Welcome to Political Outliers, a column that explores groups of Americans who are often portrayed as all voting the same way. In today’s climate, it’s easy to focus on how a group identifies politically, but that’s never the full story. Blocs of voters are rarely uniform in their beliefs, which is why this column will dive into undercovered parts of the electorate, showing how diverse and atypical most voters are.
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Jonathan M. remembers seeing the signs clearly: One for the Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez-backed Greg Casar and another, near it, for Rep. Lloyd Doggett, a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus who was running for a neighboring district.
Yard placards for both progressive Democratic politicians, he said, were littered throughout his neighborhood in Austin, Texas in the lead-up to the state’s primary elections in March. On the one hand, this shouldn’t be surprising: Austin — likened to a “blueberry in a bowl of tomato soup” at least once by former Texas Gov. Rick Perry — is known for its deep blue hue. But as a Republican, Jonathan M., who preferred to only use his first name and last initial out of privacy concerns, didn’t plan to vote for either candidate.
In fact, the self-described “classical conservative” told me that he voted in the Republican primary in last month’s elections. But voters like Jonathan M. are somewhat of a rare breed in Austin. According to countywide voting records, only about 6 percent of registered voters in Travis County, where Austin primarily sits, voted in the state’s Republican primary, compared to almost 13 percent who cast a ballot in the Democratic one. (Turnout was low, however, like in most primaries.)
But it’s not just raw voting numbers that have helped Jonathan M. feel like an outlier: He said it took a drive down a major highway or perusal online to find even a handful of ads for Republican candidates. And even then, only marquee races, like the one for governor, were heavily advertised.
“This primary cycle, I didn’t see any Republican signs in my area, but in 2020 I saw a lot of signs for Rep. Chip Roy,” he said, referencing the Austin-area Republican who once worked for Sen. Ted Cruz and has since become a conservative firebrand in the U.S. House. “For big races, I feel like there’s a lot more campaigning by Republicans here, but there’s almost nothing happening for local races and, as a result, I feel like a lot of Democrats run unopposed.”
Some of this is to be expected given just how much the U.S. sorts itself along geographic lines, with Democrats preferring to live in cities versus Republicans, who increasingly opt to call smaller towns or rural areas home. But this ideological sorting has still created a situation where many Republicans who live in the suburbs and bluer cities feel like outliers in their communities — much like Democrats living in Trump country. Some of the voters we spoke with would tease their ideological preferences (through having a GOP candidate’s bumper sticker on their car, for instance), but most have kept their political opinions to themselves. Several expressed having trouble finding friends with similar values who live close to them, and many felt like their party had largely given up on campaigning in their area of town.
That said, there was one bright spot that helped many of the five Republicans and independent voters who have previously supported Republican candidates I spoke with feel more upbeat: the upcoming midterm elections. Expecting their party to likely flip the U.S. House, and maybe pick up a few seats in the U.S. Senate, was a way for them to reconcile their political identity even if representation wasn’t going to change where they lived.
“I am more excited about the national results than the local races,” Charlie C., a 28-year-old self-proclaimed “staunch conservative” from St. Anthony, Minnesota, who only wanted to be identified by his first name and last initial, told me. “I am hoping that this year’s results are reminiscent of the Tea Party red wave from 2014.”
It’s been some time, though, since Republicans like Charlie C. likely felt this way as counties including the one he currently lives in have steadily gotten bluer. In fact, that’s been the case with practically all “urban-suburban” counties in the U.S.: From 2000 to 2020, “urban-suburban” counties have moved nearly 17 points toward Democrats, among them are Hennepin County and Ramsey County (where St. Anthony resides), according to a FiveThirtyEight analysis of county-level election data since 2000 categorized using our Urbanization Index.
Not all suburban counties have swung so dramatically toward Democrats. For instance, “mostly suburban” counties have moved from about 50-50 in 2000 to just a 10-point Democratic edge in 2020. But suburban and urban areas have, on average, moved toward Democrats. What’s more, they comprise a large share of the nation’s voting power: In 2020, “urban-suburban” or “mostly suburban” counties made up almost 52 percent of the total vote.
“I have yet to place a vote for a single political candidate at the state or national level such that my vote helped them gain office,” Charlie C. admitted. “I am a conservative who wonders if [Texas Sen. Ted] Cruz is far enough to the right in a district that elected [Rep.] Ilhan Omar.”
Part of the issue for voters like Charlie C. is that Democrats have expanded their foothold in the suburban areas of the U.S. — particularly during former President Donald Trump’s tenure. According to Pew, suburbanites backed Trump narrowly over Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton by 2 points in 2016. But in 2018, Democrats took back control of the House thanks, in part, to the significant inroads they made in America’s suburbs and, by 2020, President Biden won suburban voters over Trump by 11 percentage points.
Jan Nijman, the director of the Urban Studies Institute at Georgia State University, told me part of the swing toward Democrats can be attributed to the changing demographics of the suburbs, including an increase in the number of college-educated and nonwhite voters living there. “We’ve seen most of our population growth in the U.S. in areas we’d think of as ‘suburban.’ And just that simple fact means there’s now more diversity in those places,” Nijman said. Another consequence of the suburbs becoming more economically and racially diverse, particularly in the last two decades, “is that [they’ve] become the most dynamic places in the electoral landscape,” Nijman said.
It wasn’t always like this, though. In fact, suburbs were once the desired destination for those looking to flee more diverse, urban areas — especially for more conservative white voters. In the 1950s and ’60s, Nijman told me, “suburbia was understood as a place that was quite homogeneous and predictable, meaning that the people attracted to suburbs at the time were solidly middle-class and Republican-leaning.” That’s changed over the last 20 or so years, however, as the suburbs have become more welcoming for people of color and immigrants — both of whom tend to be more liberal politically. As a result, on average, the suburbs now lean toward Democrats, leaving some Republicans who live in these areas feeling neglected by the GOP. It’s possible that the GOP may make some inroads in 2022, particularly in counties classified as “mostly suburban,” but those areas have still overwhelmingly moved toward Democrats since 2000.
“I definitely feel abandoned by the state party and like they’ve kind of given up on Atlanta,” said Michael A., a 25-year-old who preferred to only use his first name and last initial out of privacy concerns. “For the past few years or so, they’ve stopped talking about issues that matter in the metro area — like how high our taxes are or how the cost of living has gone up dramatically. They’re really focused on the rural areas more now, which I understand, but there are still a lot of Republican voters in my area who feel unheard.”
That said, even though their communities are moving left, some Republicans I spoke with said they’re moving further right. A handful of my interviewees pointed to the protests for racial justice in the summer of 2020 following the murder of George Floyd as a turning point. Democratic calls at the time to radically shift police policy, including a reduction in police budgets, turned off many Republicans I spoke with.
“If I wasn’t conservative before 2020, I would’ve been a hardcore one after that summer,” said Chris Germiller, a 28-year-old from Rockville, Maryland. “For many reasons, that was the worst time of my life due to the constant onslaught of everyone I knew pretending they were a criminologist and prescribing insane policy solutions toward policing. That summer pushed me, emotionally, more to the right.”
Part of Germiller’s frustration likely stems from the fact that, on average, suburban and urban residents hold more liberal views on issues of racism and racial justice than rural Americans. According to a 2018 Pew survey, 69 percent of urban residents and 60 percent of suburban ones (compared to 47 percent of rural dwellers) said they believed that white Americans benefit from certain privileges that Black Americans don’t have. And while many of the Republicans I spoke with said they believe racism still plays a prominent role in today’s society, they didn’t think reducing or eliminating law enforcement was the answer.
“Ideas like ‘defund the police’ are just crazy to me. Why would you defund the police?” said Liliana S., a 49-year-old Denver, Colorado resident who was born in Venezuela and preferred to only use her first name and last initial out of privacy concerns. “I come from a country where police are not funded and not respected. The result is you get a bunch of mafia and drug lords and common thieves running the country.”
Of course, some of the shift to the left on policing is overstated and it’s possible that, while these Republicans are outliers in some of their views toward policing, they might have more in common with their liberal neighbors than they realize. For example, prominent leaders in the Democratic Party, including Biden, have emphatically dismissed calls to “defund the police.” Moreover, polls suggest that voters — regardless of where they live — don’t want to cut funding to police departments. According to a June 2020 Morning Consult survey, less than half of suburban dwellers (43 percent) supported redirecting police funds to communities, while 28 percent were in favor of “defund the police.” A September poll from Pew also showed a significant decline in overall support for cutting police funding.
Still, “defund the police” has become a motivating issue for Republican voters. This is, in part, because GOP lawmakers have capitalized on the movement and successfully tied it to unsubstantiated fears regarding an increase in violent crime regardless of whether that’s actually happening. In addition, several cities took steps in 2020 to change policing that Republicans said rubbed them the wrong way.
Jonathan M., for example, said he was disappointed when Austin’s City Council voted that year to slash part of the city’s police budget, which it was later forced to refund amid pressure from the state’s Republican governor. For a while, though, he claimed that he heard numerous stories from neighbors who were robbed or burglarized, but who were still hesitant to call the police for assistance. “Some people are against calling the cops because they think it will result in escalation of the issue,” he said. “I disagree, of course, but knowing how my neighbors feel about these things makes me more reserved, and I try to keep a distance from those conversations.”
This has exacerbated a belief among people I spoke with that Democrats (and, in turn, their respective cities) have moved even further to the left, specifically on issues related to race and public safety. And many of the Republicans I talked to say they no longer feel like they can have constructive conversations with their neighbors and coworkers about policies they disagree on — a sentiment that Democrats living in rural areas of the U.S. felt, too.
“It’s tough to grow a friend circle. Admittedly, I’m a bit of an introvert to begin with, but even at work, it’s tough to talk about anything other than shop because this is a left-leaning area,” Charlie C., the conservative voter in Minnesota, said.
But even though Republicans like Charlie C. might feel like outsiders now, there are signs that 2022 will likely be a good year for Republicans nationally. And because some of the areas my interviewees lived in aren’t as blue as some rural areas are red, it’s possible these Republicans will even see some political changes in their areas, especially those in more suburban or exurban areas.
“You know, even if the Republican Party isn’t going to win Fulton County anytime soon, there are hundreds of thousands of Republican voters in urban areas and if you get them excited, they’re going to put you over the finish line,” said Michael A., who noted that he’s seen a handful of bumper stickers for Republican Gov. Brian Kemp in recent weeks.
Indeed, 2022 offers prime pick-up opportunities for Republicans: According to our generic ballot average, which tracks which party people plan to vote for in the upcoming congressional election — Republicans currently lead Democrats by about 2 percentage points. Moreover, since much of the previous suburban shift toward Democrats in 2018 and 2020 appears to have been driven by disdain for Trump, it’s not clear whether these gains will hold without him on the ballot. This is evident in polling from Reuters/Ipsos which has found that Biden is struggling to hold suburban voters since coming into office last year: Only 44 percent said they approve of his job as president as of last week — down nearly 7 points since around this time last year.
Polling from Harvard CAPS-Harris Poll released in January tells a similar story. It found that 57 percent of suburban respondents were more likely to vote for a Republican candidate in the midterms, versus 43 percent who said they’d be more likely to vote for a Democratic one. What’s also working in the GOP’s favor is that the party so far has capitalized on an enticing pitch to rile up voters: highlighting culture war issues and broad disapproval with the Biden administration. On top of that, Glenn Youngkin’s win in Virginia last year suggests that it’s possible for certain Republicans to win competitive states — including parts of the suburbs — with the right roadmap.
That means Republicans in blue cities and suburbs might have reason to be optimistic for November, especially since 2022 will likely serve as a test of sorts for how durable suburban gains have been and whether we’ll see a lurch back to the right. Of course, that won’t change the makeup of some very urban areas that have voted solidly Democratic for the last two decades or so, but it does mean that some of these Republicans might not be the outliers that they think they are.
Charlie C. put it plainly: “It’s less that the GOP has abandoned [my] area, and more that they are out-gunned. They don’t have the ability to mobilize in every district,” he said. “I realize I am in enemy territory. I’m just hoping to be able to minimize some of the damage.”
Geoffrey Skelley contributed research.