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Public Opinion Watch

by Ruy Teixeira
December 22, 2004

Ruy Teixeira
Ruy Teixeira

(covering polls and related articles from the weeks of December 13–19, 2004)

In this edition of Public Opinion Watch:

• The Exurban Myth
• Bah, Who Needs the Political Center?
• Social Security Privatization: The Reform That Isn't Needed for a Public That Doesn't Want It

The Exurban Myth

Exurbs have been getting a lot of attention in analyses of the 2004 election. According to some observers, Republican domination of these areas was the key to Bush's reelection victory and, because of the phenomenal level of mobilization in these fast-growing areas, Republicans should continue to out-point the demographically stagnant Democrats in the future.

A careful look at the data suggests to me that there is a great deal less than meets the eye to this thesis. I have already pointed out how exurban counties made only a modest contribution to Bush's net gain in votes in 2004 and how Republican domination of exurban counties is nothing new and was, in fact, more pronounced under Reagan than it is now.

An interesting angle I haven't covered yet is how mobilization in exurban counties stacked up to mobilization in other types of counties. In post-election analyses, mobilization and turnout in counties has generally been measured simply by comparing the vote in 2004 to the vote in 2000. The higher the percent increase in votes cast, the more mobilization has taken place, is the general assumption.

But this assumption is not warranted—it leaves out an important variable that affects the number of votes cast: population growth. The more population grows, the more votes should be cast, even if there is no change at all in the level of mobilization; more possible voters equals more votes, all else remaining the same. Therefore, if we are interested in the extent to which mobilization changed between the 2000 and 2004 elections, we need to measure the change in votes cast relative to the growth of the population between 2000 and 2004.

Once we measure mobilization in this way, exurbs do not appear to have been more mobilized than most other types of counties. Most of the 22 percent increase in votes cast in exurban counties, it turns out, is attributable not to extraordinary mobilization, but rather to population growth with ordinary mobilization.

In fact, my analysis shows that, relative to population growth, the increase in the vote in exurban counties actually was less (8 percent), than that of the central counties of large metropolitan areas (9 percent), counties in medium-sized metro areas (12 percent), counties in small metro areas (11 percent), or even most types of rural counties (9 percent to11 percent), except for the most extremely rural, where votes cast grew by only 5 percent relative to population growth.

These findings are yet another reason to examine claims about the political potency of exurban counties with considerable skepticism. Mark Gersh, head of the National Committee for an Effective Congress (NCEC) and leading Democratic number-cruncher, heads in the other direction, however, in his interesting article, "Battlefield Erosion," in the latest issue of Blueprint, the Democratic Leadership Council's magazine.

In this article he ascribes substantially more importance to exurban counties than I have done. The article is based around analyses of three key states—Ohio, Florida, and Pennsylvania—and he presents data that seem to implicate exurban counties heavily in Bush's wins in Ohio and Florida and Kerry's narrowed margin in Pennsylvania.

What explains the difference between his analysis and mine? Several things, actually, but the most important one is this: he defines exurban counties much more broadly than I do.

This difference in definitions raises an interesting question: what exactly do we mean by an "exurban" county anyway? How do we know an "exurb" when we see one? Surprisingly, despite the loose way the term is now thrown around, there is very little rigorous—or even semi-rigorous—discussion anywhere of criteria for defining an exurb.

But here are a couple of definitions I found on the web which fairly reflect the general view of the exurb:

"The expression "Exurbs" was coined in the 1950s to describe the ring of prosperous rural communities beyond the suburbs that, due to availability via the new high-speed limited-access highways, were becoming dormitory communities for an urban area [from www.wikipedia.org].

Exurb: A region or district that lies outside a city and usually beyond its suburbs [from the glossary of USINFO's An Outline of American Geography]."

Note that both definitions allude to exurbs being beyond the conventional suburbs—on the very fringes of metro areas and not suburbs in the standard sense. That is the idea that led to the identification of such counties as Douglas county, Colorado; Scott County, Minnesota; Loudon County, Virginia; Frederick County, Maryland; Pinal County, Arizona; Forsyth County, Georgia; and so on as exurban counties. These are the kinds of counties cited by David Brooks in his influential New York Times article on the exurban voter and that are included as exurban in my analysis, based on their status as fringe counties of large metro areas. I include 133 counties nationwide in my exurban category. They are also the kinds of counties included in a category of New Metropolis (Suburbs of Suburbs) counties developed by geographer Robert Lang. Lang enumerates forty-seven counties that fit this category.

In contrast, Gersh/NCEC designate thirty counties (!) in Ohio alone as exurban. How did they arrive at a definition of exurban so broad that it would generate so many exurban counties in a single state? I don't know the full answer to this since Gersh's piece in Blueprint includes no information on how he or NCEC define exurban counties. However, I did manage to get ahold of an earlier version of NCEC's criteria for typologizing counties and it indicates that pretty much any suburban county that does not contain a large city can be designated as exurban, if it is relatively downscale in terms of occupation, income and education or if it falls below a certain density criterion. (The current criteria apparently differ somewhat, but not by that much, from these earlier criteria.) This approach leads to a number of unusual results including:

1. Some entire MSAs (metropolitan statistical areas) are designated exurban, such as the Canton MSA in Ohio and the Pensacola and Sarasota MSAs in Florida.

2. In other MSAs, only the county containing the MSA's main city is designated "urban-surburban," while every other county is designated exurban or even rural. For example, in the Columbus, Ohio, MSA, only Franklin county is termed urban-suburban, while five other counties are designated exurban and two are considered rural. Similarly, all Ohio counties in the Cincinnati MSA are designated exurban except Hamilton county.

3. Medium-sized metro areas wind up being classified almost entirely as exurban or rural. In Florida, for example, there are sixteen counties in medium-sized metro areas. Of these, just three are classified as either urban-suburban (one) or suburban (two), while thirteen are classified as either exurban (eleven) or rural (two).

4. Almost no counties are simply designated "suburban." In Ohio, there are only three (compared to thirty exurban counties); in Florida, just five (compared to twenty exurban counties).

Gersh's article even refers to Hillsborough county, which contains Tampa, as exurban! (Note, however, that it is not displayed as such on his map of Florida, so perhaps his enthusiasm for exurbia was simply getting the best of him.)

This approach to defining exurbia is, in my view, simply too broad to be of much use. Collapsing all but the most urbanized parts of big metro areas, almost the entirety of medium-sized metro areas and outer suburbs everywhere into exurbia does considerable violence to the concept and clarifies little.

A geographer friend of mine comments as follows on the Gersh/NCEC approach:

"The NCEC criteria don't have much to do with any accepted notion of exurban, since they ignore the geographic requirement of being on the fringe of metro areas. Many of the counties listed as exurban are independent small metro or micropolitan areas. . . . It's "small urban" not "exurban."

In short, analyses like these create a big exurban problem for the Democrats by defining way more voters into that category than is really appropriate. By doing so, these analyses can say or imply "Democrats are losing because of those really fast-growing exurbs, so they are on the short end of the demographic stick!" instead of the less exciting, but more accurate: "Democrats experienced some slippage in suburban and small urban counties of all types and that contributed to their loss in 2004." The task for the Democrats is the familiar one of getting enough garden-variety suburban and small urban votes back to win; they need not worry about being overwhelmed by a demographic tsunami of Republican exurban votes.

Bah, Who Needs the Political Center?

Ipsos poll of 1,000 adults for Associated Press, released December 13, 2004 (conducted December 6–8, 2004)

Qunnipiac University poll of 1,529 registered voters, released December 16, 2004 (conducted December 7–12, 2004)

Bah, who needs the political center? Presumably that is the attitude in the Bush White House. Despite losing independents and moderates in 2004, they didn't lose them by enough to spell defeat for the president.

Well, they better hope that formula continues to work, because the administration is getting off on the wrong foot with the political center in this post-election period. Consider these results from recent polls.

1. In the latest Ipsos–Associated Press poll, 43 percent think that the nation is going in the right direction, compared to 52 percent who feel it is off on the wrong track. Not so good. But among independents a stunning 68 percent feel the country is off on the wrong track.

2. On Iraq, in the same poll, 48 percent approve and 50 percent disapprove of Bush's handling of Iraq. But among independents, 66 percent disapprove. And in the latest Quinnipiac University poll, Bush's approval rating on Iraq is a very poor 41 percent/55 percent overall but an even worse 37 percent/58 percent among independents.

In the Ipsos–Associated Press poll, 47 percent believe it is likely that a stable, democratic government will be established in Iraq, compared to 51 percent who don't. But only 36 percent of independents believe a stable government in Iraq is likely.

Finally, the Quinnipiac University poll finds the worst numbers ever on whether going to war with Iraq was the right thing for the United States to do or the wrong thing. Just 42 percent now say we did the right thing, while 52 percent say it was the wrong thing. And independents have an even harsher judgement: they say war with Iraq was the wrong thing to do by 55 percent to 37 percent.

3. On the economy, the Quinnipiac University poll finds the public disapproving of Bush's handling of the economy by 53 percent to 42 percent. Bad, but independents are substantially worse, disapproving of Bush's performance in this area by 58 percent to 37 percent.

A poor start indeed for Bush with the political center. Will he do better with these voters in the future? Do he and his political advisors even care? We shall see as Bush's second term starts to unfold.

Social Security Privatization:
The Reform That Isn't Needed for a Public That Doesn't Want It

Hart/McInturff poll of 1,003 adults for NBC News/Wall Street Journal, released December 14, 2004 (conducted December 9–13, 2004)

The Bush administration appears determined to build on its "mandate" and push Social Security privatization early in Bush's second term. This seems an ill-advised plan for several reasons.

First, there is little compelling evidence that Social Security is in any kind of crisis and none at all that carving out private accounts will improve Social Security's fiscal position. In fact, it will almost certainly worsen that position.

Second, there is no evidence that the public is thirsting for this particular "reform." The new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll finds that only 35 percent believe Bush has a mandate to allow "workers to invest some of their Social Security taxes in the stock market," compared to 51 percent who believe he does not. And when asked whether they thought it was "a good idea or a bad idea to change the Social Security system to allow workers to invest their Social Security contributions in the stock market," half said it was a bad idea and only 38 percent said it was a good one.

The poll also asked two other questions gauging sentiment about private accounts that mentioned some of the potential trade-offs involved in these accounts. The first question returned a 45 percent to 39 percent plurality in favor, while the second question returned a 46 percent to 41 percent plurality against, perhaps because the second question mentions the huge expenses involved in adding these accounts to the system. But in neither case do you get majority support for private accounts, which is entirely typical of questions that explicitly mention the tradeoffs of privatization.

Of course, artfully crafted questions that make private accounts sound like a free lunch (though, interestingly, not the good idea/bad idea question cited above) can find higher levels of support for private accounts. But inevitably this support contracts dramatically if any kind of reasonable followup is asked that mentions any of the costs associated with these accounts.

But if the public is not crying out for Social Security privatization, does that mean Democrats can confine themselves to simply opposing privatization and leaving it at that? I don't think so. If Social Security isn't broken, the overall U.S. retirement and pension system is, and the public knows this. Therefore, Democrats must offer something beyond defending the status quo, even if the part of the status quo they are most vigorously defending is worth a strong defense.

What is it that Democrats should be offering? That's a subject for useful debate. Democrats in search of a "compelling economic message" would do well to promote such a debate, rather than wasting time debating whether the party should be "populist" or not. Of course it should be, but populism is not enough: what exactly do Democrats propose to do to actually make the lives of Americans better? No amount of corporation-bashing (or hugging) can substitute for a compelling economic message that answers that question.

Ruy Teixeira is a joint fellow at the Center for American Progress and The Century Foundation.

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