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The story of the defeat of Donald Trump was supposed to be one of “black and brown” voters rising up against the man Joe Biden deemed “one of the most racist presidents we’ve had in modern history.” Stacey Abrams was going to send 400,000 new voters of color to the polls and turn Georgia blue. Groups like “She the People” were on track to reclaim Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan for the Democrats with the votes of black women.

The 2020 election didn’t quite turn out that way. While Joe Biden did indeed become the president-elect, he won thanks to voters in America’s wealthy white suburbs who could simply not bear the idea of another four years of the Trump presidency. Consider the three largest states Biden flipped in 2020 that secured his victory. Georgia turned blue thanks to large Democratic gains across the Atlanta suburbs. High-income Georgia precincts shifted toward Biden even more than did suburban precincts, while the black share of the overall state vote actually fell. Michigan returned to the Democrats’ column thanks to a 165,000 vote swing over 2016. While Wayne County, home of Detroit, increased its Democratic vote by 78,000, the much smaller suburban Oakland County, Michigan’s second richest, contributed an additional 91,000 to the Democrats’ column. In Pennsylvania, all four suburban Philadelphia counties became increasingly blue while Philadelphia proper actually shifted slightly toward red. These four counties, the state’s four richest, increased their collective contribution to the Democratic presidential candidate by 1.0 percent in 2020, while Philadelphia’s contribution dropped 2.5 percent.

Biden’s national victory did not bring a wave of Democrats into the House of Representatives on his coattails. Republicans flipped fourteen seats (with a possible fifteenth in as yet undecided NY-22) and won a net of eleven in a year their presidential candidate lost. This historically strong showing was not based on winning back rich suburban seats the party lost in bulk in 2018. While Republicans did flip the richest districts in two states (SC-1 and UT-1), they also flipped the poorest districts in three others (MN-7, NM-2, and CA-21). Nine new Republican districts have incomes below the national average. Of the three seats flipped by Democrats, one was the richest (NC-2) and one the second richest (GA-7) in their states.

Rich suburban voters showed little inclination to return to Trump’s GOP. This was true according to two rather different definitions of “rich suburbs.” The first: all House districts with a median household income greater than one standard deviation above the national House district average.[1] This definition takes in the 63 richest districts in the country (not all of which are “suburban,” such as CA-12 covering San Francisco and NY-12 on Manhattan’s Upper East Side). Only two of the Republicans’ fourteen flipped districts (CA-39 and CA-48) were among this richest set. A second, perhaps more intuitive, definition of “rich suburbs”: the richest one-third of House districts in each of the country’s twenty-four largest metropolitan areas.[2] This definition takes in 61 rich House districts while overcoming a bias toward high-cost coastal cities in the first definition that may over-represent Democrats. Despite this difference (41 districts [65/67 percent] appear in both groups), we still see much the same results. According to this definition, only three of the Republicans’ fourteen flipped seats (CA-39, CA-48, and FL-26) were among the richest set.

Looking over the election results for all the races in the country’s wealthy suburbs reinforces the point. America’s rich have turned to the Democrats and they aren’t turning back. Under the first definition of the country’s “rich suburbs,” Democrats will occupy 51 of the 63 wealthy suburban seats (81 percent) in the 117th Congress. Under the second definition, Democrats will hold 44 of 61 wealthy suburban seats (72 percent). In this latter version, seven of the Republicans’ seventeen rich suburban seats are in a single state, Texas. While this may make the wealthy of Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth, and San Antonio a Republican counter-elite, the Democratic party quite sensibly sees them as the last holdouts against the natural gathering of all American elites under its banner. After all, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee targeted ten Texas Republican-held House seats as part of its 2020 “Red to Blue” campaign in the state for concentrated fundraising, organizational support, and spending. Six of those ten were six of Texas’s seven “rich list” seats. Although Democrats failed to flip a single one of these targets, it is clear that wooing the rich is the cornerstone of the party’s effort to turn Texas blue.

Democrats took the House in 2018 thanks in strong measure to the votes of rich suburbanites in places like Loudoun County, VA, Hunterdon County, NJ, and Lake County, IL. Republicans’ strong showing in 2020, coming within six (and possibly five) seats of a most unlikely House majority, shows the party doesn’t need to win those seats back to win the House. The Democrats’ contradictory top-bottom coalition will eventually disintegrate of its own accord anyway, and Republicans should take a hands-off approach in letting it do so. Concentrating on winning seats from small and medium-sized cities like Las Cruces, NM, Des Moines, IA, and Bakersfield, CA, as well as from middle-class suburbs and exurbs of the largest cities, is the better path forward. 

[1] This calculation is based on 2019 1-year American Community Survey data for median household income by U.S. House district. It excludes the thirteen House districts from North Carolina as these were redistricted by court order in late 2019 and thus no median household income figures are yet available from the U.S. Census Bureau for the new boundaries. Their exclusion makes no difference in the figures, however, as estimates based on county-level median household income place no North Carolina districts in this national top income tier.

[2] The twenty-four largest U.S. metropolitan areas: This group includes all those with a population greater than one standard deviation above the average population of all 384 U.S. Census Bureau-defined metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs), excluding Charlotte, NC, because of the 2019 redistricting in the state. Limiting the group to the richest one-third of metro area districts makes the list a function of metro area size, not income.

Darel E. Paul is professor of political science at Williams College and author of From Tolerance to Equality: How Elites Brought America to Same-Sex Marriage.

Photo by Adam Schultz via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

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