Perhaps one of the more concerning aspects of the 2017 election in Virginia is the clear signal it sends about GOP troubles in the ‘burbs – urban suburbs to be more precise. It was not just in Northern Virginia that Republican candidates experienced a suburban rejection, but also in the urban suburbs surrounding Richmond.
The American Communities Project is a joint political science/journalism project housed at George Washington University. ACP has identified 15 county types to help us better understand what is happening at the local level. According to the ACP website, here’s a brief description of the county identification process: Working with academics, the ACP used a wide range of different factors – everything from income to race and ethnicity to education to religious affiliation – and a clustering technique to identify 15 types of counties, everything from Big Cities to Aging Farmlands. It has mapped those types to show where the country’s political, socio-economic and cultural fissures are.
There were areas of Virginia where Ed Gillespie performed well and as expected:
- Evangelical Hubs (Gillespie 60% of the vote)
- Graying America (Gillespie 61% of the vote)
- Rural Middle America (Gillespie 71% of the vote)
- Working Class Country (Gillespie 73% of the vote)
In fact, Gillespie outperformed the average for Cuccinelli in 2013 and McDonnell in 2009 in these GOP strongholds. Gillespie even outpaced Trump in all but Working Class Country.
The problem is … there just aren’t enough people in these GOP communities to counter-balance the drag in the more populous urban suburbs and exurbs (identified below).
Gillespie and Trump do share something in common – performing below the norm for a Republican candidate in these urban suburb and exurb communities. In 2016, these communities, particularly the urban suburbs, moved away from Trump compared to previous GOP candidates in the state. The table was set, and the trend continued into 2017.
- Henrico County is a microcosm of the challenge facing Republicans in the urban suburbs. A county Bob McDonnell won with 56% of the vote in 2009, Henrico rejected Trump by 20 points and followed suit by handing Gillespie a 22 point defeat.
- Similarly, a +22 McDonnell win in Loudon County in 2009 turned into a 17 point defeat for Trump in 2016 and a 20-point loss for Gillespie in 2017.
- The exurban problem is less dramatic but still evident. In Chesterfield County, for instance, Cuccinelli beat McAuliffe by 8 points. That GOP advantage shrunk to just two points with Trump and a dead even race in 2017.
Not only were the margins grim for Republicans in these communities, but the turnout was larger than historical averages. The urban suburbs represented roughly 29.65% of the electorate in 2017, almost a full percentage point higher turnout than the previous high of 28.75% in 2014. The 20.36% of the electorate constituted by the exurbs roughly matched turnout in even year elections.
And what is abundantly clear, particularly in the urban suburbs, is how much these voters dislike the President. Late October statewide polling found that among men in the urban suburbs of Virginia, Trump’s approval rating was 35% approve/62% disapprove, while a dismal 19% approve/78% disapprove among women.
This is a bad trend for Republicans in suburban communities that started in 2016. Higher turnout and declining GOP support in these communities is a red flag for Republican candidates. It’s a trend that we will likely continue to see heading into the midterms. Fortunately, our firm has deep experience winning campaigns in these types of communities in difficult cycles. It’s better to go in with eyes wide open, and that means recognizing that winning requires raising even more money, defining your opponent early, targeting voters early, and being aggressive at every moment of the campaign.