Public Opinion Watch

(covering polls and related articles from the week of February 13- February 19, 2006)

Ruy Teixeira
Ruy Teixeira

In this edition of Public Opinion Watch:

• Understanding Suburban Politics

• No Improvement in Sight for GOP

Understanding Suburban Politics

In December, I wrote about “emerging suburbs” and the ways in which they differ from true exurbs, both geographically and politically. I pointed out that:

The Bush-Kerry split [in emerging suburbs]….was less lop-sided (56-43) [than in true exurbs] and represented only a 5 point gain in margin over 2000. But since these emerging suburban counties are much larger than exurban counties, they contributed 26 percent of Bush’s net vote gains between 2000 and 2004, dwarfing the exurban contribution.

Besides the relatively smaller GOP margin in these counties in 2004, note that the GOP margin in these counties in 2000 was only 52-44 and in 1996 a mere 45-44. It’s clear that emerging suburban counties are not only far more important to Bush’s coalition than exurban counties, but also far more contestable by the Democrats, a political reality that should trouble the GOP.

Indeed, it already is. In the MI typology, Loudoun and Prince William counties in Virginia, where Democrat Timothy Kaine did so well against Republican Jerry Kilgore, are classified as emerging suburban counties, while Kilgore won easily in Fauquier and Stafford counties, which are classified as exurban. But since Loudoun and Prince William are so much more populous than Fauquier and Stafford, Kaine’s victory in the former counties counted for a great deal more than Kilgore’s victories in the latter counties.

I based my analysis upon the MI typology, which was developed by Virginia Tech’s Metropolitan Institute. I am happy to report, they have now issued an excellent report, “The New Metro Politics: Interpreting Recent Presidential Elections Using a County-Based Regional Typology,” co-authored by Robert Lang and Thomas Sanchez, that explicates their methodology and provides a wealth of fascinating political data based on their typology. In so doing, they provide us with a very useful framework for understanding contemporary suburban politics as a whole, a subject of vital importance for today’s progressives.

The MI typology breaks down the 417 counties in the top 50 metro areas in the US (where over half the total population lives) into five categories: core; inner suburbs; mature suburbs; emerging suburbs; and exurbs. As the MI report notes, in the typology:

….counties are classified on the degree to which they are “urban.” In this descriptive definition, the more urban counties are slower growing, have higher population densities, feature greater “urbanized” populations, and maintain smaller proportions of non-Hispanic white residents. While these four variables do not substitute for a complete multivariate-derived typology, research has shown that they are the key determinants of socio-spatial differences between counties.

Here are some of the key findings, but I strongly urge you to read the entire report. Note how these excerpts highlight the importance of mature suburbs which, along with the emerging suburbs whose importance I have previously flagged, constitute the real battleground of suburban politics. Democrats need to drive up their margins in mature suburbs, which lean in their direction, while vigorously contesting emerging suburbs, which lead toward the GOP. If Democrats can master that two part formula, it’s not a stretch to say they will dominate the suburbs and the country as a whole.

In total, 150 million people (or over half the US population) lived in the 417 top 50 metropolitan counties as of 2000. The biggest share, or nearly 49 million people, resided in the 66 mature suburban counties. The 41 inner suburban counties followed with almost 40 million residents. The exurbs captured the largest number of counties at 147 — beating the emerging suburbs by one county— but had by far the smallest population at just over 5.6 million….

Population densities follow a step-like variation across county categories. The core county density reaches over 9,000 people per square mile — a density that can both easily support rail transit and reflects a high share of multi-family housing. With over 2,000 people per square mile, inner suburbs, while much less dense are clearly more urban than even mature suburbs, and exceed the density of emerging suburbs by almost a magnitude in scale. Interestingly, even the relatively low-density emerging suburbs are several times more intensely settled than the exurbs.

County population growth rates clearly show that the biggest gains come in less densely settled suburbs. Emerging suburbs lead the way with a nearly 30 percent growth in the 1990s. Exurbs are also booming, but have a considerably slower rate of development and, more importantly, a far smaller absolute gain than the emerging suburbs. The exurbs also register more modest absolute gains than the much bigger mature suburbs. In fact, in absolute terms, the mature suburbs, while adding just 11.6 percent more residents in the 1990s, managed to outpace all other county categories in the number of actual people added.

That the mature suburbs are adding more residents than emerging suburbs is an important point that is often lost in the discussion about places that are gaining political strength. The focus tends to be exclusively on rates of growth rather than absolute change (see Brownstein 2005). Note also that due to their demographic composition, which includes more households with adults only compared to exurbs and emerging suburbs, the growing voting strength of mature suburbs is even greater than its population gains on their own would suggest….

The 2004 Bush and 2005 Kaine campaigns point to a new metro politics that reflects the changing metropolis. It is likely that new density-based political strategies will factor into the 2006 midterm election, and especially the 2008 presidential race. Democrats have a special stake in the new metro politics given that they have so far mostly not understood these opportunities. The metropolitan political battle line is not neatly split between city and suburbs, but instead now mostly lies in the transition areas between mature and emerging suburbs….

No Improvement in Sight for GOP

Last week, I commented on the remarkably poor political outlook for the Republicans as we move into the 2006 campaign season. This week brings a slew of new polling data confirming that assessment and showing how, in one area after another, nothing seems to be breaking the GOP’s way.

1. In the latest Time/SRBI poll, Bush has the lowest overall approval rating (40 percent) ever measured by this poll. He is also tied for his lowest rating on the economy (38 percent) and has his lowest ratings ever on Iraq (36 percent) and on the war on terrorism (46 percent).

2. A new Gallup report on public views of the Iraq war finds:

….some of the more pessimistic views Gallup has measured since the war began. A majority of Americans continue to say the war was a mistake and say that they oppose the war. Fewer than one in three Americans say the United States is winning, the lowest percentage Gallup has measured on that question to date.

The Feb. 9-12 CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll finds 55% of Americans saying the United States made a mistake in sending troops to Iraq, while 42% disagree. On only one other occasion — last September following Hurricane Katrina — did more Americans, 59%, say the war was a mistake.

3. So the Iraq problem is getting worse, not better, for the GOP. What about the economy? There is also a new Gallup report about Americans’ views on the economy. As the report summarizes the situation:

President Bush has been touting the progress in the U.S. economy this week, and the new head of the Federal Reserve, Benjamin Bernanke, gave generally positive views on economic conditions in the country in his testimony on Capitol Hill. The Dow Jones average has been above 11,000; in January, housing starts were more robust than expected; and reports on retail spending were also more positive than expected.

Despite the positive nature of these so-called "hard" economic indicators, however, the attitudes of the average American consumer toward the economy remain relatively dour. Majorities of Americans rate economic conditions at the moment as "only fair" or "poor," say economic conditions in the United States are getting worse, and say now is a bad time to be looking for a quality job.

4. So not much help there. How about that new prescription drug plan? It now seems highly probable that plan will hurt, not help, GOP electoral chances. On top of a spate of news stories indicating this (see, for example, this front page article, “Drug Plan's Start May Imperil G.O.P.'s Grip on Older Voters”, in the February 19 New York Times), the Kaiser Family Foundation has released their latest Health Poll Report Survey (pdf) showing just 28 percent of seniors favorable to the drug plan, compared to 50 percent unfavorable. And a recent Gallup survey found an even more lop-sidedly negative view among seniors, with 58 percent saying the new benefit isn’t working and only 20 percent saying it is.

5. Another indicator of GOP woes can be gleaned by looking at Bush’s approval ratings in states with important Senate races. Based on the latest SurveyUSA findings, Bush breaks 50 percent in only one of those states (Montana), where he is at exactly 50 percent. From there, it’s all downhill: Tennessee (46 percent); Arizona (45 percent); West Virginia (45 percent); Virginia (45 percent); Florida (42 percent); Nevada (41 percent); Minnesota (40 percent); Missouri (39 percent); New Jersey (37 percent); Ohio (37 percent); Pennsylvania (36 percent); Maryland (35 percent); Michigan (34 percent); and Rhode Island at a stunningly low (25 percent).

6. Turning to House races, the generic Congressional contest continues to show Democrats with a healthy lead in almost all polls. While that does not mean that much this far out, Gallup has provided some interesting subgroup analysis from their latest results among registered voters (RVs). In a poll where Democrats lead by 7 points among all RVs, their lead is 17 points among independents, 13 points among seniors (that prescription drug plan again, no doubt) and a whopping 29 points among young voters (18-29).

7. But lest progressives get too carried away reading these figures, here’s another Gallup data point to ponder: Just 26 percent of the public believes the GOP has a clear plan for solving the nation’s problems….which sounds good, until you look at the next result which indicates an even smaller number (23 percent) believe Democrats have a clear plan for solving the nation’s problems.

Based on that number, it seems the Democrats would be ill-advised to just coast into November, presuming to win big simply on the basis of GOP woes. They still need something clear and cogent to say. And, no, “We can do better” is probably not it.

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