Levy: Mitt Romney and Barack Obama can't forget the suburbs

"No matter whom they support in this election,

"No matter whom they support in this election, suburbanites should demand at least that attention be paid," writes Lawrence C. Levy. (Credit: Janet Hamlin)

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Republican Mitt Romney's anointment last weekend of conservative icon Paul Ryan electrified activists on the right and the left. But it's also good news for the more moderate, independent voters who really determine national elections.

I'm talking about the suburbanites. And if they've been feeling left out of the debate while Romney and President Barack Obama have sought to secure their "red" and "blue" core voters, Ryan's ascension to the ticket solidifies those bases -- and assures that both campaigns will shift toward suburban swing voters. If the candidates are smart, they'll also shift to the economic, social and environmental problems increasingly plaguing these communities.

As a new University of Minnesota study of American suburbs warns: "Policy makers could pay a political price for failing to connect" with voters in these diverse and needy places. And based on Hofstra University's latest National Suburban Poll, which has Romney and Obama in a dead heat among suburbanites, one in four respondents said they could change their minds before Election Day.

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Whether Ryan will help Romney with these chronically finicky voters is another matter. The Wisconsin Republican certainly sounds like the sort of fiscal and social conservative who has turned many moderate suburbanites away from his party -- they're neither anti-tax nor anti-government, for instance, nor do they oppose abortion rights or gun control.

But Ryan, who won with 67 percent of the vote in a partially suburban district that Obama took with barely 50 percent, could be less of a liability than giddy Democrats seem to think.

More than 50 percent of the U.S. population lives in the suburbs, and party-switching is almost a pastime, especially in so-called inner-ring suburbs like those closest to New York City. On average, these suburbs "are evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, and are often the political battlegrounds that determine elections," said the Minnesota study, conducted by Myron Orfield and Thomas Luce for the Institute for Metropolitan Opportunity. "They are more likely than other voters to switch parties from one election to another and, as a result, often decide the balance of state legislatures and Congress as well as the outcomes of gubernatorial and presidential elections."

Hofstra's poll, released Aug. 3, showed marked gains for Obama among suburbanites nationwide -- moving him to a tie with Romney after having been down against him in a theoretical matchup in December. The shift, also seen in several measures of favorability among suburbanites, seems to reflect a rising confidence in the economy. But it's all fragile. Although improved, confidence in the economy is relatively low.

And the pain remains piercing: Even though the suburbs are still stereotyped as uniformly prosperous, 44 percent of respondents reported living paycheck to paycheck; 73 percent said they had lost a job or knew someone who had; and 43 percent said they or someone they knew had lost a home.


Meanwhile, the iconic post-World War II suburbs are getting older -- Levittown just turned 65 -- and they're showing their age. Many, including Nassau, Suffolk and Westchester, require huge infusions of cash to redevelop decayed downtowns, provide affordable housing, ease traffic congestion, preserve open space and protect the environment. The federal government once paid a large share of many of these public works, which even the wealthiest suburban communities can't afford on their own. But the feds, as well as most states, have cut way back on local assistance.

Ironically, with all the clout suburbanites wield in national elections, they have far less when it comes to influencing national policy. That's partly due to a congressional committee system that keeps powerful chairs in place, sometimes for decades, at the expense of newer members. Another reason suburbanites get shortchanged: Federal laws and public perception haven't kept up with the seismic changes and challenges they face.

At first blush, the Hofstra poll and others suggest that Ryan's fiscal policies won't help Romney with suburban swing voters. A majority support higher taxes on the wealthy and government action to "substantially reduce" income disparity -- central thrusts in Obama's campaign. Ryan is perhaps best known for proposing deep cuts or changes in Medicare and Social Security reform. But the Hofstra poll showed suburbanites more supportive of social spending, especially for the elderly, than of tax cuts.


Republicans, however, have an opening. The Hofstra poll suggests that suburbanites have little confidence in the federal government, as well as in their own futures. Even as Democrats are caricaturing Ryan as a fiscal and social Darth Vader, Republicans are calling Obama an incompetent who couldn't get the job done. The GOP isn't talking up less help from government, but better and more affordable help. Game on.

What suburbanites should fear the most, however, is neither cuts nor incompetence, but inattention to their specific, place-based problems. They need to hear how the presidential candidates will help these fragmented and sometimes isolated suburban communities with their infrastructure, education, housing, health care and other needs.

Collectively the suburbs are too big to be allowed to fail and too small to help themselves. Arguably, the fate of the nation rests on their future. So no matter whom they support in this election, suburbanites should demand at least that attention be paid.

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