When the history of the 2016 presidential campaign is written, a large chapter will likely be devoted to Donald Trump’s struggles in the counties the American Communities Project calls the Exurbs. In the end, what happens in those well-educated, Republican-leaning communities may be as significant to the future of U.S. politics as the final electoral college tally.
A new analysis of Gallup data on the 2016 race shows the Exurbs have become problematic for Donald Trump. Gallup survey numbers from the first half of 2016 find weak “favorable” numbers for the Republican nominee in those counties, particularly compared to favorables for Hillary Clinton in Democratic strongholds, Big City and dense Urban Suburb counties.
The Gallup data show that 36% of the people in the Exurbs hold favorable opinions of Mr. Trump. That’s higher than the 33% in the Exurbs who hold favorable opinions of Hillary Clinton, but not substantially so.
In the Big City and Urban Suburb counties, Mrs. Clinton is viewed much more favorably than Mr. Trump. In the Big Cities 53% hold a favorable view of Mrs. Clinton, while 21% hold a favorable view of Mr. Trump – a 32 point gap. In the Urban Suburbs, Mrs. Clinton is at favorable number is 46%, while Mr. Trump’s favorable number is at 28% – an 18 point difference.
That’s a big difference in how those communities perceive the 2016 choice. They suggest a certain ambivalence about the 2016 presidential race in the Exurbs, where the Republicans need to run up big margins, and a stark, pro-Clinton lean in the Big Cities and Urban Suburbs, where the Democrats tend to win big.
The map below shows where the counties are located with Exurbs in yellow, Big Cities in pink and Urban Suburbs in dark orange.
If Mr. Trump loses in November, and the polls show a tough road ahead for him right now, struggles in these Exurb counties, along with deep losses in the Big Cities and Urban Suburbs, will be at the root of the tale.
But the impact of bad Exurban numbers for Mr. Trump could extend well beyond 2016.
Over the past decade, the GOP has lost ground in Big City and Urban Suburb counties as the Democratic margins in them have grown sharply. As that has happened the Exurbs have emerged as the party’s life raft in big metropolitan centers. The Exurbs are the last places where the Republican Party can be confident of garnering the majority of votes in the urban centers where votes are most plentiful.
In 2012 Republican Mitt Romney lost to President Barack Obama by 16 in the Urban Suburbs and by 31 in the Big Cities, but Mr. Romney won the Exurbs by about 18 points. Those are places like Waukesha County in Wisconsin, Chester County in Pennsylvania and Delaware County in Ohio and wins in them are the way Mr. Romney kept the race close and made those states battlegrounds.
As NBC News noted last week, those Exurb counties make up big parts of key states and, as the Wall Street Journal noted last week, the people who live in them report they are doing pretty well economically, in contrast to Mr. Trump’s message of economic hardship. They look like hard sells for him.
Without big margins in the Exurbs, the GOP becomes a party of rural white voters. And there is no realistic way to win the White House, or the many Senate seats, for a party that relies exclusively on rural white communities such as Rural Middle America, Graying America and Working Class Country in the ACP. (In all those counties Mr. Trump’s favorable number in 40% or higher.) There simply aren’t enough voters.
This last point is why the Exurbs are the most crucial set of counties in 2016. If Mr. Trump doesn’t win the Exurbs by Mr. Romney’s 18-point margin, it’s a sign that the GOP may have real problems brewing. The party needs to bring those counties strongly back into the fold, preferably quickly.
For the GOP to win national races, the party needs to find a way to become more competitive in big metro counties, like the Urban Suburbs and Big Cities. The Exurbs offer the Republicans a path. The party can’t afford to lose its hold on them.