WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump over the past month has ramped up his appeals to suburban voters — directing tweets to the “Suburban Housewives of America” and “all the people living their Suburban Lifestyle Dream” — as polls show him trailing former Vice President Joe Biden, particularly with suburbanites.
In 2016, Trump’s ability to flip suburban districts in delegate-rich swing states including Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania played a key role in his Electoral College victory.
But as the coronavirus pandemic continues to take its toll on the country, and as issues of racial inequality have become a focal point of the election, Trump has seen his support among suburban voters erode.
The president’s campaign advisers have publicly dismissed the polls, noting that support for Trump among Republicans remains solid.
But political scientists say waning support among suburban voters — particularly women — is a troubling sign for the president’s reelection effort.
“Suburban voters have decided national elections for a generation now,” said Lawrence Levy, executive dean at Hofstra University’s National Center for Suburban Studies. “They’re more than half the voters, and they tend to be swing voters … so any candidate has to build a bridge from their base to suburban voters if they want to win.”
Levy noted that four years ago Trump, “carried the suburbs by a fairly healthy margin, primarily by building bridges within the suburbs, from very conservative people and enough moderates to get him over the finish line.”
This year, Levy said, Trump has faced declining support among suburban voters, "especially college educated women” because of his responses to the pandemic and civil rights protests.
A recent sample of national polls shows Biden in most instances leading Trump by double-digit margins among suburban voters. In 2016, exit polls showed 49% of suburban voters voted for Trump compared with 45% for Democrat Hillary Clinton.
Biden led Trump by 56% to 34% among suburban voters polled by Quinnipiac University July 9-13. The poll of 1,273 registered voters had a margin of error of plus or minus 2.8 percentage points.
A Fox News poll of 1,100 registered voters conducted July 12-15 showed Biden with 49% support compared with Trump’s 38% among suburbanites. The poll's margin of error was plus or minus 3 percentage points.
And Biden led Trump by 52% to 43% among suburban voters in an ABC News/Washington Post poll of 1,006 respondents conducted July 12-15. The margin of error was plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
The polling gap is more pronounced among suburban women voters.
The ABC News/Washington Post poll showed Biden with a 24-point lead over Trump among those voters; in the Fox News poll Biden had a 23-point advantage.
Trump’s tweets to suburban voters have focused on his administration’s opposition to a series of short-lived Obama-era fair housing rules meant to address systemic racial inequities in access to housing, transportation and other public services.
The rules, known as the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing regulations, were meant to bolster guarantees in the landmark Fair Housing Act of 1968 by requiring local governments to develop plans to address housing discrimination in order to qualify for federal development grants. Last month, Trump rolled back the requirements, saying they would have a “devastating” impact on the suburbs.
Biden has said he will reinstate the rules. In a recent tweet directed at “The Suburban Housewives of America,” Trump asserted, “Biden will destroy your neighborhood and your American Dream.”
Days later, Trump followed-up on Twitter, saying that because he had rolled back the AFFH rules, “all of the people living their Suburban Lifestyle Dream … will no longer be bothered or financially hurt by having low income housing built in your neighborhood.”
Levy cautioned that in such pitches, Trump is, “appealing to communities that are more and more diverse, where blatant appeals to racial and class fears not only may not work as well as perhaps they once did, but they can backfire.”
“Aiming his tweets and refocusing his campaign on suburban voters, especially women, makes a lot of sense,” Levy said. “The problem for the campaign is that he seems to have a 1950s or 1960s vision of the suburbs."
Levy noted that "more than half of women work out of the house" and a "growing number of women" are heads of household.
"So, the people he seems to be going after, kind of hung up their aprons, and put away the station wagons and are hitting the commuter trains and buses instead," Levy said.
Ashley Koning, director of the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling at Rutgers University in New Jersey, said, "who Trump is talking to and who in reality suburban women are, are two very different groups."
Konig argued, "it's not the homogenous group that we thought it was decades ago, and particularly not a group that stays at home and can be swayed by messages that are riddled with fear. We've labeled this voting bloc of women, things like 'soccer moms' and 'Walmart moms,' but suburban women are not a monolith … We can view them instead as more racially diverse, with varying levels of education and income."
Former Suffolk County GOP chairman John Jay LaValle, who serves on the Trump 2020 national finance committee, said the campaign is not concerned about polls showing Trump's loss of support among suburbanites. LaValle pointed to the 2016 election when most polls had Clinton leading Trump.
LaValle said the “Defund the Police” movement promoted by liberal Democratic activists — which calls in part for redirection of law enforcement funding to social service programs that can address underlying causes of crime — likely will turn voters away from Biden.
Biden has said he does not support defunding police departments and has proposed a $300 million increase in federal aid to local departments.
“We live in the suburbs, we come out here because we don't want to be city dwellers. We don't want that type of life,” LaValle said. “We want to have trees, and we want to have peace, and we don't want crime, and that's as simple as it gets — and bottom line is, that's not what the Democrat party is advocating.”
Former Rep. Steve Israel (D-Huntington), director of the Institute of Politics and Global Affairs at Cornell University and an adviser to the Biden campaign, said Trump’s appeals were likely not enough to peel away support from Biden, as polls show an increasing number of voters dissatisfied with Trump’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.
“The nation is so tribalized that if you’re a Trump or Biden voter in the suburbs you’re not changing your mind no matter what’s happening,” said Israel, who previously led the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “But for the 15% of voters who are undecided on Long Island and across the country, they are by their very nature moderate, and they tend to reject divisive language.”
Asked if he thought Trump’s tweets attacking Biden’s fair housing plans would cut into Biden’s support, Israel said: “If those issues motivate you as a voter, then you’re likely voting for Trump. But right now suburban voters are anxious about COVID and the economic recovery, and President Trump has failed miserably on those two priorities.”