Are the suburbs turning democratic?

October 25, 2019 — by Sabrina TaverniseĀ andĀ Robert Gebeloff

From the NY TIMES edition on Oct. 25:

EAST GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Dave Levitt became a Republican after getting his M.B.A. in 1990. Like him, Republicans valued fiscal conservatism, balanced budgets and free trade, “all the things you learn in business school that are good and help people,” Mr. Levitt said.

These days, Mr. Levitt, a 55-year-old real estate developer, finds himself angry with President Trump and alienated from the party. It is an evolution shared by suburban voters nationally, particularly well-educated ones, like many of his neighbors in East Grand Rapids, Mich., an upscale suburb a few miles from downtown Grand Rapids.

Lindsay Kronemeyer, 28, lives about 15 miles further out in another suburb, Dorr Township. An observant Christian and passionate opponent of abortion, Ms. Kronemeyer was indifferent at first, but now could not be happier with Mr. Trump, a president who she says “is on our side.” Hers is a distinctly suburban story, too.

It just depends on which kind of suburb.

The political dividing line in America used to be between cities, which were mostly Democratic, and suburbs, which had long been Republican. But today it runs through the very center of the suburbs themselves, between a densely populated inner ring that is turning blue and a more spacious outer ring that is becoming ever more red.

This is as true in Alabama as it is in New York: Rural places and newer suburbs swung for Mr. Trump, while urban places and older suburbs favored Hillary Clinton.

In 2016, those two suburban types fought to a near draw. Mrs. Clinton beat Mr. Trump by 5 million votes in inner-ring suburbs. He countered with a 5.1 million-vote advantage in outer-ring suburbs. This pattern tilted the race toward Mr. Trump in smaller cities, and toward Mrs. Clinton in big metro areas.

The Suburban Battleground

And for all the talk about Mr. Trump turning off suburbanites, to understand American politics, it is necessary to make sense of the two suburban worlds where 60 percent of Americans now live.

The very bones of East Grand Rapids are Republican: Gerald Ford grew up here. But these days it looks a lot like Mr. Levitt — more educated and less Republican. It is not as diverse as some neighboring inner-ring suburbs, but it is part of a demographic shift that defies all the traditional notions of suburban voters.

Ms. Kronemeyer is part of an equally powerful demographic trend — the rise of outer-ring suburbs, whose white population has grown by 25 percent since 1990, compared with a 1 percent decline in the inner ring.

While it varies somewhat from region to region, many of these places sprang up on what was, until recently, farmland and still look a lot like the rural areas that form the heart of Mr. Trump’s support — whiter, older, less educated. These are also the places that have grown the fastest over the past 25 years.

All of this has put the suburbs at the center of the nation’s political map in 2020. It is also scrambling old patterns. Mrs. Clinton did better than Barack Obama in Texas, Georgia and Arizona, states that have fast-growing suburbs thick with educated voters. In Michigan last year, two Democrats, Haley Stevens and Elissa Slotkin, won suburban districts that Republicans had dominated.

“It was a remarkable change,” said Amy Walter, national editor of The Cook Political Report. “You saw this happen almost across the board from Orange County to Houston, Atlanta, Seattle all in the same year. Suddenly there was no regional difference. It was the nationalization of suburbia.”

A Realignment Around Education
When Mr. Levitt moved to East Grand Rapids in 1994, it was almost entirely white, and conservative in a Christian Reformed kind of way — the church of the Dutch immigrants who settled here.

“Don’t mow your lawn on Sundays, that kind of stuff,” Mr. Levitt said.

Mr. Levitt, who is from Chicago, remembers being surprised to discover that even many city workers voted Republican. In 1996, Bob Dole got 57 percent of the presidential vote in East Grand Rapids, far more than the 41 percent he received in the rest of the country.

But that was not unusual. East Grand Rapids was an educated place, and educated Americans tended to be Republicans.

In 1994, 54 percent of white Americans with at least a four-year college degree identified with or leaned toward the Republican Party, according to the Pew Research Center. Just 38 percent associated with the Democratic Party.

But in the early 2000s, the Republican advantage in East Grand Rapids started to shrink. Manufacturing was closing and a bustling new medical industry had sprung up. Colleges and universities were expanding. Kent County, which includes Grand Rapids and its suburbs, has grown by 14 percent since 2000, and the population has become increasingly more educated.

Educated people were coming in. But something else was happening: Educated people who had been here for a long time were changing. By the early 2000s, white voters without a degree were drifting toward the Republican Party and white college graduates were going the other way. By 2017, the pattern that Pew identified in 1994 was practically reversed: Just 42 percent of well-educated white voters leaned Republican, while 53 percent preferred the Democrats.

“There has been a dramatic realignment among white voters by education,” said John Sides, one of the authors of “Identity Crisis,” a book about the 2016 election. “It is not an aberration. It is now a durable new feature of our politics.”

Party preference does not shift suddenly, but slowly as turnoffs accumulate. Mr. Levitt kept voting Republican for years, even in 2008 when Kent County went for Mr. Obama. Mr. Levitt may not have voted for him, but he was glad that someone was trying to do something about health care and climate change. And while he has been hunting with his son, he saw nothing wrong with an assault weapons ban, something Republicans opposed.

The beginning of the end for Mr. Levitt was the Tea Party movement, the populist surge whose stated foe was government spending, but which had an angry ethnonationalist edge.

“I thought, ‘These people are not my people,’” Mr. Levitt said. “I also thought, ‘It’s getting bad.’”

Mr. Levitt voted for Mrs. Clinton in 2016. But he does not feel like he fits in the Democratic Party either.

“It’s not like, ‘Oh gee, the Democrats can rejoice because there are more of us flying the Democratic flag,’” Mr. Levitt said. “No. It’s just that there’s a big group of us out here who are lost.”

That feeling extends to Mr. Levitt’s representative in Washington. Justin Amash, the congressman for Michigan’s third district, was the only Republican to call for Mr. Trump’s impeachment. He has since left the party.

“It’s like a Jell-O mix that’s still setting,” said Douglas Koopman, a political science professor at Calvin University in Grand Rapids. “There’s been the start of a realignment, but a lot is still up in the air.”

More Diverse Means More Democratic
White college graduates are only part of what is turning some suburbs blue. The other powerful force is rising racial diversity. Nearly 60 percent of all black people now live in suburbs. African-Americans, Hispanics and Asians together make up nearly one-third of the suburban population.

That diversity describes Kentwood, one of Grand Rapids’s largest inner-ring suburbs. When Dave and Barb Lubbers moved there in 1969, the Vietnam War was raging and the neighborhood was more than 90 percent white. The first immigrant family they remember — refugees from Vietnam — arrived in 1980. One daughter became a doctor and another a lawyer. “Very successful family,” Mrs. Lubbers said.

Refugees kept coming, in part because a large refugee agency, Bethany Christian Services, kept bringing them, and because churches, including those the Lubbers belonged to, kept settling them. A softball team from Cornerstone University sponsored a Congolese family. A packaging company sponsored a Burmese family. The local Rotary Club sponsored a family of Iraqis.

Mr. Lubbers, a retired bank vice president, has guided a Kenyan refugee through a mortgage application, helped a family from the Democratic Republic of Congo get their hot water turned back on, and most recently taught two Afghans how to drive in his aging Pontiac in a nearby cemetery.

“They missed every tombstone — it was great,” said Mr. Lubbers, who is 73. He said helping the refugees has been one of the great joys of his life. A picture of the two men, smiling and holding up their new licenses, is the screen saver on his cellphone.

These days, 40 percent of Kentwood is nonwhite. Mr. Lubbers likes that. He feels proud that the high school soccer team his son once played on — mostly white and relatively mediocre in the 1990s — is now one of the best in the state and is made up of immigrants from all over the world. There are 86 languages spoken in Kentwood Public Schools. New York Fried Chicken is owned by Chaldeans. A Christian Reformed church is now Nepali.

These changes have swept politics, too. In 2008, Kentwood tipped blue, and it never went back. Last year, Kentwood elected Monica Sparks, an African-American real estate broker, as its county commissioner, a seat that had been mostly Republican for years. Her campaign leaflets were in 12 languages.

Ms. Sparks, who moved to Kentwood in the late 1990s, describes herself as moderate. She opposes abortion. She grew up with parents who “believed in the Constitution, hard work and small government,” values that led her twin sister to assume they were Republican (they were not). Her sister, who owns the Candied Yam, a bustling soul food restaurant next to a Bhutanese grocery store, also ran in 2018 — as a Republican.

“I could have run as a Republican,” Ms. Sparks said. But, she said, she fits better with Democrats, and “when I look at President Trump and what he does and says, I would not want to represent that. Period.”

The Lubbers, who are Republicans, feel the same. So when they voted in 2016, they wrote in Mitt Romney and John McCain. It was the first time since 1972 they had not voted for the Republican candidate for president.

“I couldn’t have lived with myself if I’d voted for Trump,” Mrs. Lubbers said.

They were not alone. About 326,000 voters in Michigan in 2016 either wrote in a name, picked a third-party candidate or chose nobody at all. That is about 1 in 15 people who voted and about 30 times Mr. Trump’s margin of victory here.

Suburbs Where Republicans Still Rule
Democrats may be advancing in the inner-ring suburbs, but that does not mean they have conquered the suburbs over all. In many cities, the inner-ring advantage is not enough to counteract the powerful force of Republican voters in the outer ring.

Republican firewalls have held, at least so far, in many places with this outer-ring advantage — Charlotte, Indianapolis, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh. In others, Democrats have gotten very close. Houston, a metropolitan area of nearly 7 million, went for Mr. Trump by just 21,000 votes. In contrast, Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican candidate, won by 216,000 votes.

In Kent County, where three-quarters of voters live in suburbs, Republicans still have the majority. In 2016, Mr. Trump lost the inner ring by six points but won the outer ring by 23. Pam Hooker moved to the distant suburb of Byron Center with her husband in 1979 after visiting on a church hayride. She loves that her house is still close to fields of corn and squash. The area has many churches and a school system that Mrs. Hooker describes as conservative, just what she was looking for in a place to raise her family.

“I believe we escaped the big city because of the liberal influences,” said Mrs. Hooker, who is involved in the anti-abortion movement. “The less interference of government, the better off we are. Out here, we have more opportunity for that.”

At first, Mrs. Hooker was skeptical of Mr. Trump. She voted for Senator Ted Cruz of Texas in the Republican primary. (Mr. Trump came in third in Kent County.)

Today, she is pleased.

“It’s not that I agree with Donald Trump on issues,” she said. “It’s that Donald Trump agrees with my values.”

Ms. Kronemeyer credits Mr. Trump with reinvigorating the anti-abortion movement, which she believes “was dying to some extent.” The Supreme Court is now less lopsided thanks to Mr. Trump, she said, and religious people are feeling like they finally have some breathing room in the broader liberal culture, which she sees as disdainful of people like her.

“As a white conservative Christian, I feel like I’m the enemy in some people’s eyes,” she said.

For her friends who do not like Mr. Trump’s style, which she admits can be abrasive, she has this advice: “Just take out his name and look what he’s done for our community. Focus on his policies.”

Both parties need the votes of suburban women. Noreen Myers, who helped start a women’s group in the area in 2003, said the impeachment inquiry might be moving some independent women.

Those women are frustrated with Mr. Trump, she said, “and impeachment has given them the confidence to say that out loud.”

But Democrats’ actions have also repelled suburban women. Several brought up the Senate hearing of the Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh, which they saw as an offensive, partisan rush to judgment.

“I was checked out until then, and that just lit my eyeballs on fire and popped them out of my head,” said one woman, who asked for anonymity out of concern for her career. “I have two little boys and all I could think of was, ‘Is this where we are going to go?’”

Moments like that will bring wavering Republicans back to their party in 2020, committed Republicans argued. They say that with a looming vacancy on the Supreme Court, and open questions about the future of immigration, abortion and guns, the stakes are too high not to.

“When I talk to my Democratic friends, they are expecting some kind of mass exodus from the Republican Party, and I don’t feel that at all,” said Ryan Gallogly, a high school history teacher from Byron Center. “Eight years of Obama made winning a priority, and Trump wins,” he said.