For once, Long Island mattered in a presidential campaign.
Suburbs have delivered the decisive vote in the last six presidential campaigns, so call it serendipitous that Tuesday's pivotal confrontation between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney played out in Nassau County, the nation's iconic "First Suburb." More instructive, the town hall format assured that real suburbanites asked questions that reflect the angst of communities around the country that aren't nearly as prosperous or problem-free as stereotypes portray them.
Suburbanites send more kids to college proportionately and spend more on public education than other Americans, for instance, and they live in areas where the absence of rental housing makes it difficult for even graduates with advanced degrees to live among them -- unless they live in the parental home. So suburban viewers had to especially empathize with the first questioner, Jeremy Epstein -- and listen carefully for answers -- when the college student asked the candidates to reassure him "and more importantly, my parents, that I will be able to sufficiently support myself after I graduate."
But as important as the suburbs are in presidential politics, it's ironic that none of the Nassau questioners will cast a vote this November that will have any impact on who wins the White House. That's because New Yorkers, unlike suburbanites in six to eight states still truly in play, live in a "blue" state that both campaigns long ago conceded to the Democratic candidate.
Even the third debate in 2008, as proud as it made Hofstra University and the rest of Long Island, did not affect outcome in any meaningful way. Local residents did not ask questions and the race was already considered over even before Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama showed up.
Not Tuesday night. For 90 often tense and intriguing minutes, Long Islanders had a personal, in-your-face say in what may have been Campaign 2012's pivotal confrontation. They acted as surrogates for millions of people in aging suburbs whose votes will count -- and whose education, infrastructure and other needs are just as great.
Suburbanites own more cars, drive more miles and experience more highway congestion than other Americans. So Phillip Tricolla's clipped question to Obama about high gas prices was sure to resonate more among suburban voters in Virginia, Florida, Ohio and other swing states. Suburbanites have the highest level of home ownership and thus take the greatest advantage of mortgage and property tax deductions, so they had to be listening carefully after Mary Pollano nervously asked Romney about whether he'd eliminate them to pay for income tax cuts.
In style, Obama clearly outpointed Romney with a shaper and more vigorous presentation of his positions and rebuttal of his opponent's. Obama also scored well -- but not overwhelmingly so -- on matters of substance that appeal to suburban voters. Swing suburbanites tend to be moderate or even liberal on social issues, so Obama's positions on reproductive rights, gun control, immigration reform and green energy no doubt played better with them than Romney's, especially with women.
But Romney's focus on tax cuts and small business support should have appealed to many in suburban communities beset by high levys and supported by neighborhood enterprises. And Romney hardly came across as a social Neanderthal or a fiscal extremist.
If Obama regained his footing in the crabgrass frontier, which he carried four years ago, Romney didn't yield a lot of ground. The battle for the suburbs continues -- perhaps no longer on Long Island, but for one grand night, informed by it.
Lawrence C. Levy, a former Newsday columnist, heads the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University.