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Opinion | Voters in Cities and Suburbs Are More Centrist Than You Think



What analysts tend to get wrong is what those voters actually want. It’s a diverse cohort, and increasingly multiethnic. Former President Donald Trump turned some of them off in 2020, and that’s a big part of why he lost. But none of that means they’re ripe for progressive ideas, or looking for radical changes from the left. Most of them are registered Democrats, but that doesn’t mean they are liberals or reliable Democratic voters.

Rather, my research shows that this group — overall — is a pragmatic, multiethnic mainstream of Americans who do not fit the racial or party stereotypes that politicians and pundits too often rely on, and their top issues are cost, crime and classroom issues. In other words, the median urban and suburban voter is not AOC and, on many issues, can lean quite moderate and conservative.

The metro majority is America’s hardworking center — an upwardly mobile and culturally centrist union of Hispanic, Asian, white and Black voters — who believe in an inclusive American Dream of growth and opportunity. They value low crime and more public safety (60 percent told us they worry that crime is increasing where they live), a low cost of living amid growth (key factors in choosing where to live, according to our survey) and a say in a good education for their children (most support school choice and charter schools).

The highest-profile race, of course, was the surprise win by Virginia Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin, a Republican businessman who picked up important voters in the blue-and-purple suburbs. In fact, in local races across the country, a multiethnic, moderate coalition trounced progressives and their socialist allies, from India Walton’s loss in Buffalo to Minneapolis’ rejection of a police department overhaul and the likely election of Bruce Harrell as a more moderate mayor of Seattle. It turns out that most city dwellers and suburbanites care about the basics: safer neighborhoods, more jobs and a lower cost of living, and better options for a good education.

According to our latest poll with Echelon Insights of 4,000 residents in the 20 numerically fastest-growing metros — those cities like Dallas and Phoenix and Washington, D.C. that added the most residents since 2010 — there are opportunities for politicians of both parties to make inroads if they’re willing to listen to what the pragmatic metro majority has to say. (Older large cities with slower-growing or declining populations, like Chicago and Philadelphia, were not surveyed. A complete list is here.)

Here’s what we’ve found:

PUBLIC SAFETY: Our survey found a bipartisan majority (58 percent) worried about rising crime. Even residents in the liberal hotbeds of Minneapolis and Seattle came in at or near the top of our surveys for anxiety about rising crime and a lack of police presence, probably because of the riots they experienced last year. Even amid calls from the left to curb cops, more than half of our respondents — 39 percent of whom are non-white, overall—expressed confidence in the police and three-quarters wanted to recruit more talented officers. Just 13 percent said they wanted less policing in their own neighborhoods or cities. And other polling suggests this wasn’t just a white reaction: In July 2020, as the George Floyd riots took hold, more than 80 percent of Black Americans told Gallup they would like police to spend the same or more time in their neighborhoods.

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EDUCATION: Here, we also saw surprising political bedfellows. Just over half of Americans in the country’s fastest-growing big metros are wary of “critical race theory” in school curricula, including non-white residents: Fifty-four percent of Black parents told us they support removing lessons based on CRT from public school curricula, as did 61 percent of Hispanic parents. Few respondents overall said local schools are doing a good job, and most supported more school choice and charters.

ECONOMY: High costs led our early August survey, presaging the inflation fears and economic concerns that shot to the surface in national surveys released later the following month. More than half of respondents said they were barely able or unable to afford the cost of living in their area. And there was a clear educational divide, too: someone without a college degree was six times more likely to be unable to afford living in one of these fast-growing cities than a resident with a graduate degree. High taxes figure in here too, and just like with the high cost of living it’s the coastal hubs like New York, San Francisco, and Seattle where bipartisan pocketbook worries reign.

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High housing costs, along with homelessness, ranked as greater worries than Covid-19, public safety, taxes, education and jobs. Pricey shelter is becoming a concern for all Americans: coastal and inland; across races, incomes and party loyalties; and especially for Black and low-income parents (75 percent and 70 percent, respectively). And an incredible 90 percent of Seattle adults said they are concerned about homelessness, and recently in Austin bipartisan majorities voted in favor of banning homeless encampments.

Such unity even on hot-button local issues might seem surprising — after all, our politics has become increasingly partisan and nationalized and participation in local politics has been declining for decades. But when local issues become unavoidable — when crime spikes, economies lock down, schools shutter and home prices soar — we see voters move to the center and express views that are far more moderate, even conservative, than party labels would suggest.

For close watchers of national politics, the rise of a multiethnic, metropolitan center shouldn’t be too surprising. Over the past few years, culminating in the 2020 election, we’ve seen non-white voters play a role in cracking Democrats’ “blue wall” in states like Michigan and Wisconsin, and the advent of Obama-Trump voters. Though the Republican Party has enjoyed relative gains thanks to these trends — particularly among Hispanic voters — the upshot is bipartisan: as the left has been trading blue collars for white suburbanites and the right embraces the working-class and flyover country, the moderate metro coalitions are up for grabs — especially the diverse urban or urban-adjacent blue-collar voters who haven’t fully signed on with either party’s message.

Part of the story here is the rise of educational polarization and the decrease in racial divides. Since 2016, a diploma has become more predictive of voting while the color of one’s skin became less so. In 2016, non-college-educated whites swung hard against the Democratic Party. Four years later, only 10 percent of these Obama-Trump voters backed Biden. Similarly, non-college educated minority voters have increased their support for the GOP in those intervening years, joining the small but growing ranks of Obama-Trump voters and turning them into a more multiracial cohort.

The upshot: Political ideology is trumping ethnicity for a growing share of Americans. Ask voters to identify their own ideology without mentioning party and you’ll see the share of conservatives is roughly similar for Black, Hispanic, and white Americans. The ideological diversity within racial groups has all too often been masked by their party identities, with Blacks and Hispanics registering overwhelmingly as Democrats. But in 2020, as progressive pollster David Shor notes, “Nonwhite conservatives … [started] voting more like white conservatives.” Hispanic conservatives were among the most enthusiastic converts to voting by their ideology — they saw the highest increases in turnout in 2020, and many were once Democrats. And even Black Americans who self-identify as liberal hold attitudes on specific issues, like crime and welfare, that normally code conservative or moderate. “The median Black voter is not AOC and is actually closer to Eric Adams,” observed Stanford political science professor Hakeem Jefferson.

On issue after issue, the variety of opinion among metro voters has been misunderstood and even ignored. This matters for local politics, for sure, but also at the state and national levels where shifts in sentiment among these sizable metro populations can make a big difference in political outcomes, as we have just seen.

America regularly experiences upsets in politics and the rise of new areas of contestation in policy. Anyone who’s paid attention to this past year’s fights over policing, classrooms, and the cost of living knows that the stakes are high, and the issues that drive politics are increasingly those that are priorities for these voters. The party that wins on those issues, will be the party that wins over these voters.

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