The story of the 2020 election is the story of suburban women.
True, that has largely been the case in almost every presidential election for the past several decades. And true, microtargeted groups of suburban women—“soccer moms,” “security moms,” and so on—have soaked up a disproportionate amount of attention from politicians and the pundit class.
But to a substantial degree, what’s happening in America’s suburbs right now is about how those old understandings of suburban women are wrong. What polling shows, and what demographers are noticing, is that America’s suburbs are growing and becoming more diverse. And that is contributing to a massive political shift that is remaking the electoral map in lasting ways.
“The whole concept of ‘Blue Wall’ states is kind of over because of these suburban shifts,” said Anna Greenberg, the Democratic pollster whose research often centers around suburban women voters. “Certain states are more in play for Biden specifically because of the suburbs. I’m thinking about Arizona, Georgia and North Carolina. In some ways, those states are almost better opportunities than a place like Wisconsin.”
It’s not all smooth sailing for Joe Biden, though. “Republicans have done a masterful job of undermining confidence in his abilities around his age,” Greenberg said. And because of the ways the pandemic has upended the norms of political campaigns, “Biden didn’t get a reintroduction to the electorate the way he traditionally would have.”
Shortly after Democrats retook the House of Representatives in 2018, Greenberg, long sought after for her expertise on women’s voting patterns, warned that “the gender dynamic that helped Democrats take back the House may not be entirely helpful in 2020.” But now that we’re in the midst of 2020—and we’ve seen the specific reasons why Trump is struggling among suburban voters—that outlook is changing.
The suburban political shift, in her view, also adds a risk for Republicans even after Trump leaves office.
“If Trump loses, that Trump base is still the majority of the Republican Party, and I’m going to guess that he is going to play, like, a movement leader role after he leaves office,” she said. With a post-White House Trump occupying that space as a movement leader and omnipresent media figure—and suburban voters turned off by his divisive political style—“he will still be the center of power in the Republican Party, even if he’s out of office. And I don’t know how the Republicans are going to navigate that.”
Also a problem, says Greenberg, is that Trump has an outdated view of who suburban women are.
“When Trump referred to suburban women as ‘housewives,’ it was telling,” Greenberg said. “When you look at the ways they’re trying to appeal to this archetypal woman voter, it is so rooted in a fairly traditional way of thinking about women’s experiences and what women care about. And it misses the mark in some pretty profound ways.”
One of those ways: Trump’s focus on “law and order” in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests just doesn’t seem to resonate with suburban women in the polls and focus groups Greenberg has seen. And, in fact, it reminds many of them of one of the things they dislike most about the president: The sense that he’s inflaming racial divisions.
“People come to this narrative already in a place of being unhappy with how Trump has dealt with the issue—that rather than bringing people together and having a reckoning to try to move us forward, he, in fact, has sort of made it worse,” said Greenberg. “Like, there’s no monolith of white women in the suburbs who are like locking their doors and putting on their burglar alarms, scared of invading hordes. It’s just not the way they think about their lives.”
Right now, with the GOP and Democratic conventions wrapped up and the general election clock winding down, what messages should suburban women expect to hear over the next nine weeks? Which suburbs should we be paying special attention to? And why, after so many years of focusing on suburban women, do we still get so much wrong? To sort through all of this, Greenberg spoke with POLITICO on Thursday. A transcript of the conversation is below, condensed and edited for length and clarity.
Zack Stanton: The Republican National Convention has featured a number of obvious attempts to court suburban women voters—whether that’s women talking about being mothers or Vice President Pence saying “you won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America.” Usually, appeals to suburban women aren’t quite this explicit. What happened? Why are we hearing so much about the suburbs?
Anna Greenberg: The reason why there’s such attention on the suburbs is because of the huge electoral shift between 2016 and 2018, which was largely driven by women in the suburbs. If you look at all the suburban Democratic pickups around the country, that’s the group that shifted the most. That’s why certain states Trump won in 2016 are harder for him this time around, like Pennsylvania.
Taking a step back, there’s always been this attempt to characterize a certain set of women voters—whether it’s "soccer moms," or "waitress moms," or "security moms"—this kind of caricature of a woman voter who lives in the suburbs, has children, is very concerned about "kitchen table" issues like their children’s health, but also very worried about security and keeping their kids safe. And there’s a notion that there’s a particular set of issues that suburban women uniquely care about because of them being moms: They’re a little more economically liberal, if you will, but more socially conservative, and they are all sort of similar to each other.
But that’s never been true. And it couldn’t be less true now. Yet I don’t think the Republicans have gotten out of that way of thinking about women voters. When Trump referred to suburban women as "housewives," it was telling. When you look at the ways they’re trying to appeal to this archetypal woman voter, it is so rooted in a fairly traditional way of thinking about women’s experiences and what women care about. And it misses the mark in some pretty profound ways.
Suburban women are not this monolithic bloc of voters. There are really big differences based on religiosity, education level, race. Some are married, some are not married; some have kids, some don’t. The assumption is that suburban women are all white, but there’s a just huge diversity within this group — demographically, and in terms of opinions and experiences.
The way Trump thinks about what suburban women care about is through a very traditional gender lens, which is not anywhere near where we are. When you’ve got 60 percent of white college-educated women voting for Biden, those traditional ways of appealing to women — which were a little suspect to begin with — just feel out of touch.
Stanton: Right now, polls have Donald Trump down substantially among suburban women. In 2016, he won the overall suburban vote narrowly. What worked for him in 2016 that isn’t working now?
Greenberg: Well, first of all, 2016 was unique in all kinds of ways. Hillary Clinton had some very particular challenges. A lot of folks in the suburbs who voted for Trump, voted for him because they could not vote for Hillary Clinton. There was a sense that she was the past and she wasn’t “change” and that she had baggage that just made it hard to get your head around voting for Hillary Clinton. But I don’t think it was actually based on real issue agreements with Donald Trump.
When you talked to people in focus groups, it was always more about the kind of change he might bring: He’ll be a truth teller, he’ll get things done, he’s a businessman, he knows how to manage the economy. What happened in the suburbs with Trump and Hillary was less about an ideological view that led them to support Trump. And there was a very rude awakening after he won.
If you look at what happened in 2010, 2016, 2018, there’s just a massive shift, particularly among women, but also among men, to be clear. Right now, white, college-educated men are very competitive, and that’s a real change. The percentage of white college men who supported Romney in 2012 was overwhelming. So it’s not just that women who’ve shifted; it’s that suburban women shifted in greater numbers and more quickly.
Stanton: Was that shift all about Trump, or was it driven by particular issues that—
Greenberg: All about Trump.
Greenberg: I mean, certainly Covid and the economic crisis is additive. But you just start with the Women’s March, which was the single biggest one-day demonstration in American history. And then you look at the number of women running for office afterwards. You look at the amount of women giving money, the activism. And then you look at women winning primaries. Like, I’ve never seen that before, where being a woman in a Democratic primary conferred a 5- to 10-point advantage, just by being a woman.
There are all these different pieces to it, and it’s all a reaction to Trump. Starting with the immigration ban. I mean, suburban women are not a group that is into racial division. I’m not saying that there aren’t people who are racists, but they’re not into racial division as a way of governing. And that was like the first thing that the administration did—a whole set of things around division and pitting people against each other. Plus, there was a serious attempt to take away people’s protections for preexisting conditions. I could go on—rolling back environmental regulations—but there was just a whole set of issues that, for this bloc of voters, was just untenable.
Stanton: You’re a Democratic pollster. But if you were advising Republicans at the moment, what would you tell them about how to make their message appeal to suburban voters?
Greenberg: It’s hard for them because to acknowledge the economic struggle and the struggle with the pandemic and the struggle with school—all of those issues mean they have to confront their own failure. You watch the Republican Convention and see someone like Larry Kudlow, who talks about the pandemic as if it’s over. And meanwhile, people can’t send their kids back to school. There’s a disconnect between the lived experiences that people have, that suburban women have, and the way Republicans are talking about it. But to talk about it would mean acknowledging that things are really bad right now—which is not what they’re doing. They could have done that at the beginning, through the lens of a national crisis where we need to have a response, where the president is acknowledging it, and so on. But that’s not how Trump works. So it’s hard to say what they should do, because what they should do is something that’s very hard for them to do. I mean, the fact that [at the GOP convention] essentially only Melania Trump really said anything about the people who died of Covid …
Stanton: One of the main issues that they seem to be bringing up often at the convention—and which seems to be aimed at suburban women—is “law and order” and protecting the suburbs. This, of course, isn’t a new talking point; Trump has been using it for many months now. Have you seen “law and order” rhetoric having any measurable impact on voters?
Greenberg: Not yet. I think part of the problem for Trump and the Republicans on this—and I’m not downplaying this narrative that they’re advancing, because I do think it is damaging in all kinds of ways—is that it comes with the president inflaming racial division and normalizing racism. And that is such a big problem for folks in the suburbs. I mean, if you look at the Black Lives Matter protests, how many of them were filled with white people in suburban areas? People come to this narrative already in a place of being unhappy with how Trump has dealt with the issue—that rather than bringing people together and trying to move us forward, he has sort of made it worse.
People understand clearly what he’s trying to do. They understand that there’s a political motivation behind his narrative. It’s transparent. Particularly because people who are living in the suburbs don’t necessarily feel unsafe or feel like they’re going to be the victims of crime or feel like there are mobs from cities coming in to destroy them.
This goes back to misunderstanding women in the suburbs. Like, there’s no monolith of white women in the suburbs who are like locking their doors and putting on their burglar alarms, scared of invading hordes. It’s just not the way they think about their lives. I just don’t think that that’s what suburban women are experiencing. If anything, we saw huge numbers of suburban women marching in the Black Lives Matter marches that just happened.
Stanton: At this point, there’s not that long until people start voting.
Greenberg: Yeah, about a month.
Stanton: We’ve talked a lot about Republicans’ appeals to suburban women in this election. How would you characterize what you’re seeing from Democrats?
Greenberg: Well, look, there’s a huge desire for leadership, right? Trump is trying to center his leadership around law and order and security and keeping people safe from this existential threat of black people. But I think even before coronavirus, there was the sense of the country not having real leadership that has a plan. The economy was supporting Trump, in that people could always fall back on the idea that he was doing a great job with it—whether or not he was is another story.
But with coronavirus and the economic crisis, people feel like there’s no leadership and no plan. And the amount of uncertainty and anxiety about that—I don’t think that the Trump campaign or the RNC has done anything to make people think that there really is a plan. They’re very much like, “Everything’s fine. It’s over. We’re doing great. We’re creating jobs.” And that’s very different than people’s life experience.
For Joe Biden and the Democrats, first, it’s a matter of just identifying the need for leadership, a plan and stable stewardship—the idea that we’re going to execute and we’re gonna do something. That theme feels very basic, but that’s the situation we’re in.
On top of that, I think a fierce defense of access to health care, which to a large degree helped drive the elections in 2018. It’s even worse now, in a public health crisis where something like 11 percent of people lost their health insurance, there are cuts and cuts yet to come at the state level, coupled with a continuing attempt to get rid of protections for people with preexisting conditions. That issue is, in some ways, part of the overall “leadership” narrative.
And the last piece is that there’s this incredible desire for healing and unity. And I don’t mean this in a kumbaya way. People feel like the last four years created real damage in this country to us as a united people—which is always a bit rhetorical and not true in real life, this notion there’s an American people and that we’re unified in a vision of how you move forward. People really just want things to be kind of calm and normal, and to not have people in conflict all the time. People feel like we’ve moved backwards.
I think those are things are really hard for Trump to do, because he’s running on division and fomenting racial conflict, because if he would address the things that are stressing people out day to day, it would mean acknowledging that we’re in a crisis. I’m not saying that this election is in the bag by any stretch of the imagination. But with suburban women, there is a core problem for Republicans.
Stanton: It’s interesting, the idea that suburban women, in particular, are motivated by the idea of racial unity. Knowing that, would it be fair to say then that when we hear [former] Vice President Biden talking about racial unity, it is at least in part an appeal to suburban voters?
Greenberg: I don’t know explicitly. But I do know that for a huge chunk of this country, racial conflict is scary. Trump is trying to come at it from a “law and order” perspective. But for people who feel like we’ve made a lot of progress as a country—and I’m not talking about reality; we do have systemic racism, and it is the foundation of this country in many respects—there was sort of an illusion of progress and racial unity when President Obama was in the White House. I’m not suggesting that it was true that we had racial harmony and progress, but that is an aspiration for sure.
So to have a president who is the opposite of that aspiration is really distressing for many people. You just look at this increase in favorability over time of the Black Lives Matter movement: We still have over 50 percent [of Americans] saying the protests are justified. There’s just been a shift around this, and it’s almost a backlash to Trump in the same way there was a backlash to Obama.
Stanton: What is the right way to think about the suburban vote? Obviously, it’s a massive group and it’s not a monolith. But in thinking about how the suburbs vote, do you think of it as a matter of persuasion, or is it less about persuasion than turnout?
Greenberg: I think that for political consultants like myself, we’ve stopped thinking about this in terms of “persuasion” vs. “turnout.” In both 2016 and 2020, on the Democratic side, there has been less enthusiasm for our nominee among our base than among his base. So persuasion and GOTV are sort of the same thing.
I mean, Joe Biden struggled throughout the primary, and the Republicans have done a masterful job of undermining confidence in his abilities around his age. Because of coronavirus and the way campaigning is changing—and how it changed the conventions—Joe Biden didn’t get a reintroduction to the electorate the way he traditionally would have. The Republicans have been very effective at filling in some of that information, whether through disinformation or explicit attacks by the president and others. There are people who are going to vote for Joe Biden who are not as enthusiastic about voting for him as I think you’d want to see. And that, to me, is both a persuasion and a get-out-the-vote issue.
Stanton: That “persuasion” vs. “turnout” question has been the way we’ve talked about campaigns for quite some time. Is there a better framework to think about this?
Greenberg: Well, I don’t know, but I can tell you what we’re thinking about: We are much more concerned about making sure people actually figure out how to vote. It’s not so much that we have to convince them to vote, it’s that we have to help them figure out how to overcome barriers to voting, whether that’s in person, or by mail or physically taking that ballot and putting it in a drop-off box.
That’s a GOTV issue in a lot of ways. If you extrapolate the increase in turnout in 2018 forward into 2020, this November will be the highest turnout ever. People are motivated to vote. But there are real concerns about the actual act of voting. And, by the way, that should be a concern for Republicans, too, given what Trump has done about vote-by-mail.
Stanton: Over these next couple of months, are there particular suburbs you’re going to pay close attention to?
Greenberg: Yes. First of all, there are still opportunities for Democrats to pick up additional House seats. In 2018, there were suburban districts that just weren’t on the radar. and there might have been a good Democratic candidate who just didn’t run because it wasn’t right time or they couldn’t figure out the money. So I think there are suburban districts in play.
Certain states are more in play for Biden specifically because of the suburbs. I’m thinking about Arizona, Georgia and North Carolina. In some ways, those states are almost better opportunities than a place like Wisconsin. Those shifts in the suburbs have put those bubble states more in play than they might have been if we hadn’t seen that suburban shift.
So I don’t know what’s going to happen, but it may be that if Biden wins, it’s because he wins places like Arizona or Georgia — and might even lose Wisconsin. The whole concept of “blue wall” states is kind of over because of these suburban shifts. Those states that have big suburbs and growing diversity — like Georgia, like Arizona, like Texas — will end up being more Democratic states, ultimately. And I imagine some of them could tip this cycle. I think Biden can win Arizona, for example.
Stanton: Last question: You talked about the suburban shift over the last number of years largely being driven by President Trump. So if this is about Trump, then are we seeing a long-term realignment in the suburbs, or is this going to pass over once he leaves office?
Greenberg: Oh, I think it’s long term. Let’s say Trump had done all this, but the Republican Party held itself somewhat separate and challenged him. Then it would be shorter term. But it didn’t. It is lockstep, with no real critique of him. You can see it now with these incumbent Republicans—even those like Maine Sen. Susan Collins, whose independent profile has been such an important part of her political identity—how hard it is to convince anybody that these folks will do anything but blindly follow Trump. It’s still Trump’s party!
The Republican and Democratic conventions were like living in two different countries. The DNC seemed like a normal convention. And the RNC has Trump speaking every night and his entire family speaks. It doesn’t feel like what democracies do. And if Trump loses, that Trump base is still the majority of the Republican Party, and I’m going to guess that he is going to play, like, a movement leader role after he leaves office. I think he will still be the center of power in the Republican Party even if he’s out of office, and I don’t know how the Republicans are going to navigate that, because there isn’t anybody else. He has so completely obliterated traditional Republican leadership. Who is going to be that person who rehabilitates the Republican Party? In the short run, nobody is. It’s Trump.