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What Even Are the Suburbs Nowadays, Anyway?

If you want to understand American politics, you need to understand how suburbia has changed in the last half-century.
January 16, 2023
What Even Are the Suburbs Nowadays, Anyway?
Vintage blue ink planographic view of ideal American suburban home; lithograph, 1933. (Photo by GraphicaArtis/Getty Images)

An underappreciated challenge of the present era in American politics—a challenge for policymakers, for candidates and their staffs, for pollsters, for journalists—is defining what now counts as “suburban.” Over the last half-century, suburban voters came to be recognized as a bloc distinct from urban and rural voters. By the 1992 presidential election, suburban voters were casting more votes than urban and rural voters combined.

But across those decades, the nature of the suburbs evolved. What we nowadays call suburbs look very different from place to place: The older suburbia of the Northeast is quite different from the newer suburbia surrounding cities in the West. We should not assume that the dynamics of age and race and income levels in the populations living in cul-de-sac-ville across the country are identical.

For example, I live in Lakewood, Ohio, the first suburb west of Cleveland, with a population of about 50,000. There are five bars within a few hundred yards of my apartment building, one of them a trendy hard-cider drinkery. There’s a 145-unit, eight-story senior citizen affordable housing complex across the street from me, which is next door to a Family Dollar store which is next to a busy Thai restaurant. GrafTech, a big carbon/graphite materials factory founded in 1886 and employing 200 people at this location, is close by. There’s an Aldi cheap grocery story just east of me, a pricier Whole Foods to my west, and Target and Walmart nearby.

Lakewood is 87 percent white, with about half of the population being college grads. It is the most densely populated city in Ohio (about 9,200 people per square mile), with a poverty level a little higher than the national average.

So how would a person who lives where I live be classified? The urban planners and political analysts would likely put me in the suburban bucket, since Lakewood is technically an inner-ring suburb. And given my age and race and location—60+ and white and Midwest suburban—there is probably no doubt in their minds that I am MAGA.

But I am not—and most of the other 50,000 people living here in Lakewood are not either: In 2020, Lakewood voted 75-25 for Joe Biden over Donald Trump.

What’s my point? The suburban voters in the 2024 election are thought to be key to who will be voted in as the next president, and some analysts are treating this large segment of the population as comparable to the national voter mix (40 R / 40 D / 20 independent), and not much differentiating between suburbs in different states and around different urban areas.

“Time for a reality check,” writes Ruy Teixeira, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and well-respected political demographer and commentator. “Start with the demographic contours of the suburban vote. The idea seems to be that the suburbs are full of liberal, highly-educated voters who are likely to be permanent recruits to the anti-MAGA army. There are certainly some, but actually-existing suburban voters are quite different—and more complex—than this caricature.”

So what is suburbia really in 2023, how has it changed, and how should we think about it politically?

First, the old suburbs in the Northeast and Midwest (both of which regions are losing population) are nothing like the newer ones in the West and South.

Second, the hub-and-spoke model of central cities and suburbs that surround them has been blown apart in recent decades, especially in places like Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Atlanta.

And third, though the suburban demographics are very different nowadays, the issues that matter are still, as they always have been, at the top of the lists of what suburban voters care about: education, public safety, affordable housing, transportation, fair pay. What’s not up there, at least based on the polls: the Big Lie, climate change, gentrification, and voting changes. Which suggests that in the 2024 cycle, “What have you done for me lately?” political thinking will likely predominate over matters of ideological identity.

Let’s deal with each of these points in turn, using as illustrations a handful of communities that, like Lakewood, have populations of about 50,000: Casa Grande, Arizona (near Phoenix); Winchester, Nevada (near Las Vegas); and Smyrna, Georgia (near Atlanta). These three communities and Lakewood are all labeled “suburbs,” but they have little in common.

The biggest change in who suburban voters are arises from a change some political analysts have a hard time getting their arms around: that while suburbs were founded based on geography, geography no longer defines them.

When the suburbs first sprang up in the mid-twentieth century—because of white flight, families wanting more space, people seeing bedroom communities as desirable—it was about place. You lived in areas outside the central city, and the kids went to school there, but the breadwinner (then usually a man) worked and the family (in the person of the housewife) shopped in the central city.

In other words, it was like the 1960s Dick Van Dyke Show, where the characters Rob and Laura Petrie (with their son, Ritchie) lived in New Rochelle, New York. Rob went into New York City daily to help write a TV show, Laura stayed home as housewife, and Rob’s colleagues Buddy and Sally would come out to the suburb for martini and charade parties on Saturday nights. (Buddy: “You know why your kid makes up these weird stories about being attacked by big birds?” Rob: “Why?” Buddy: “Cuz you live in the suburbs . . . if he lived in the city like any normal kid, he’d be attacked by a nice street gang.”)

That old notion of hub-and-spoke living is dead. Most recently, remote employment, which exploded during the COVID era, has the suburban house as the place you sleep and work. Social media brings the outside world to you (instead of you going to it). Forget needing to go into the city to shop; you can go to a box store to pick up any groceries and clothing and diapers and cat litter that you don’t already have delivered to your home. Health care offices and hospital care are likely to be close and self-contained; shopping centers and plazas are now the norm instead of gigantic shopping malls. And the car—be it electric or gas-guzzling—is still of primary importance. Two to a house.

Moreover, the suburban population has changed quite a bit, becoming more racially diverse and educationally inclusive. According to William H. Frey, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who keeps an eye on the ever-changing suburbs, the suburban population is “more racially diverse than the rest of the country as a whole,” with suburbs in the South and the West being more racially diverse than those of the Midwest and Northeast suburbs. “Black flight” has overtaken white flight in these growth areas.

Frey’s data breakdown of the metro areas shows how this diversity of the suburban population might have a big influence on the 2024 election. The suburbanites in the old swing states’ metro areas are majority white: Philadelphia (68 percent white), Detroit (73 percent), and Milwaukee (83 percent). By contrast, the metro areas that will be the presidential kingmakers this time around are not so much: Atlanta (44 percent white), Las Vegas (34 percent), and Phoenix (60 percent). These are three of the fastest growing metro areas in the country.

If you want to win the Electoral College votes of Georgia, Nevada, and Arizona in 2024, you’ll have to win those three suburbs—after all, the Atlanta area has 56 percent of the entire Georgia population, Las Vegas is 72 percent of Nevada, and Phoenix is 67 percent of Arizona, and those metro areas tend to be about two-thirds suburban.

Phoenix is a good example. Maricopa County voted for Mitt Romney over Barack Obama by 54-44 in 2012, went for Donald Trump narrowly (46-44) in 2016, and gave Biden the win (50-48) in 2020. In the recent runoff Senate election in Georgia, Sen. Raphael Warnock won the eleven-county (mostly suburban) Atlanta metro area by about 500,000 votes. Republican candidate Herschel Walker won the rest of the state by 410,000. The voting math of suburban Atlanta is front and center.

This brings me to my theory—a shortcut for understanding the suburbs in 2024, and perhaps a key to unlocking a win in the 2024 presidential election. Target and Walmart are, in many respects, very similar—but thanks to the little differences, the public perceives them as being very different. Walmart’s slogan represents the basics of household economics: “Save Money. Live Better.” Target goes with “Expect More. Pay Less.” The difference is ever so slight but very clear. If you shop at Target you are “trendy chic”; if you shop at Walmart it is because you are more “practical.” Money savings is important at both, but comes first at Walmart, and is secondary at Target.

This slight difference plays into where the two chains locate their stores. The data show that a typical Walmart is located in areas with less dense population, below-average income, and moderate economic activity. A typical Target is located in areas with higher population density, above-average income, and higher economic activity.

Target has a higher percentage of stores in the Midwest and Northeast than Walmart does. The South and West states have 68 percent of the Walmart stores. And Walmart does 56 percent of its sales in groceries, while Target does 20 percent.

These differences are huge because of the inflation that the country has been experiencing. Most Walmart customers are there for their grocery buying, and might pick up a few other things while there. Most Target customers are there to pick up clothing and kitchen utensils, and might grab a few grocery items while there. It’s low prices (Walmart) against fun finds (Target), or at least that’s how the marketing experts see it.

Victory in 2024 could hinge on identifying whether the suburban voters in the key Atlanta, Phoenix, and Las Vegas metro areas are more Walmart or Target customers. It appears to be that Atlanta is more Target-oriented, Phoenix more Walmart, and Las Vegas a mix.

So in metro Atlanta, a candidate’s best bet would be to focus on making better and more affordable housing, emphasize voting rights and racial equality, and talk about the 2026 World Cup soccer investment there (all definitely Target-style).

And among Walmart voters, like those of metro Phoenix, a candidate would do well to take local issues and make them practical (i.e., working to solve the Colorado River water crisis in Arizona). Play up that Las Vegas is a cool place to live (with their new sports teams), but that corporate responsibility is important for higher wages (a Walmart/Target mix).

The ability to tweak political messaging is hugely important, and in 2024, calibrating the message for the suburbs will be huge. In my state of Ohio, where Trump won easily in 2016 and 2020, and J.D. Vance won as well, the suburbs have a declining population due to outmigration, an aging population among those who stay behind, and higher poverty levels. These are old suburbs that are dying. But in the South and West, where the suburbs are full of younger and a more diverse working class—where electric vehicles might play big (especially if a four-figure tax credit is given), more highways are needed (and leaving the bike lanes rarely mentioned), natural gas will not be banned from stoves, and poor housing projects will be left in the central city—the locality of reasons to vote will matter.

So which party is better positioning itself for success in the suburbs in 2024?

Republicans are playing the “We won’t fund anything and we’ll investigate everyone” game. That never plays well in the long term.

As for the Democrats, going into 2024, the Atlanta, Phoenix, and Las Vegas metro areas will all be getting their share of the trillion-dollar infrastructure investment, pandemic relief, and economic stimulus cash cow that the Biden administration dropped. Those areas’ suburban voters are going to see shovel-ready projects begun, electric vehicle battery plants open, and chip and semiconductor manufacturing plants opening as well, as well as clean-energy job creation taking place. Already, the Biden administration is targeting such job creation in Georgia, Arizona, and Nevada. Because in the end, the American people like to eat and buy clothes and drive their cars.

Daniel McGraw

Daniel McGraw is a freelance writer and author in Lakewood, Ohio. Follow him on Twitter @danmcgraw1.