The roots of Joe Biden’s win in the suburbs are far deeper than Donald Trump

Though President Trump’s policies and behavior accelerated the suburbs’ transformation into a central part of the Democratic coalition, the roots of Biden’s success can be traced to the Clinton era of the early to mid-1990s.

As the suburbs grew dramatically in the years following World War II, they became incubators for transforming working-class Democrats into Republicans. Blue-collar union voters, the backbone of the New Deal coalition, moved out of the cities, bought homes and joined the burgeoning middle class. “The voters you need, your people, men with lunch pails,” an adviser told President John F. Kennedy in 1963, “are moving out to the suburbs.” Understanding that some of these voters might switch parties, Kennedy observed, “It’s going to be a new kind of politics.” With their newfound affluence, some embraced the GOP economic message of fiscal conservatism and limited government.

Exemplifying the state of politics, in the tight 1968 presidential election between Vice President Hubert Humphrey and former vice president Richard M. Nixon, Humphrey won Pennsylvania despite losing nationally. His strength in the Keystone State came from Philadelphia and from heavily unionized and Democratic western counties. On the other hand, Nixon won the affluent GOP suburbs outside the City of Brotherly Love, where the traditional Republican message resonated. With urban populations in decline and unions in retreat, the tide was moving toward Republicans, who would win Pennsylvania in four of the next five elections.

In 1988, Vice President George H.W. Bush carried the Philadelphia suburbs and the suburbs nationally in his victory over Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis. Though many suburban voters might have been concerned about the growing prominence of religious conservatives in the GOP coalition during the Reagan years, this worry was trumped by their fear of higher taxes and economic mismanagement from the Democrats. Furthermore, Bush appealed to the social concerns of suburban voters by slightly distancing himself from Ronald Reagan’s legacy by pledging to be the “education president” as well as the “environmental president.”

As the 1992 election cycle got underway, political analyst Bill Schneider wrote, “The United States is a nation of suburbs,” adding, “This year will see the first presidential election in which a majority of the voters will in all likelihood be suburbanites — the first election of the suburban century.” Such a prospect seemed daunting for a Democratic Party already reeling from five losses in six elections.

But circumstances moved in their direction, as a recession followed by a jobless recovery weakened Bush. The 1992 Republican convention also played into Democrats’ hands, highlighting socially conservative speakers as Bush struggled to energize base voters. These fire-and-brimstone speeches alienated many suburbanites, who tended to be moderate on cultural issues. And Bill Clinton moved the Democrats toward the center, enabling him to win nearly half the suburban vote in his victory over Bush.

Among other noteworthy changes, Montgomery County, Pa., a key Philadelphia suburb, backed a Democrat for president for the first time since Lyndon B. Johnson’s landslide win over Barry Goldwater in 1964. Also, for the first time since 1916, a Democrat, Marjorie Margolies Mezvinsky, captured a House seat in the county.

But Clinton stumbled politically in his first two years in office. His push to allow gay people in the military and support for universal health care, as well as a tax increase to achieve deficit reduction, made him appear too liberal in some eyes. Conversely, Clinton’s fiscal conservatism and passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) left some liberals ambivalent about the president. As a result, Republicans hammered congressional Democrats in the 1994 midterm elections, as the GOP took the Senate and seized control of the House for the first time since 1954. Mezvinsky cast the crucial vote in favor of Clinton’s tax increase — and lost her seat.

Rep. Newt Gingrich, who represented the Atlanta suburbs and had long been the avatar of a more scorched-earth conservatism, became speaker of the House. His ascension symbolized the rise of a more conservative congressional GOP. Gingrich and his allies proceeded to try to enact large tax cuts while also balancing the budget through major spending reductions.

Despite the opposition of some of his more liberal advisers who wanted to attack GOP cuts to social programs, Clinton proposed his own balanced budget plan to appeal to suburban swing voters. This enabled him to claim to be a more responsible fiscal steward who would balance the budget while also protecting “Medicare, Medicaid, education and the environment,” a refrain that would be heard frequently on the trail throughout 1996. Suburban “soccer moms,” as they were dubbed, who strongly supported the social safety net, were especially drawn to these policies.

To defuse charges about his own morals and adultery, Clinton sought to emphasize public “values” issues with appeal to suburban voters who distrusted the president. Long-forgotten micro-initiatives such as promoting school uniforms and the “v-chip,” which allowed parents to control the television programs their children watched, represented central parts of this strategy. These tactics — with assistance from a strong economy and a disastrous government shutdown that voters blamed on the GOP — propelled Clinton to an easy victory over former senator Bob Dole.

Analysts drew attention to Clinton’s performance in the suburbs. “The Republican Party suffered a major erosion among suburban voters in the Midwest and Northeast,” Dan Balz wrote in The Washington Post, “continuing a slide that began four years ago.” Some of this improvement came among more upscale suburbs as Clinton won 43 of the nation’s 100 most affluent counties, up from 36 in 1992 and a mere 17 for Dukakis in 1988.

While Clinton won Macomb County, a Detroit suburb that had garnered considerable attention for being the prototypical home of working-class “Reagan Democrats,” he also emerged victorious in the more well-to-do Oakland County, becoming the first Democrat to do so since 1964. Clinton also improved on his showing in the Philadelphia suburbs from 1992, in part because of the growing contrast between the parties on cultural issues. “We were getting Republicans . . . to vote for us because of the Brady bill and assault weapons ban and choice,” the head of the Clinton-Gore campaign in the state explained.

These trends continued into the 21st century as the GOP’s views on social issues such as abortion, gun control and eventually immigration alienated voters in the increasingly diverse suburbs. In 2004, John F. Kerry became the first Democrat to carry wealthy Fairfax County, Va., in the D.C. suburbs since 1964, and though Kerry lost Virginia to George W. Bush, the county’s shift to the left would be a prime reason for the state’s transition from red to purple to blue. In 2016, Hillary Clinton became the first Democrat since 1976 to carry Cobb County in the Atlanta suburbs, once Gingrich’s home turf, and Biden won it by even more to eke out a victory in Georgia this year. And the former vice president’s overwhelming margins in Montgomery County and the other Philadelphia suburbs — as well as in suburbs throughout the state — were enough to offset Trump’s strength in what were once working-class Democratic strongholds and return Pennsylvania to the Democratic column after Trump’s upset win there four years ago.

The Democrats’ suburban strength has enabled the party to win the popular vote in seven of the last eight elections. But it is not without its drawbacks, because the very cultural positions that endear Democrats to suburbanites have contributed to the party’s losses in small-town and rural America. It also creates potential challenges for the future: Will fiscally moderate, socially liberal suburbanites be able to coexist with the rising progressive wing of the party? Will these cultural positions push socially conservative minority voters into the GOP as they have working-class White voters?

Republicans, meanwhile, continue to face a greater challenge: Unless they find a way to regain the affection of their old base, they will struggle to win presidential elections.