The Republicans’ urban problem

November 27, 2012

In a post-election interview with the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee and the GOP’s 2012 vice presidential nominee, said “the president should get credit for achieving record-breaking turnout numbers from urban areas for the most part, and that did win the election for him.” Ryan’s critics noted that President Barack Obama also fared well in states like Iowa, where the urban vote is relatively small. Some even suggested that Ryan’s remarks were a kind of racial code, in which “urban areas” served as a stand-in for black and Latino voters. Yet Ryan’s observation speaks to a deeper truth that should trouble Republicans.

Although rural regions dominate the map of the contiguous United States, an overwhelming majority of Americans live in urban and suburban areas. Democrats have long dominated dense urban cores. But Democrats increasingly dominate dense inner suburbs—as opposed to sprawling outer suburbs, where Republicans still hold their own—as well, and the share of the population concentrated in dense suburban counties is steadily increasing. This is true not only among Latino, black, and Asian voters living in these communities, but of white voters as well.

Consider, for example, the political trajectory of Fairfax County in northern Virginia, a dense suburban county with a population of 1.1 million that lies just across the Potomac from Washington, D.C. As recently as 2000, the GOP presidential candidate George W. Bush won Fairfax with 48.9 percent of the vote to Al Gore’s 47.5 percent. In 2004, though, Bush lost Fairfax to John Kerry 45.9 percent to 53.3 percent. Barack Obama won Fairfax by an overwhelming 60.1 percent in 2008, and he won it again by an only slightly less overwhelming 59 percent in 2012. One of the most striking numbers from Fairfax is that George W. Bush’s winning vote total in 2000 — 202,181 — is an eerily close match for Mitt Romney’s losing total in 2012 — 206,733. It just so happens that Obama won 315,273 votes in 2012. And Fairfax is hardly alone. Orange County, California—once  a hotbed of Goldwaterite conservatism—backed Mitt Romney by 51.9 percent of the vote, a sharp decline from the 55.8 percent support George W. Bush received in 2000. You’ll find the same pattern in Wake County, North Carolina, DuPage County, Illinois and Jefferson County, Colorado and other populous inner suburban counties across the country. In The Emerging Democratic Majority, John Judis and Ruy Teixeira referred to these communities as post-industrial “ideopolises,” in which economic life revolves around college-educated professionals working in knowledge-intensive services and the less-skilled workers who meet their various needs.

Rather than fixate on ethnicity, conservatives would do well to think more about urbanity. What is it about life in America’s densest, most productive, and most economically stratified metropolitan areas that persuades voters to back Democrats? When this phenomenon was limited to the populous coastal metropolitan areas, it could reasonably be explained away as a product of regional political polarization. But the leftward trend in urban areas is chipping away at the GOP’s advantage in the South and the Mountain West as well.

Among conservatives, there is a broad post-election consensus that America’s demographic transformation represents a serious challenge for a Republican Party that is disproportionately backed by white Anglos and voters over the age of 65. Thus many on the right have called on congressional Republicans to embrace comprehensive immigration reform as part of a larger effort to woo Latino voters. The pushback has been that Latino voters tend to be less affluent and more likely to rely on anti-poverty programs such as SNAP and Medicaid, and so it is hardly surprising that they are more inclined to support Democrats. What is more striking, however, is that Asian-American voters, a relatively affluent group, favored Obama by 73 percent to 26 percent. One possible explanation is that Asian-Americans are heavily concentrated in dense coastal regions, where they vote much like white Anglos with similar educational profiles and religious beliefs. That is, secular college-educated Asian Americans appear to be about as hostile to the GOP as secular college-educated white Anglos, which is to say very much so.

Embracing comprehensive immigration reform is relatively easy for the right, leaving aside the question of whether or not it is wise. Conservatives can feel relatively comfortable about bracketing the question of immigration policy from core ideological commitments. Many conservatives and libertarians see creating a path to legalization for unauthorized immigrants as a pro-market, family-friendly measure that should be defended on its terms while others are willing to compromise on immigration to keep taxes and spending as low as possible. Crafting a political message that can appeal to voters in dense cities and inner suburbs, by contrast, is far more challenging for conservatives, as it will require a serious rethinking of the GOP’s approach to domestic policy.

For much of the postwar era, Republicans flourished in inner suburbs, which were in many cases populated by families that had fled the chaos and disorder of cities plagued by violent crime and scarred by misbegotten urban renewal projects that drained cities of vitality. The decades-long crime explosion and the threat of urban riots created a new constituency for punitive law-and-order policies and gun rights, and the GOP was keen to seize the opportunity. Yet over the past two decades, violent crime has sharply decreased for reasons that are still not fully understood. Many credit more effective policing strategies while others point to broader cultural changes. Regardless of the underlying explanation for the decline in crime, the politics of law-and-order is no longer as salient as it was in the wake of urban rioting or even at the height of the crack epidemic.

And so voters in the inner suburbs now focus on other issues, like the quality of local public schools, traffic congestion, and whether or not they are climbing the economic ladder as fast as they’d like. Republicans are seen as staunch opponents of tax increases, but most middle-income households find that the tax burden is a less pressing issue than the cost of medical insurance or even the cost of commuting. Lisa Margonelli, author of Oil on the Brain, recently noted that a typical family of four earning $50,000 will spend $7,900 a year on cars and gasoline, a staggering sum that outweighs what this same family spends on taxes and medical care.

So this will have to be the next frontier for conservatives. Liberals have answers for inner suburban voters. They propose raising taxes on the top 2 or 3 percent of households to increase funding for local public schools and infrastructure; to boost salaries for public employees while also expanding their ranks; to offer subsidized insurance coverage to the poor and the middle class; and to subsidize other expenses middle-income families incur in the course of a lifetime. The conservative reply is that this approach is not likely to work, and indeed that it is a recipe for economic sclerosis. Though this negative reply is, in my view, almost entirely correct, it is not enough to win back the inner suburbs. Rather, conservatives will have to explain how and why they can do a better job of delivering high-quality public services more efficiently. They need to demonstrate that they can successfully tackle quality-of-life issues like traffic congestion that are in many regions vitally important economic issues as well. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s push to reform collective bargaining in his state is a good example of the kind of policy conservatives need to champion. Yet this effort has to be connected to a broader narrative about how to make America’s communities thrive. Until that happens, urban areas will continue to sink the GOP.

PHOTO: The Empire State Building is lit up in democrat blue following the re-election of U.S. President Barack Obama in New York November 7, 2012. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see

You laid out some of the GOP’s problems very nicely, Reihan, but you’re a tad short on effective fixes. “Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s push to reform collective bargaining in his state is a good example of the kind of policy conservatives need to champion.” Really? That move almost cost Walker his job, and would have if the Democrats had had their act together; and it wouldn’t have gotten off the ground at all in urban areas where people actually value public services.

I know it’s a tough problem to solve because anything Republicans do to appeal to anyone but the angry old white voter is going to risk splitting the base and fostering third-party opposition, but please try harder.

Posted by PCScipio | Report as abusive

So now it’s the “urban areas\'” fault that Romney lost. Oh, please. What’s the big difference between a Democrat and a Republican down here in the real, everyday world? Education. Latinos, Asian-Americans, African-Americans and women from all of the above are more educated than they’ve ever been, and they pay attention to politics because they’re the groups Republicans have in their cross-hairs.

Everybody is trying to complicate this. The Republicans went *too extreme* this time, and the majority of people from suburbs, big cities, small cities, farms, etc., recognized and voted against it.

It isn’t their “message” that’s wrong, it’s the springboard for their message – a belief system of elitism, selfishness and superiority. And they say we feel “entitled”.

Posted by JL4 | Report as abusive

“Yet over the past two decades, violent crime has sharply decreased for reasons that are still not fully understood.” Really? They’re just not “fully understood” by pro-life conservatives who don’t want to acknowledge that Roe vs. Wade is a major reason for the drop in violent crime, though not the only one. There are fewer children born in unfortunate circumstances. Even the brightest in your movement , such as Mr. Salam, refuse to hear and acknowledge facts that they do not like. Conservatives will only see a comeback if they design an agenda based on FACTS!

Posted by asrinath3 | Report as abusive

@asrinath3 – Today’s Republicans don’t want to know how violent crime decreased in the past 20 years. They might be forced to acknowledge that s-o-c-i-a-l p-r-o-g-r-a-m-s may have had something to do with it. They might have to admit that investing in people pays off in the long-term, and not just investing in the Cayman Islands.

Posted by JL4 | Report as abusive

Paul Ryan’s comment is meant to reinforce the notion that Obama was the candidate of “those people” and “those people” alone. It isn’t about future strategy so much as continuing the idea that you are either with “us” or you are one of “those people” (non-whites of the inner city or Romney’s 47%). You are supposed to accept the entire ideological agenda as a whole without question or independent thought or be called a traitor to your kind (RINO or liberal). Keep a simple choice between the extremes without any consideration of gray areas, compromises, or complexities of the real world and Republicans should win.

Posted by QuietThinker | Report as abusive

Elitist views. Elitist opinions. It never fails to amuse me that you, a man of “color” can be so blinded to what the party of YOUR choice would do to you and those like you without a strong group of socially conscious and committed liberals that risk everything to protect your right to choose you political beliefs.

Too bad you can’t do the same for women and their reproductive rights (and at its most basic, CONTROL OF THEIR BODIES), and for our society as a whole. Instead you choose to take sides with those that want full entitlement to everything without paying ANYTHING.

Posted by jswain23 | Report as abusive


It’s because he’s never really suffered. Either that or he’s a bit of a whore willing to sell himself for a bit of a pay-check. I’m guessing both.

That said, writing this dribble certainly beats working for a living.

Posted by Foxdrake_360 | Report as abusive

Cites are monuments to what government can provide to a society. Republicans seems to think that government’s role is to transfer wealth to the less deserving. But in cities, local governments provide infrastructure from sanitary sewers to public transit to building code enforcement. The result is a vibrant place, full of cultural as well as economic opportunities that make life much richer. And it really can’t work without a strong government presence. And that requires that folks pay taxes.

How in the world can Republicans make their case in such an environment without fundamentally changing what they stand for?

Posted by Sanity-Monger | Report as abusive

White flight must be understood. These people leave urban areas in large part because they do not want to integrate with urbanites (for whatever reasons…which can’t be denied…it exists). They don’t want to integrate politically, culturally, etc…etc…; i.e. they don’t want the place they live to become more like the places urbanites live…and you cannot force them to…even through an election outcome where the urbanite majority wins, and the urbanites enact laws which try to confiscate their property to balance the scales as they see fit. Highly educated black flight from the ghetto is also a reality…for similar reasons. These people will eventually, over a period of time, end up cloistered in “fortress communities” / “fortress states”, and fight for “state’s rights” / local self-determination. Most Republicans will never move to many of the urbanite positions under any circumstances whatsoever. To think they will is to misunderstand the divide in our country.

Posted by sarkozyrocks | Report as abusive

It should be clear why Republicans don’t want the places they live to become like the places most Democrats live. See “The Best and Worst Run States in America”: nd-worst-run-states-in-america-150415625 .html The top of the list is entirely Red state. The bottom of the list is entirely Blue state (with exception of Arizona). A demographically-driven election result where the poorly run states win and try to force their policies will absolutely not cause people in well run Red states to modify their positions without serious conflict…a recipe for major social conflict. Disintegration of the Union??? We live in interesting times no doubt…

Posted by sarkozyrocks | Report as abusive

“What is it about life in America’s densest, most productive, and most economically stratified metropolitan areas that persuades voters to back Democrats?”

They are less responsive to right wing paranoia and the anti-intellectual appeals of today’s republican party. Follow the camo. When you’re out and about on any given day, if less than one in five hats is camouflage, that district is voting Democrat.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

I’m an Asian American voter and I agree with most of the above: GOP went too extreme and even though I do not completely agree with Democrat, I vote for them most of the time this time.

To me there is something more important than paying a couple more percentage in tax: my children’s future education. I also do not think their “them against us” mentality on all things immigration is helping them.

Posted by KingKongJunior | Report as abusive


Actually, Walker was never really in danger of losing his job. He increased his share of the vote. What a few readers of DailyKos told themselves didn’t really imapct on reality. If anything, Walker’s reforms have proven quite popular. Why? Because they were centered around improving quality of education for kids, keeping teachers hired, and the savings from bloated contracts was able to be used to help keep the state portion of Medicare solvent. Outside of the dailykos crowd and teachers unions (normally the same people), the left didn’t want to fight Walker on this. There’s a reason Obama stayed away.

I also find the views of the “tolerant” liberals commenting here quite amusing.

Posted by kmtierney | Report as abusive

so what are republicans left with — rural whites, primarily the elderly and the evangelicals

Posted by Leftcoastrocky | Report as abusive