Thursday, December 29, 2005

The Suburban Strategy

I don't usually turn to The Weekly Standard for reading material, but this week Fred Barnes has an article about 10th District Congressman Mark Kirk and his plans for turning the tide of the inner suburbs' increasing Democratic voting. Kirk isn't the first to notice what Barnes describes:
Mark Kirk is a worried Republican who represents a House district in the suburbs north of Chicago. In the 1960s, the seat was held by a young Republican named Donald Rumsfeld, now defense secretary. Once safely Republican, the district has been drifting Democratic for years. The last Republican presidential candidate to win the district was George Bush Senior in 1992. George W. Bush lost there by four percentage points in 2000, by six in 2004. In races for state and local offices as well, Democrats now dominate.

I didn't realize the 10th went for George H.W. Bush in 1992. Anyway, the thinking on this goes as follows:
Older, close--in, inner suburbs-or "inurbs," as Kirk calls them-began to vote Democratic in the 1990s, and the trend has continued into the new century...In political terms and in lifestyle, the suburbs have changed dramatically in the past two decades. Cities have spilled into suburbs, which are now densely populated and filled with singles, minorities, and people with an urban temperament. By the millions, families with children have migrated to the outer suburbs or located there in the first place.

This is the first point where I would dispute Barnes. I think it would be great if the inner suburbs were diverse, but those that make up the Tenth District are not really "densely populated and filled with singles, minorities." Evanston, a suburb to the south is, but it is part of the 9th District and has been known to vote Democratic for some time. Furthermore, the inner 'burbs, at least the ones around here, are still largely populated with families. Kirk has a rationale for these developing voting patterns:
The exurbs are home to entrepreneurs and managers who run family--owned companies or are in sales. They deal constantly with government-IRS, regulatory agencies, bureaucrats of all types-and find the experience frustrating. They vote for Republicans who would trim government. Professionals-lawyers, architects, professors-tend to live in the inner suburbs and they have few conflicts with government. They vote for Democrats on lifestyle issues such as abortion and gun control.

Never mind that a Republican presidency and Congress has only greatly increased rather than trimmed government. Kirk may be right though in suggesting exurb residents vote based on their frustration with government regulation. I would dispute Kirk's analysis of why professionals who live in the inurbs vote for Democrats. So-called social issues are definitely a part of it, but I think the other part has to do with questions of Republican competency in policy-making and the Republican economic vision. Anyway, more later. Here's Kirk's strategy to win back the inner suburbs:
Kirk had the 20 issues tested by pollster John McLaughlin in the inner ring of suburbs around Chicago. Twelve of the issues polled over 80 percent positive, and only two polled under 70 percent (while still receiving majority support). The top four were approved by 90 percent or more: teacher checks (95 percent), tax credits for small businesses that provide health insurance (93), portability of health insurance (93), and mandatory Internet filters (91). "If we talk about stuff like this," Kirk says, Republican strength in the suburbs will "snap back quickly."
...Many of the issues reflect the advice of Republican national chairman Ken Mehlman that House Republicans act like a "federal mayor" stressing issues of local concern rather than foreign or national economic policy. "Why do people like mayors? Mayors solve problems."

We'll have to see if Kirk rolls out this strategy in the 2006 election. This may work for him, but it has a couple problems, as I see it. (1) Not coherent. Tax credits for businesses that provide health insurance makes sense, but that's clearly not a Democrat/Republican issue. The other issues seem to be cherry-picked and don't really have a coherent theme among them besides the whole "federal mayor" angle, which doesn't seem too compelling, and in fact sounds kind of eerie. (2) This strategy represents a capitulation. With Iraq and the deficit huge concerns in the 10th District, Kirk's strategy, risks seeming as if he is focusing on internet filtering to avoid talking about larger foreign and domestic policy issues. The Democrats unwisely tried to focus solely on domestic issues in 2002 and 2004 rather than influence the foreign policy debate, and look where it got them.

Finally, Kirk's and Barnes's analyses miss one key feature of the inner suburbs: high level of education. My Intro to Sociology professor hands out a sheet of paper every year that shows in a simple chart the demographic trends of the most recent presidential election. One of the areas charted is level of education. While college graduates have favored the Republican candidate recently, usually around 60 percent of people with graduate degrees favor the Democrat. The inner suburbs tend to have a high number of people with graduate degrees. I don't know what this means for Kirk's suburban strategy, but it means that it is not in the Republicans' interest for Americans to get a good education, and Republican education policy reflects as much.

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