“How come the suburbs used to be so Republican, and now they’re Democrat?”
I’ve lived in Chester County in suburban Philadelphia since 1995. I was raised in South Philly and started out in politics campaigning for President Ronald Reagan. If I had a dime for every time I’ve been asked this question, I could afford to buy one of those Teslas scattered across so many driveways of suburbia.
Today, the more relevant question is: “Can Republicans make a comeback in the suburbs?”
The answer involves both tactical and cultural elements. To improve tactics, the GOP needs volunteers, money, and a campaign plan. Republicans have control of what they do here, and they need to make good choices: nominating quality candidates, developing effective mail-in voting, building coalitions with first- and second-generation Americans, reaching out to people who don’t agree with the party on everything, and ensuring that elections are run transparently and accurately counted.
On the other hand, changes in culture – along with changes in voters’ priorities – present a major challenge. Republicans need to understand that the culture has shifted in the suburbs and learn how to navigate this new landscape. Then they must try to change local culture, a daunting task.
Though often overlooked, culture drives politics and voting. And the Democrats now sit at the “cool kids’ table.”
That wasn’t always the case. In 2000, almost every Philadelphia-area suburban civic and nonprofit leader was a Republican or sympathetic to Republicans. Almost every elected official in our suburbs was a Republican. Their relationships with one another were mutually beneficial. Republican elected officials helped secure government grants for local nonprofits and attended their events – concerning everything from the arts to history, from fire companies to “open space.”
Republican elected officials won praise, got their pictures in newspapers, newsletters, and web-pages, and won awards from the nonprofits. This helped incumbents stay in office, as it made it easier for them to raise money to recruit volunteers and attract voters.
Today, the politicians and civic leaders are Democrats, or sympathetic to them, as are most boards of directors. Now the interconnected cycle benefits the Democrats.
A disproportionate number of active and retired corporate executives and nonprofit board members live in the suburbs. While it’s often said that Democrats win political support from disadvantaged people through social programs, it’s often overlooked that, in the suburbs, they enjoy a similar relationship with boards of directors of nonprofits, including universities.
Many don’t realize that corporate executives will go to great lengths to schmooze politicians for a five- or six-figure grant for their favorite charities. Like the single parent who becomes dependent on aid for his children’s food, C-suite executives become addicted to government grants awarded by local Democrats.
Democratic politicians and Democratic-friendly civic leaders use their platforms to advance and fund their agendas, values, and priorities. And many people want to sit at the “cool kids’ table,” especially in the suburbs. So, they attend the events, listen to the messages, and pose for the photos. And many eventually donate to Democratic campaigns.
Those of us active in political campaigns often forget that most people don’t think about politics 24/7. Many don’t have deeply held policy positions. People who live in the suburbs and make a nice living, who work 50 hours a week and are busy getting their kids to school and involving themselves in whatever outside activities they have time for don’t spend much time thinking about the war in Ukraine or the national debt. And, if they don’t have kids in school, battles over critical race theory or the choice of titles on school bookshelves are just background noise.
It is understandable that these apolitical swing-voters vote for the people they see at charity events or who their pickle-ball partner is talking about. They vote Democratic because “everyone is a Democrat,” right? Belonging is especially important in the suburbs.
In extreme cases, as we have seen here in Chester County, even former Republican Party chairmen will “switch jerseys” from “red” to “blue” to secure aid for their charities or to maintain pinstripe-patronage contracts.
The overwhelming majority of incumbent officeholders are now Democrats. Civic leaders and corporate leaders are now Democrats, or supporters of same. Local institutions are intertwined with and financially dependent upon Democrats. Contributions flow overwhelmingly to Democrats. The passive voter hears, sees, and is surrounded by all this.
This is a lot to overcome for Republicans. To turn the tide in the suburbs, the GOP must first improve its tactics and build coalitions with first- and second-generation Americans. Doing so will help somewhat at the local level, and perhaps in school board elections. But it will make an even bigger impact at the statewide level, where even a three- or four-point shift in the suburbs could lift a Republican to victory.
To work toward success on this larger scale, however, Republicans must recognize that they need to address the culture centers in the suburbs. The goal isn’t to persuade left-wing Democrats but to win over undecided voters standing in the cafeteria line, wondering if it’s okay to sit at the Republican table. We need to prove that our table is cool, too.