Bill Oesterle: The shifting politics of the suburbs

Keywords Forefront / Opinion
  • Comments
  • Print

OesterleThe 2018 elections have come and gone. The results in Indiana generally followed predictions, although the Senate contest was not as close as projected. Normally, it takes 10 days or so for final precinct numbers to come in, and this year was typical.

When these numbers are final, I like to take a look at county totals and compare them across election cycles back to 1988 to look for trends. While the overall results looked predictable, in 2018 they established some significant trends.

The 2016 elections were unusual for all sorts of reasons, including breaking some deep traditional voting trends in the state. Donald Trump’s stomping of Hillary Clinton in Indiana can be summed up in three new trends: Urban Democrats did not turn out, rural Republicans did in droves, and suburban districts moved Democratic. The rural turnout was unprecedented in modern elections and completely covered up the shift in the suburbs.

For me, the shift in the suburbs was the most interesting. For every election cycle since 1988, the suburbs have been becoming more Republican. In every election before 2016, Republican candidates built their elections around big margins in the doughnut counties of Indianapolis. Interestingly, in 2016, Trump underperformed badly in those counties.

I was fascinated to see how these trends would continue in 2018. Was 2016 an anomaly, or was it the start of new trends? Based on the counties I have compared so far, it looks like we might be seeing a distinct change in dynamics.

All three of the 2016 trends continued in 2018, relative to pre-2016 elections. Rural turnout was strong and overwhelmingly Republican. Urban Democrats continued to stay home, and suburban counties became more purple, although not as significantly as in 2016.

The obvious question is: What will this mean for 2020? My honest answer is that I have no idea. Much will be decided by the type of candidate the Democrats run for president. I suspect that rural turnout will remain high and heavily Republican. I also suspect that suburban districts will continue to shift Democratic, maybe dramatically with Trump on the ticket. What I can’t predict is urban turnout. Either the Dems have a candidate to inspire urban voters or they won’t—and that might be the difference.

Thinking about 2020 is fun and will become the obsession of political observers from this point until Election Day. But I am most interested in the long-term implications of these trends.

Rural areas in Indiana are declining in population. In some counties, the rate of decline is dramatic. Urban areas in Indiana are stable, basically holding their own or growing slightly. The real growth areas of the state are the suburbs. Until 2016, this was a trend that overwhelmingly benefited Republicans. That might have changed.

The most dramatic large-scale trend that may be developing is the growing urban area (city and suburb) versus rural split. If the trends of 2016-2018 continue, Indiana will, for the first time, be completely dependent on rural/urban trends. If true, Democrats will begin to dominate municipal and statewide elections, while Republicans dominate county governments and the Legislature.

Those would make for some very interesting times. I guess we shall see.•

Click here for more Forefront columns.

__________

Oesterle is the CEO at Tmap LLC. He managed Republican Mitch Daniels’ first run for governor. Send comments to ibjedit@ibj.com.

Please enable JavaScript to view this content.

Editor's note: You can comment on IBJ stories by signing in to your IBJ account. If you have not registered, please sign up for a free account now. Please note our updated comment policy that will govern how comments are moderated.

Get the best of Indiana business news. ONLY $1/week Subscribe Now

Get the best of Indiana business news. ONLY $1/week Subscribe Now

Get the best of Indiana business news. ONLY $1/week Subscribe Now

Get the best of Indiana business news. ONLY $1/week Subscribe Now

Get the best of Indiana business news.

Limited-time introductory offer for new subscribers

ONLY $1/week

Cancel anytime

Subscribe Now

Already a paid subscriber? Log In

Get the best of Indiana business news.

Limited-time introductory offer for new subscribers

ONLY $1/week

Cancel anytime

Subscribe Now

Already a paid subscriber? Log In

Get the best of Indiana business news.

Limited-time introductory offer for new subscribers

ONLY $1/week

Cancel anytime

Subscribe Now

Already a paid subscriber? Log In

Get the best of Indiana business news.

Limited-time introductory offer for new subscribers

ONLY $1/week

Cancel anytime

Subscribe Now

Already a paid subscriber? Log In