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Can Romney win back the affluent Suburbs the Republicans ruled before 1992?

by Rodan ( 104 Comments › )
Filed under Barack Obama, Conservatism, Democratic Party, Elections 2012, Mitt Romney, Progressives, Republican Party, Tea Parties at April 23rd, 2012 - 11:30 am

From the election of Eisenhower in 1952 until the 1988 election the Republican Party was 7-3 in Presidential elections. The base of the Republican party’s support was the affluent suburbs in the Northeast and upper Midwest. These voters, whom were derided as Country club Republicans, were more concerned about economic and fiscal matters than anything else. With Communism a threat, they backed the GOP’s hard anti-Communist stance. Places like Nassau County, NY and Greenwich, Connecticut would be reliable Republican votes. This patten held for close to 40 years.

Then in 1992 the voting patterns changed. With a slow growing economy, then President George HW Bush decided to use cultural issues. He had Dan Quayle attack Murphy Brown and Poppy Bush went around talking about family values and school prayer. They used these issues to distract from economic concerns. The straw that broke the camel’s back was the despicable Pat Buchanan speech at the 92 Convention. He railed about evil gays, portrayed Hispanics as evil and preached a culture war. The result was that many of those affluent suburban voters went with Bill Clinton and Ross Perot. Bill Clinton’s fiscal and economically Conservative record cemented the Democratic Party’s hold on these voters. Even when George W. Bush won in 2000 and 2004, these voters stuck with the Democrats. They broke heavily for The American Pharaoh in 2008 thinking they were getting a Clinton moderate. It didn’t turn out that way and in the 2009-2010 cycle many of these affluent suburbs voted for Republican candidates again.

With the nomination of Mitt Romney, who is one of these affluent suburbanites, the GOP has the potential to start winning these areas back at a Presidential level for the first time in a generation. They are unhappy with The Pharaoh’s terrible economic policies, but they still don’t fully trust the Republicans for the party’s cultural stances. Romney might be able to bring them back.

The conventional wisdom in American politics is that Democrats win poor voters, Republicans win the rich, and the two sides battle over the middle class. That used to be true – indeed, that was basically the case during the earliest Whig-Democratic battles in the 1830s and 1840s, and the Truman/Dewey contest of 1948 was a pretty straightforward class conflict. But those traditional class cleavages have really broken down in the last quarter century or so.

The GOP in the South was once limited to the growing suburbs around “New South” cities like Dallas and Tampa, but lately the party has made headway in downscale areas like southern Georgia and northeast Mississippi, as well as border states like West Virginia and Kentucky. At the same time, Democrats have been on the rise in the wealthier suburbs of the major Northern cities.

It’s this latter group of voters I want to talk about today. They once used to be a mainstay in the Republican coalition, but no longer. Can Romney win them back?

To appreciate the decline of the GOP in these suburban, upscale areas, I want to look at the GOP “tilt” of four, once classically Republican suburban counties – Westchester County, New York (outside New York City), Montgomery County, Pennsylvania (outside Philadelphia), Lake County, Illinois (outside Chicago), and Orange County California (outside Los Angeles). All four of these counties had been onetime anchors of postwar Republicanism, but they have all trended remarkably toward the Democrats.

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The last time Westchester or Montgomery voted Republican for president was actually 1988, and, as you can see, all four have moved away from the GOP; although the start of this drift differs by county, it essentially coincides with the rise of Southern Republicanism in particular, and in general the growth of rural, downscale GOP voters. This also corresponds with Clinton’s “New Democrat” message of fiscal responsibility and social moderation, which subsequent Democrats — Gore, Kerry, and Obama — have been depending on ever since.

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First, these voters should find the GOP message of pro-growth and limited government appealing; clearly they once did. The party’s messaging must be off in some way. In all likelihood, the GOP’s increased emphasis on cultural/social issues in the last 30 years has been a drag in these places, but the party should be able to articulate cultural conservatism without alienating these upscale suburbanites. This messaging failure has cost the GOP the state of Pennsylvania in the last three presidential elections – as Western Pennsylvania has moved toward the GOP, metro Philly has moved toward the Democrats, thus keeping the state blue.

So far, now that the primaries are basically over, Mitt Romney has pivoted strictly to economic and fiscal issues. This is what many of these affluent suburbanites are concerned about. This is also what most voters are concerned about. In a reversal of 1992, it’s the Democrats who trying to run on cultural issues, but from the Left. Like what happened the GOP in 92, it appears this tactic is now turning off these affluent voters who are more concerned with economic and fiscal matters. Mitt Romney has not fallen for these culture war traps like Rick Santorum did and he keeps focusing on the economy.

By making a play for these voters, this would force the Democrats to defend states they normally lock up like New Jersey and Connecticut and help tilt Pennsylvania into the GOP’s column. This means less resources for the Democrats to try to win North Carolina, Florida, Virginia, Missouri, Arizona and Colorado. This is the first election since 1988 that the GOP has the potential to take back at a Presidential level in parts of the country they once dominated. Hopefully they will not fall for the Democratic traps on the culture wars.

This thread is not about Economic Conservatives vs. Social Conservatives. Its about putting the Democrats on the defensive in areas they have dominated since 1992, that at one time happened to be Republican turf. It is better to make the them defend areas than Republicans being on the defensive like they have the last 20+ years. Mitt Romney (I’m still not a fan) is one of these affluent suburbanites, so the opening is there for these voters to vote for one of their own.