In last year’s presidential election, the voting precinct surrounding suburban Philadelphia’s Radnor High School – a high-performing school on the tony Main Line – went for Joe Biden by 43 percentage points. A few months later, 75% of surveyed Radnor community members opposed changing the high school’s mascot name from “Raider” – the source of a local conflict over cultural sensitivity toward Native Americans. But school board members, under pressure from student activists, proceeded with the name change.
Fifteen miles north, on 1-476 – known as the “Blue Route” – the similarly wealthy, suburban Upper Dublin Township was awash with Democratic votes in 2020. This year, though, a school board reform ticket called “Upper Dublin United,” composed of centrist Democrats and Republicans, is running to unseat board members who oversaw the district’s long-running COVID-19 closures while area Catholic schools proceeded with daily in-person learning – while suffering virtually no COVID cases. UD United’s Facebook page celebrates Juneteenth and Pride Month but also includes odes to “fiscal responsibility” and “stopping the tax increases.”
Welcome to the Philadelphia suburbs, where America’s political future is up for grabs.
In recent years, Philadelphia’s “collar” counties – Chester, Delaware, Montgomery, and Bucks –have undergone a dramatic political shift. Even before Donald Trump’s presidency, the collar counties were at the forefront of an upper-middle class, suburban revolt against the GOP. In the 2000 presidential election, they went roughly 51% Democratic. By 2012, that number had risen to about 54%. In 2020, it jumped anther five percentage points.
Greater Philadelphia’s move against Republicans is indicative of a trend throughout Mid-Atlantic suburbia. The Washington suburbs of Loudoun County, Va., went about 56% for George W. Bush in 2000; in 2020, Biden won Loudoun with around 62% of the vote. In northern New Jersey’s Morris County, about 54% favored Bush in 2000 – but two decades later, Biden carried 51% of the suburban county’s vote.
Now, ahead of next year’s midterms – which include a fight for the GOP seat held by retiring Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey – can Democrats replicate their Trump-era success in places like suburban Philadelphia? Or, without Trump atop the party ticket, could Republicans revive their Bush-era suburban competitiveness?
The answer to both questions will hinge on which party can offer the most compelling vision of sanity and stability to voters – a difficult task, given the radicalism spreading through Democrats’ and Republicans’ respective ranks.
Philadelphia’s suburbs count many die-hard partisans. This is the case in towns like Wayne, for example, where devoted progressives adorn their manicured front lawns with “Science Is Real” yard signs. It’s evident, too, in Lower Bucks’ communities, where one can still find Trump flags.
But the region is also home to plenty of “persuadables.” When coupled with their resistance to school closures and mascot name changes, suburbanites’ Trump-era shift away from the GOP indicates that they’re not mere party-line voters. If anything, they’re open to changing their minds and interested in sanity and stability.
Suburban Philadelphia is full of upper-middle-class, white-collar professionals who work long hours for large corporations and health care providers. A lot of money is made here, and a lot of hours are clocked – which is to say these voters have a stake in “the system,” writ large. They have bought into the status quo.
The collar counties’ voters aren’t agitating for cultural revolution, big tax increases, attacks on the U.S. Capitol, or anything else that would upend life as they know it. The American dream is alive and well outside Philadelphia. People work hard and enjoy their summer weekends at the Jersey Shore or in the Pocono Mountains. To these voters, the political party that seems least threatening to their flourishing households is the choice to make.
As it stands, Democrats hold a voter-registration edge in all four suburban counties, but they have yet to clear 50% in any of them. Their victories will hinge on swaying moderate Republicans and independent swing voters. Though Biden succeeded with both groups in 2020, it’s doubtful that future down-ballot Democratic candidates could do the same if the party’s most vocal, leftmost flank drives the national conversation.
If Republicans can push a sensible, non-conspiratorial candidate through congressional primaries and then paint the wider Democratic Party as the party of extreme progressivism rather than that of moderate, piecemeal liberalism, the Democrats’ suburban surge may prove relatively short-lived.
That both parties’ routes to suburban dominance are so challenging points to greater obstacles: Suburban candidates will have a hard time making it through primaries in the first place, and even if they do, at the state level they could alienate more extreme urban and rural partisans.
The political future of Philadelphia’s suburbs, then, will be determined largely by the political acumen of each party’s down-ballot candidates. Can they offer the vision of sanity and stability that suburbanites crave while placating the grievances of the voting base? Whichever party triangulates best will win in 2022 – and beyond.