’s hyperpartisan political environment. The 18 to 35-year-old millennial generation “came of age in the Bush and Obama eras and hold liberal attitudes on most social and governmental issues,” Taylor writes. Nevertheless, he added, “It’s an open question whether the liberalism of Millennials is “baked in” for the long haul or will succumb to the disillusionment many Millennials already feel as a result of their difficult economic circumstances.”

The same question applies to minority voters, both in the suburbs and everywhere else. “It’s not clear that Hispanics will always vote Democratic. The candidates will matter a lot in terms of drawing support from the Hispanic community,” said Mark Hugo Lopez, the director of the Pew Hispanic Center. Lopez noted that Reagan and George W. Bush both won more than 35 percent of the Hispanic vote. But here, too, the divide is solidifying—and not in the Republican Party’s favor. Hispanic support for Republican presidential candidates has been dropping, on average, for the past three decades. Asians, the country’s fastest-growing minority group, are also becoming more loyal to the Democratic Party. This election, Trump alienated many Hispanics, Asians, African-Americans and other minorities even further. After Trump, it’s hard to envision large numbers of minority voters backing a Republican president anytime soon.

It’s probably safe to assume that the Democratic base won’t change between now and the next presidential election. But the Republican Party might. There is little chance that Republicans will compromise their conservative fiscal principles. But they could move toward the center on social values. “That kind of pivot would be crucial to winning moderate suburban voters,” said Lily Geismer, a historian at Claremont McKenna College and the author of “Don’t Blame Us: Suburban Liberals and the Transformation of the Democratic Party”. At least some Republicans share this belief. Whether or not they can win control of the post-Trump GOP remains to be seen.

“We have to look at it in reality and say, most of our constituents don’t want to talk about social issues. [They think] abortion and same-sex marriage have been settled,” Steve House, the chairman of the Colorado Republican Party, told me. “Those are moderate Republican views, especially in swing states.” House said the party could support things like abortion and gay marriage without alienating its base, so long as the support is framed in a broader philosophical argument for limited government. A person’s private life “shouldn’t have anything to do with government,” he said. “I think you can make the argument that that’s as conservative as anything.”

House and other Republicans cited Cory Gardner’s successful 2014 Senate campaign as a model the party could follow going forward. After announcing his candidacy, Gardner, 42, dropped his support for an anti-abortion “personhood” ballot measure. He also embraced the wind energy industry, putting him to the left of most Republicans on climate change and the environment. The Denver Post endorsed Gardner, and he went on to beat his Democratic opponent, thanks in large part to a boost from suburban voters on the Front Range. “The Colorado suburbs have always been the way to victory,” Gardner said in an interview this fall. “And has it grown more so [in recent years]? You bet it has.”

Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky tried taking this approach on the presidential level, but his libertarian-themed 2016 White House run fizzled out. Trump is actually more moderate on some social issues than past Republican nominees, but his ugly rhetoric on race and gender have obscured that shift. Still, some Republicans are cautiously optimistic that the party is reaching a turning point.

In an interview, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida attributed his success in the Virginia Republican primary, where he finished a close second behind Trump, to his focus on issues like college affordability and taxes. “I think these things have appealed to people, [a] lot of whom perhaps live in suburbs, and so that might be an answer,” Rubio told me last month, when we spoke ahead of the first presidential debate. “I’ve always argued that conservatism is still very viable, and I think the right direction for the country,” Rubio added. “But it needs to lead us to policy positions that are relevant to the 21st century challenges of modern Americans.”

One takeaway from 2016 is that a more seasoned Republican like Rubio or Jeb Bush would have been a stronger general election candidate than Trump. But the party would be unwise to blame all of its problems on Trump alone, said Richard Armstrong, an attorney and Democratic leader in the suburbs outside of Charlottesville, Virginia. For the Republican Party, he said, “the message should be that the demographics have changed.”

Virginia’s Republican primary reflected the party’s predicament. Trump received most of his votes in rural counties in the central and southwestern parts of the state, where the population is stagnant or shrinking. Rubio won the biggest cities and suburbs in Virginia—the areas where population and voter turnout is growing, and where Clinton is going to win by wide margins on Election Day. That electoral map represents the future for both parties. Win or lose, Trump’s map represents the past.

Virginia maps were first published in The Virginia News Letter, a publication of the University of Virginia.