It Wasn’t Rural ‘Hicks’ Who Elected Trump: The Suburbs Were — And Will Remain — The Real Battleground

2016 Election Map

Much of the New York and Washington press corps has concluded that Donald Trump’s surprising journey to the Oval Office was powered by country bumpkins expressing their inner racist misogyny. However, the real foundations for his victory lie not in the countryside and small towns, but in key suburban counties.

The popular notion of “city” and “country,” one progressive and “vibrant,” the other regressive and dying, misses the basic geographic point: the largest metropolitan constituency in the country, far larger than the celebrated, and deeply class-divided core cities, is the increasingly diverse suburbs. Trump won suburbia by a significant five percentage point margin nationally, improving on Romney’s two-point edge, and by more outside the coastal regions.

Despite the blue urbanist cant that dense metro areas — inevitably labelled “vibrant” — are the future, in fact, core cities are growing at a slower pace than their more spread out suburbs and exurbs, which will make these edge areas even more important politically and economically in the coming decade. The states that voted for Trump enjoyed net domestic migration of 1.45 million from 2010 to 2015, naturally drawn from the states that were won by Hillary Clinton. Democrat-leaning ethnic groups, like Hispanics, are expanding rapidly, but Americans are moving in every greater numbers to the more conservative geographies of the Sun Belt, the suburbs and exurbs.

Suburbs Drive Swing States

The future battles between the parties will have to be waged where the people and jobs are: suburbia. Suburban voters particularly put Trump ahead in the crucial Midwestern states of Michigan, Wisconsin, and came close to winning him supposedly deep blue Minnesota. This is where the Democratic falloff from the Obama years was most evident, notes Mike Barone, falling from dropping from 54 percent for Obama to 2008 to 45 percent this year.

Clinton did win some suburban counties, especially in the Philadelphia area, but by lower margins than President Obama had in 2012. Clinton’s margin was also lower in some older rustbelt urban counties: Erie (Buffalo), Onondaga (Syracuse), Monroe (Rochester), Albany, and Hamilton (Cincinnati). A number of college towns and state capitals also invariably voted for Clinton, overwhelmingly.

Overall, though, most suburban counties in the swing states supported Trump. In Michigan, Trump lost Detroit, and surrounding Wayne County, by better than two to one, but captured four of the five surrounding suburban counties. His margin greatly exceeded that of Romney in these counties, which, combined with his strong support in smaller cities and rural areas outside the major metropolitan areas, put him over the top in this critical state.

A similar pattern can be seen in Pennsylvania. Clinton, of course, won overwhelmingly in the large urban counties — the city of Philadelphia went for her by 82 to 15. She also won some nearby suburban counties around the city, as was expected. But elsewhere Trump did better. He lost Allegheny County (Pittsburgh) but won all the surrounding suburban countries by piling up 54 percent to 74 percent of the votes; he lost the state capital of Harrisburg but made that up by crushing her in the suburban counties. Particularly striking was his victory in historically Democratic Erie County (population 280.000), west of Buffalo; Obama had won the county by 16 points in 2012.

Much the same can be said about Wisconsin, where Trump was not expected to be too competitive, as well as Ohio, someplace he was expected to win. Clinton’s edge in Ohio’s smaller, blue collar urban constituencies fell well below the levels enjoyed by President Obama while surrounding suburban counties went, almost without exception, heavily for Trump.

The Political Geography Of The Future

Ultimately the road to recovery for Democrats does not lie in expanding the urban core vote. As Mike Lind has suggested, progressives embrace a kind of post-national “open borders” ideology that makes sense in denser, global cities — where the demand for low-end service labor is greater — than in suburban or small town and rural areas that tend to be more egalitarian and, for the most part, whiter.

There may be growing unanimity of Democratic support in core areas, but urban cores are growing more slowly, or not at all, compared to the suburbs. Indeed the urban vote in the cores, although obviously tilted blue, has dropped in recent years, with the exception of the Obama run in 2008. Nor do attempts to call suburban or “countryside” people “deplorable,” racist and even too fat constitute much of a strategy to appeal to these areas.

In contrast, Trump’s geographic coalition between the deep red countryside and the suburbs demonstrated an alternative that can work, particularly in key swing states. Despite the wishes of many planners, and their Democratic allies, suburbs and small towns are not about to go away in the near future. Areas outside million-plus metropolitan areas accounted for 100 percent of the vote in Iowa, 61 percent in Wisconsin, 47 percent in Michigan and Pennsylvania, and 44 percent in Ohio. They may not be demographically ascendant, but they still carry considerable heft.

Nor can blue state advocates continue to claim that millennials will not move to suburbia, because that is clearly happening. Urbanist mythology now holds to a fallback position that millennials move to the suburbs simply because they have been priced out. However, they don’t look at other compelling reasons — notably shaped by life stage — for suburban growth. As most millennials will soon be over 30, its seems likely more will head to the periphery, as did earlier generations to gain more space to raise a family, better schools and safety. Even after the Great Recession people continued to move in large numbers from urban core counties to the less dense suburbs and exurbs. Between 2010 and 2015, suburban counties of major metropolitan areas added 825,000 net domestic migrants, while the urban core counties lost nearly 600,000. The real question is whether millennials will turn these red-trending areas bluer, or will their experience as homeowners and parents make them more traditional and conservatively minded suburbanites?

The basic geographic and demographic conclusion: the balance of political power lies with suburban and exurban counties, particularly in swing states. Republicans need to build on their success by appealing more the minorities and immigrants who are also moving to the periphery. To return to power, the Democrats should shift their attention from their urban core base and look more to the periphery. In the end, they need to provide compelling reason why these areas should support a party that, at least for now, seems generally favorable to their exclusion and even ultimate demise.

This piece originally appeared in Forbes.

Joel Kotkin is executive editor of He is the Roger Hobbs Distinguished Fellow in Urban Studies at Chapman University and executive director of the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism. His newest book, The Human City: Urbanism for the rest of us, will be published in April by Agate. He is also author of The New Class Conflict, The City: A Global History, and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. He lives in Orange County, CA.

Wendell Cox is principal of Demographia, an international public policy and demographics firm. He is a Senior Fellow of the Center for Opportunity Urbanism (US), Senior Fellow for Housing Affordability and Municipal Policy for the Frontier Centre for Public Policy (Canada), and a member of the Board of Advisors of the Center for Demographics and Policy at Chapman University (California). He is co-author of the “Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey” and author of “Demographia World Urban Areas” and “War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life.” He was appointed to three terms on the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission, where he served with the leading city and county leadership as the only non-elected member. He served as a visiting professor at the Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers, a national university in Paris.

Electoral map by Ali Zifan (This file was derived from:  USA Counties.svg) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons