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The Suburban Sunbelt and the Making and Unmaking of the Conservative Republican Majority

The conservative movement has always been confident about the power of its ideas. Over the last forty years conservative writers and commentators have fashioned a narrative of recent American politics that credits conservative ideology for the Republican Party’s successes and blames party apostasy for its defeats.

So it is not surprising that in the aftermath of the election many prominent conservatives have attributed the Republican losses not to voter rejection of conservative ideas but to the party’s abandonment of them. George Bush betrayed the conservative commitment to small government, so the story goes. John McCain was no conservative and could not overcome his past transgressions. Moderate Republicans were the ones who cost the party seats in Congress.

For these conservatives the way forward for the Republican party lies in re-embracing the timeless “first principles” of the conservative faith that Ronald Reagan championed to win the White House in the 1980s and conservative Republicans ran on to capture Congress in 1994.

But this recipe for Republican electoral success is simplistic and wrong headed. Ideas do matter in politics, but they aren’t the only things that do. The key to the Republican Party’s past triumphs and its possible future success has more to do with demography than ideology.

Significant population shifts in the U.S. during and after World War II made possible the conservative Republican ascendancy. Northern whites moved in large numbers to the South and West for defense, high-tech, and other white-collar jobs, creating new middle class suburban enclaves around cities like Charlotte, Los Angeles, and Richmond, where conservative ideas flourished, while southern blacks migrated to industrial cities in the North and Midwest.

The political power of the budding white suburbs got a further boost when the Supreme Court in Baker v Carr (1962) established the principle of “one person, one vote,” overturning apportionment laws that had benefited rural areas and shifting power toward more populated ones.

Kevin Phillips, in his controversial book The Emerging Republican Majority (1969), recognized that massive demographic changes were transforming American politics, destroying the New Deal order, and providing Republicans with an historic opportunity to build a durable majority. Phillips coined the term “Sunbelt” to identify the emerging Republican stronghold in booming suburban communities throughout the upper South, Florida, the Southwest, and California.

But Phillips’s message that the Republican Party adopt a race-based “Southern Strategy” to exploit white resentment over the “negro socio-economic revolution” tended to overshadow his insights about the changing population patterns of the suburban Sunbelt and led many scholars and political commentators to conclude that the Republican Party built its majority in the Deep South using racist appeals.

But the recent scholarship of Matthew Lassiter, Lisa McGirr, and others has shown that the suburban Sunbelt provided Republicans with their intellectual firepower and their political base.

Republicans crafted a center-right ideology based on pro-growth, low tax economic policies, color-blind racial ideas of home ownership and neighborhood schools, patriotism, and pro-family values to attract the middle class whites who lived and raised families in the burgeoning metropolitan suburbs of the Sunbelt.

But exit polls from recent presidential elections suggest that long term socio-economic changes in America’s population have eroded Republican strength in the suburban Sunbelt and once again may be ushering in a new era of electoral realignment.

The significance of the white vote in American politics is clearly waning. Exit polls show that since 1980 the percentage of white voters in the electorate has declined markedly from 89 percent to 74 percent. Minority voters, especially Hispanics, who now make up 9 percent of the electorate, a 7 point jump in less than three decades, will command an even bigger portion of the vote in the coming years, and have never supported Republicans in large numbers.

Conservative Republicans’ opposition to granting illegal immigrants a path to U.S. citizenship cost the party dearly with Hispanic voters in the election, reversing the gains Republicans had recently made.

In the key battleground state of Florida, Hispanic voters lifted Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama to a razor thin win over McCain, reversing the results of the last two presidential elections. Fifty-seven percent of Hispanics, who comprise 14 percent of the state’s electorate, voted for Obama, a stunning 27 percent increase over 2004.

The surge in Hispanic support for the Democratic Party was even greater in Nevada where 76 percent of Hispanic voters, a whopping 33 percent increase over 2004, voted for Obama, leading him to an impressive victory.

Obama’s election was due in no small part to his strong showing in the suburbs. While the suburban vote comprised 49 per cent of all the votes cast in the election, the largest percentage in history, Obama captured 50 percent of it, the best showing by a Democrat since Reagan’s victory in 1980.

Obama even fared well in the suburban Sunbelt. He was the first Democrat to win Virginia since 1964, capturing 51 percent of the suburban vote, including 56 percent of the vote in the wealthy suburbs of Henrico County outside of Richmond.

In North Carolina, Obama, the first major party black candidate, won the state with 44 percent of the suburban vote, including 62 percent of the vote in suburban Mecklenburg County surrounding Charlotte, the site of a major crusade against racial busing in the 1970s.

Obama won vote-rich California with 56 percent of the suburban vote and even garnered 47 percent of the vote in the affluent and populous suburbs of Orange County, a long standing bastion of conservatism.

The suburban Sunbelt is much more racially and politically heterogeneous than it was in the past. Over the last four decades, increased foreign immigration, black economic advancement and further civil rights gains against discrimination in education, jobs, and housing, and the continued influx of moderate whites from the North has remade many Sunbelt suburbs into more Democratic-friendly areas.

Republicans have thus far failed to recognize that the changing socio-economic composition of the electorate has redrawn the suburban political landscape and as a result they have failed to connect with the new suburban voters. Over the last five presidential elections, first time voters, many of them doubtless migrants to the suburban Sunbelt, have voted overwhelmingly Democratic.

If Democrats can continue to build upon their substantial gains in the suburbs and among Hispanic voters, while keeping their traditional strongholds -- the cities, the Northeast, and black voters -- they will have the makings of a new Democratic majority.

As movement conservatives are found of saying ideas do have consequences. But they don’t exist in a vacuum. Republicans must learn to adapt conservative ideas to the changing make up of America’s suburban Sunbelt or they risk becoming lost amid the new multiracial landscape of American politics.