Victory in 2008 Hinges on the Suburban Vote

The battleground states that will decide the 2008 presidential election have been clearly identified, but the key to winning those states is still a matter of conjecture, as different political strategists offer differing ideas. NCEC believes that the 2008 election will be decided by the outcome in the suburban counties of the battleground states. However, there is not one specific characteristic that defines all suburban voters, as income level and education level can be fluid among these voters from state to state. Democrats have made substantial gains among suburban voters possessing higher income and education levels, and are locked in a fierce battle with the Republicans to maintain these gains. NCEC has spent the last four years identifying these crucial voters in hopes of giving Democrats the advantage. Below is our analysis of the growth of importance of the suburban vote in several key battleground states.

As Suburban Areas Grow, They Become More Important

The 2008 election will be won or lost in America ‘s metropolitan suburbs and exurban areas, where Democrats are seeking to expand on the success they enjoyed in the 2006 election. Many of the states now considered “battleground” in the presidential race will go to Obama or McCain based on their performance in these crucial areas. States such as Colorado , Nevada , and Virginia are increasingly competitive this year because population has been increasing in these metro-suburban areas. In other states, such as Minnesota , this growing population may offer the Republicans an opportunity for a win. As the graph shows, in most cases, as suburban areas grow with higher-income, more highly educated voters, Democrats benefit. Victory in four of the most important battleground states– Colorado , Minnesota , Nevada , and Virginia–will be determined by the outcome in suburban and exurban districts. As the graph shows, the recent population growth in these areas has made these states much more competitive.

Colorado : Colorado ‘s suburban population has been growing faster than that of perhaps any other state in the country. In fact, almost half of the state’s voting-age population is now located in five mostly suburban counties of Denver : Adams, Arapahoe, Boulder , Denver , and Jefferson . It is a certainty that Barack Obama will win these counties overall, but the key in these counties is the margin of victory. Since 2004, these voters have shown a willingness to vote for Democrats at an elevated pace. John Kerry won these districts in 2004 by nearly 130,000 votes, but this margin was not sufficient to overcome the Republican advantage in Colorado ‘s rural counties. Conversely, Senator Ken Salazar and Governor Bill Ritter won these districts by much wider margins in their statewide victories. Salazar won these counties by 213,000 votes and won his race by 4%. Ritter scored a much wider victory margin in the race for governor, winning these key counties by more than 236,000 votes. However, as Kerry showed, these voters are not guaranteed to break for a Democrat, so it is in these suburban counties that Barack Obama must perform well. The rapidly expanding Hispanic population in these counties will help the Obama campaign increase its margins, as this portion of the population has proven to be heavily Democratic. For example, Ken Salazar won 72% of the Hispanic vote in 2004 and Kerry won 68%.

Minnesota : Locating the RNC convention in St. Paul reflected an opinion inside the Republican Party that they can make a strong play for Minnesota in 2008. Much like Colorado ‘s, Minnesota ‘s fate will be decided by the outcome in suburban counties just outside the main urban center. Republicans look at the 2002 election as proof that Minnesota can be a target for them. In 2002 the Republicans won a Senate seat and the governorship in Minnesota because they performed well in the suburbs in and around the Twin Cities. There are three counties of particular importance: Dakota, Scott, and Wright, which have added 100,000 voters since 2000. Overall, these three counties account for nearly 12% of the electorate. As the populations have grown in these areas, the Republican share of the vote has increased.

County VAP 2000 VAP 2004 VAP 2007 Bush 2000 Bush 2004



















While these numbers are encouraging for Republicans, they were largely reversed by Democrat Amy Klobuchar in the 2006 Senate race, as she won Dakota County and Scott County . Also, even Bush’s margins of victory in these counties were not enough to carry the state, so McCain must look to outperform Bush. However, the education and income levels of these counties may pose a challenge for McCain. Dakota, Wright, and Scott are predominantly white-collar, professional, and higher-income areas, which is a segment of the population that Obama did very well with during the primaries; he’ll need to duplicate this success in order to defeat McCain.

Nevada : Nevada has been decided by less than 5% in the last two presidential elections. John Kerry improved on Al Gore’s performance in 2004, losing the state by less than 3%. The Obama campaign is looking to win the state. The growing metropolitan and suburban areas of Clark County ( Las Vegas ) and Washoe County ( Reno ) are the main reasons for optimism this year. As the graph shows, these two counties account for 87% of the total population of the state of Nevada . It is in these counties that Barack Obama must look to improve on past Democratic performances.

Clark County , which houses Las Vegas and the surrounding suburbs, is one of the fastest-growing counties in the country. As it grows, it accounts for a greater percentage of the total vote in Nevada . Both Al Gore and John Kerry carried Clark County by about 26,000 votes. Kerry actually won Clark by about 1,300 votes more than Gore did. In a sign of good fortune, the voting-age population of Clark County has ballooned since 2004, adding an additional 133,000 voters. These additional voters will be key, as Obama will need to expand the victory margin in order to win the state.

Similarly, Washoe County has also grown substantially since 2004, adding 21,000 voters. Washoe is a Republican-leaning county, but John Kerry improved significantly on Gore’s performance in 2000. Gore lost Washoe by more than 11,000 votes in comparison to Kerry, who lost the county by fewer than 7,000. The results suggest that as the county grows, Democratic prospects improve. From 2000 to 2007 the voting-age population has grown by more than 52,000 voters.

Turnout in 2004 increased by nearly 37,000 votes in comparison to 2000, which accounts for Kerry’s 6% improvement over Gore. The county’s continued growth shows promise for the Obama campaign. Overall, the voting-age population has grown by more than 52,000 voters in Washoe County , and Democratic vote shares have steady increased. In 2006, Democratic congressional candidate Jill Derby won Washoe County . If Barack Obama can maintain the upward trend in these two counties, Nevada can be won.

Virginia : The population of Northern Virginia continues to increase, and the makeup of this increase is largely Democratic. Fairfax County ‘s voting-age population grew by 33,000 people since 2000, and the county has gone from a 50/50 proposition to overwhelmingly Democratic. In 2000, Fairfax County went to George W. Bush, with 49% of the vote. By 2006, Fairfax County had undergone a massive shift, and as a result, Democrat Jim Webb won 59.5% of the vote over incumbent George Allen. Other areas such as Arlington County , which was already a Democratic stronghold, have seen similar surges in Democratic voting. From 2000 to 2006, Arlington County ‘s voting-age population grew by 6,000 people, which has increased the Democratic share of the vote. In 2000, Al Gore won 60% of Arlington County . In 2005, Tim Kaine received an overwhelming 75%, and in 2006 Jim Webb received 73%. Northern Virginia continues to expand and remains crucial to Democrats.

More important than the growing population of Northern Virginia , the increase in Democratic performance in suburban and exurban areas has helped Democrats gain electoral victories. Exurban areas constitute the outermost boundaries of any metropolitan area, such as Loudoun County . Loudoun represents the fastest-growing county in the country. Between 2000 and 2006, Loudoun’s voting-age population increased by 73,000 people. This increase has changed the demographics of the county, bringing into the area more middle-class and well-educated voters who support Democratic candidates. In 2000, Al Gore received just 41% of the vote in Loudoun, but by 2005, Tim Kaine won Loudoun with 53%. Democratic gains continued in 2006, when Jim Webb won Loudoun County with 50% of the vote.

Prince William County has undergone a similar evolution. The county comprises primarily metropolitan and suburban areas, and the voting-age population has grown by 58,000 since 2000. Previously, Prince William was solidly Republican, voting for the GOP consistently at all levels; Republican performance in top-of-the-ticket races between 1996 and 2004 was at 54.5%. However, following the population surge and subsequent demographic shift, the county voted for both Tim Kaine and Jim Webb in the last two election cycles. Democratic voting has only grown, as demonstrated by the fact that Jim Webb outperformed Tim Kaine, receiving more than 51% of the vote in Prince William County .

As the graph below shows, Democratic gains are taking place in all regions of the state. Counties like Chesterfield were previously strongly Republican, but have recently become battleground counties with only a slight Republican advantage. Other suburban areas, such as the city of Chesapeake, have seen congruent Democratic gains.

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