How the Suburbs Moved Away From Trump


Suburban counties across the country turned away from President Trump in this election. That includes suburbs in the Midwest and the Sun Belt, in inner-ring counties and those farther out, in predominantly white communities and more diverse ones.

Suburban counties that were already Democratic-leaning before 2020 tilted more so. And many that were deeply Republican nudged several points away from the president.

This graphic shows how these counties voted in preliminary results this year, compared with 2016. Collectively, they shifted up — toward Joe Biden. That movement, apparent across battleground states, has been crucial to his chances of winning the presidency.

How Suburban Counties Shifted to Biden

Note: The battleground states shown here are Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Texas and Wisconsin

On average, Mr. Biden improved on Hillary Clinton’s performance in these 373 suburban counties around the country by about 4.8 percentage points as of Friday morning, a margin that could change modestly with counting still underway (that average weights each county by population). In Georgia, the shift has been more than eight points. In Michigan and Wisconsin, it was about three points.

Nationally, these suburban counties were the places where vote margins changed the most from 2016. Mr. Trump improved his margins in counties outside of metropolitan areas, but by only about a point. Large urban counties, which are overwhelmingly Democratic, also nudged toward the president by about a point.

The suburban pattern follows a trend from the 2018 midterm election, when voters in increasingly diverse and highly educated suburbs swept many Republican members of Congress out of office. Mr. Trump made a strong effort this year to win back some of the suburban voters his party had lost, especially women, by campaigning on promises to protect their communities from rising crime and falling property values.

That message may have been cheered by Mr. Trump’s base. And Republicans won back some swing districts in the House. But for the president, the suburban overtures appear to have fallen short.

The suburban backlash to the president has been most clear across the Atlanta region, where a surge of votes for Mr. Biden helped push the state into his column as of Friday morning. More than a dozen suburban Atlanta counties moved toward Mr. Biden, who made gains even deep into the exurbs. In many counties around the region, he outperformed Mrs. Clinton by more than 10 points.

Close-in Cobb County, which voted handily for Mitt Romney in 2012 — and barely for Mrs. Clinton four years ago — appears solidly Democratic this year, even in local races. In Forsyth County, on the exurban fringe, Mr. Biden won only about 33 percent of the vote, but that constitutes a significant improvement from Mrs. Clinton’s 24 percent. In Forsyth and adjacent Cherokee County, Mr. Biden won the largest share of the vote a Democratic presidential candidate has recorded since Jimmy Carter in 1980.

Georgia’s emergence as a potential blue state this year doesn’t mean that Mr. Biden won white college graduates across the state; polling ahead of the election suggested he was unlikely to. But by improving his performance with that group across the suburbs, and by picking up even modest gains in more exurban counties, that can be enough to build a winning coalition in Georgia alongside the state’s large and strongly Democratic African-American population. That is particularly true given strong turnout this year in Fulton and DeKalb Counties in the heart of the Atlanta region.

In Pennsylvania, Mr. Biden benefited from gains in the Pittsburgh and Philadelphia suburbs, along with swings in much of the eastern half of the state. In Michigan, he broadened his advantage in Oakland County, outside Detroit.

In Wisconsin, Mr. Trump still won each of the three traditionally conservative suburban counties that surround Milwaukee: Ozaukee, Washington and Waukesha Counties. But all three favored Mr. Trump by less than they did four years ago, a key shift in a state Mr. Biden won by only about 20,500 votes.

The counties identified here are all within metropolitan areas with a population of one million or more. And they’re considered suburban if their tract-weighted household density is lower than about 2,000 households per square mile (we’re borrowing a classification developed by the economist Jed Kolko). Because some cities have relatively low population density, and are more suburban in character, some counties that contain central cities in a given metro area are treated here as “suburban.”

That’s true, most notably, with Maricopa County, home to Phoenix, where many residents describe their neighborhoods in government surveys as suburban. As of Friday morning, votes were still being counted there and across Arizona. But Maricopa County, as of that time, had shifted by about six points from 2016. That may yet be enough, in another battleground state, to help secure Mr. Biden a victory.

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