University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV)

Blue Metros, Red States: America’s Suburbs and the New Battleground in Presidential Politics

UNLV research team explores the population and politics of 13 swing states, pushing beyond the old blue state-red state model and painting a new picture where changing suburbs influence outcomes.

Newswise — A U.S. map peppered with red and blue has become the unofficial logo of the presidential election in recent years. But it hasn’t always been that way, and, like much in politics, it’s a bit more complicated. 

The red state-blue state concept was made for TV, concocted roughly two decades ago to simplify complicated electoral maps for viewers on Election Day. A UNLV research team argues that the key to getting a handle on the zany nature of presidential politics — and to unlocking what ultimately turns into a red state or blue state — requires digging into the demographic economic and political dynamics of the nation’s largest metropolitan areas to see how these regions differ from the balance of their states. 

In the newly released "Blue Metros, Red StatesThe Shifting Urban-Rural Divide in America's Swing States," UNLV political experts David Damore, Robert Lang, and Karen Danielsen analyze 27 major metros located within 13 swing states, exploring demographic data, voting trends, and a multitude of economic and social characteristics. They also spoke with more than 20 experts to gain the nuance behind the numbers in each state.  

What they found is that the old urban/rural divide in political and policy ideology has moved to the suburbs, creating a new battleground between more urbanized, Democrat-leaning suburban areas, and those removed from the urban core who predominantly vote more conservative.  

So what does this mean for the 2020 election? We joined the authors, virtually, for a discussion on the concept of blue metros and red states, how demographics and migration could further cement or change electoral maps, and which suburbs may prove to be the tipping point in November. 

How did the concept of “red” states vs. “blue” state emerge, and why is this concept flawed, or at least incomplete?

David Damore: The red state/blue state concept was a media shorthand created around 2000 as a way to describe the electoral map, but the reality is that no state is fully red and no state is fully blue. While it looks good on TV, American politics is much more complicated than that. What we did with our research was explore differences within the states to understand how these urban, rural, and increasingly suburban forces animate state politics and state policy. 
Karen Danielsen:  When you think about red and blue states, it’s important to understand that there are very few states that fit this model completely anymore, because the lines between red and blue areas within states is often blurred. Even though they’re categorized based on their  voting pattern, most red states, for example, have a distinct amount of liberal, or blue, within their boundaries. It does hold true, however, that there are distinct areas that are more liberal versus more rural parts that tend to be more conservative. 

Robert Lang: Places like Wyoming and Vermont are, using the red/blue concept, pure red and blue respectively. But even where the Grand Tetons are, Jackson Hole may go blue for the first time. There are states that are reliably red and are the base for the Republicans. And there are states that are mostly blue and make up the base for Democrats. That’s really the only relevance red and blue has anymore, as the real tipping point lies in the large metro areas. 

How did the notion for blue metros and red states come about, and how have the lines between red and blue blurred in recent years?

Lang: I attended a conference at Rice University in 2017 with major university research centers throughout the Sunbelt. These were people from large metros, and there was a general view that states were at odds with these metros in providing resources, and generally understanding these areas culturally. This was during a time when the bathroom bill in North Carolina had just passed, and the resulting fallout sparked a continued conversation. 

Damore: Because many view the federal government as broken, many big issues are now addressed at the state level. This includes issues like immigration, which people largely consider a federal issue. These aren’t just salient issues nationally, but also within the states themselves. 

Lang: It made sense to explore these issues further, and what we found are these huge differences between metro areas, where most people live, and the policies and politics of the states they’re located within. With respect to voting behaviors, an example is Illinois, with overwhelmingly large blue metropolitan areas that make them a virtual lock for Democrats. Then you look at a state like Alabama, where its Democratic-leaning metros aren’t large enough to counterbalance the Republican majority in the rest of the state. 

Danielsen: This is similar in Ohio. There are several big cities that are blue, but there’s perhaps not enough population in those cities to overtake the rural and more red-leaning vote. It’s one to watch in the upcoming election. 

The contrast in your research of Democrat-leaning population centers and more conservative rural areas comes to a head in the suburbs. What surprises you most about this suburban split?

Damore: We were trying to find the tipping point in these “battleground” states and focused on the more urbanized and dense suburban areas as keys for movement in voting behavior. We saw this in the 2018 election, where the Democratic House pickups were in suburban districts in these large, blue metros. Note that these swings were not limited to blue and swing states, but also occurred in red states like Kansas and Oklahoma. 

It’s the same story heading into the 2020 election, when you look at polling. Suburbs that traditionally had been more conservative are getting denser and more city-like. And with that they’re getting more diverse. And with that, their politics are changing. And as they become a larger share of their states, they’re able to push the overall vote in the state one way or the other. 

Fast-growing, large-scale urbanizing suburbs constitute the tipping point between blue and red America. How does migration – both from the city to the suburbs but also from state to state – play a role in swing states? 

Lang: Scottsdale, Arizona and Plano, Texas are great examples of this, where the flip zone in voter sentiment is moving further out to the suburbs. These areas used to be red and they’re now much bluer. Another example is in Northern Virginia, where the suburbs have grown and flipped to the point where there’s not enough conservative voters in Southern and Western Virginia left to offset what we’re seeing there. That’s why Virginia is so reliably blue this election. 

Danielsen: Florida, because of the migration of Puerto Ricans there after Hurricane Maria, has also changed in recent election cycles. Though this is shifting back a bit as some Puerto Ricans are returning back to Puerto Rico, the Puerto Rican vote could still significantly impact Florida’s election outcome. Florida and also North Carolina continue to see migration from the Northeast, and states like Nevada have seen growth from California. 

Damore: One thing we learned during our research was how much awareness there is of the “Californication” of some states, with stories and op-eds in papers through the Southwest lamenting the influx of Californians to their states. 

Lang: There’s a sense that northeasterners move to the south like Georgia, Florida, and the Carolinas and are transforming the voter profile in those states. California migration is changing Arizona, Colorado, and Nevada, and it’s already changed Oregon. Texas is unique in that it’s seeing big growth from both coasts. 

Are there metros located within battleground states that we should look for in November?

Lang:  If I knew how Maricopa County (Arizona) and Duval County (Florida) would vote, I think I’d have a pretty good sense of the outcome of the election. 

Danielsen: Jacksonville, located within Duval County, is a unique metropolitan area. It’s in North Florida and pulls its newer somewhat conservative population from Georgia and more liberal newcomers from all other parts of the country. It’s a mixing bowl of different political views right now. It’s a toss-up culturally. 

You’ve studied this for us. Now in your opinion, what’s the biggest takeaway people should consider heading into the 2020 election?

Damore: Regardless of whether you're in a blue or red state, the biggest predictor of how you’ll vote is how close you live to a big city. Even if you’re in a Republican state but in or close to a big city, you’re more likely to vote Democratic. A place like Utah, with Salt Lake City, is an example. The farther out people are away from Salt Lake City, the more likely they may be to vote Republican. 

Danielsen: I think the new battleground is going to be the suburbs. It’s not just going to be rural vs. cities — it will be the areas in between. I think most political strategies are going to have to deal more with these areas than they have in the past. 

Lang: You also need to consider diversity within diversity, a concept Dave has coined. Southern Nevada, for example, isn’t a city with limited diversity. We have replicated the approximate share of diversity that exists in the country as a whole. What we find is that those metro areas are especially potent in their ability to tip the balance of a state in their direction. 

Read more: The authors’ research is chronicled in “Blue Metros, Red States: The Shifting Urban-Rural Divide in America’s Swing States,” which was released Oct. 6 by Brookings Institution Press. David Damore is professor and chair of political science at UNLV; Robert Lang is a professor and the Lincy Endowed Chair in Urban Affairs at UNLV; and Karen Danielsen is associate professor of public policy and leadership at UNLV. 

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