Bush Sees Fertile Soil in ‘Exurbia’
Tom Grossman parks his blue convertible at a home expo center and walks through the maze of booths hawking the necessities of upscale living: home security systems, Jacuzzi tubs, fancy kitchen fixtures and wooden blinds. Then he settles into a booth of his own.
But Grossman has not come to Chestnut Hill, one of southwestern Ohio’s newest subdivisions, to peddle home furnishings. He has come to hunt new Republican voters.
“Hey there, have you registered to vote?” he asks passersby. “I can do it for you. Won’t take but a minute.”
The Republican chairman for Warren County is seated behind a table stacked with Bush-Cheney bumper stickers -- an incongruous sight at the expo. But he is here at the direct behest of President Bush’s most senior political strategists, who believe victory in November depends on scouring the nation’s battleground states not only for the much-publicized swing voter, but also for an equally important prize: the “exurbanite.”
Fleeing built-out areas near cities for the newest ring of developments beyond the suburbs, exurbanites are searching for more house for less money, better schools, less traffic and all-around easier living. Exurban areas are booming and, according to demographers and GOP strategists, rapidly drawing a concentration of culturally conservative but unregistered, unaffiliated voters.
And that is why Karl Rove, Bush’s senior political advisor, is so sure the president can make major gains in exurban areas. Along with Lebanon, places such as Fridley, Minn., Carlisle, Pa., New Richmond, Wis., and Livingston County, Mich., are the new obsession for high-level GOP operatives in Washington.
Bush has visited many of these new boomtowns -- he was in Lebanon on May 4 -- and campaign officials say he will likely see more of them before November’s election.
Each visit is designed to spur more for the campaign than a one-day burst of publicity. Playing off the excitement of a presidential appearance, strategists use it to recruit volunteers for phone banks, canvassing and voter registration efforts -- building what they hope will be an enduring GOP machine.
Rove is so taken with the potential in the exurbs that he can quickly rattle off the names of otherwise obscure counties in swing states across the nation, along with the percentages of people who have not registered to vote in each one.
“It takes them awhile to get established, to find the best grocery store, the best dry cleaner, to pick out a church, to sort of fit into the community,” Rove said of the newcomers to these communities. “And then it takes them awhile to figure out the local politics, and then presidential politics.”
Rove thinks the GOP can make voter registration gains in these communities, bringing an advantage at the polls.
In the nation’s old-growth suburbs, which have emerged as key swing areas in recent years, he said that 88% of eligible adults are registered to vote. In the exurbs, it is 83%. Closing that small gap, Rove thinks, could make the difference for his party in a tight presidential race.
“The growth potential is much bigger on the Republican side in exurban counties than it is on the Democratic side in urban counties,” said Bush’s pollster, Matthew Dowd.
That potential was evident at Tom Grossman’s voter registration booth at the home expo, or “homearama,” a traveling home furnishings show that moves every few weeks to a new subdivision and was in the Lebanon area earlier this month.
Grossman estimated that he registered about 10 GOP voters an hour. “You don’t have to guess about it. They’re clearly Republicans,” he said, interrupted routinely with screams of “Go Bush!” and “All the way!” from passersby.
On a recent Wednesday evening, 35-year-old James Brodbeck approached the table. The former soldier, his wife and three kids moved to Warren County from Milwaukee in 2002, but he had not yet gotten around to registering to vote.
“I watch Fox News and listen to Rush Limbaugh, like a lot of people,” said Brodbeck, whose wife works full time while he takes care of the children.
He is definitely backing Bush, but had he not found Grossman, he might have neglected to register to vote. “We’ve just been dealing with other things,” he said.
Some have their doubts that Brodbeck and others approaching Grossman’s booth speak for a meaningful number of voters. If many of the new exurbanites are changing addresses within their states -- moving 30 miles, for example, from Cincinnati and its immediate suburbs to the Lebanon area -- can that really be counted as a gain for Bush? And is the pool of unregistered exurbanites enough to make up for the newly registered Democrats that various liberal groups are courting in urban areas?
“It’s certainly true that the exurbs around a lot of cities are relatively Republican,” said Jim Jordan, a strategist for independent liberal groups raising money to register new voters and oppose Bush. “But it is a lot less clear that there are huge reservoirs of currently unregistered voters who can be quickly put on the rolls and then given orders to march for the president.”
One anti-Bush group, America Coming Together, claims to have registered 65,000 new Democratic voters in Ohio alone -- at least one-third of them in the liberal mecca of Cleveland.
But in and around Lebanon, at least, the GOP’s exurban strategy seems on target. Weeks after Bush’s visit, voter registration is up, and so is the list of party volunteers. Local Republicans say there is still excitement over Bush’s trip, in which he rolled into town in a red, white and blue tour bus.
More than 2,500 people, many waiting at least three hours, welcomed the first sitting president to stop in Lebanon. The city’s cable TV station carried the event live -- including the waiting -- with color commentary from a local historian discussing the significance of Bush’s presence.
“We’re talking about the leader of the free world here, the most powerful man on Earth right now, actually,” gushed John Zimkus, a Lebanon history teacher, during the live broadcast. “It is an honor to have the president to visit your town. How many communities can say that?”
Indeed, the presidential visit is critical to the Rove doctrine.
“You have a bigger impact in a smaller area because it’s more unique to them,” Dowd said. “People in big urban areas are used to whoever it is, some rock star coming to town. The president has celebrity, but in these big urban areas they see a lot of celebrities.”
True to that theory, Bush’s May trip to Lebanon helped turn Elizabeth Uptegrove on to politics. The 28-year-old mother of two moved from Charleston, S.C., to a subdivision north of Lebanon about five years ago for her husband’s job. She lives in the same neighborhood as the local Bush campaign volunteer coordinator, San Diego transplant Ricki Wilkins, who persuaded Uptegrove to help out with crowd control at the rally.
She was one of about 40 new volunteers Wilkins signed up for the event, and she has remained on the volunteer list. “It’s amazing how much I’ve learned about grass-roots politics,” said Uptegrove, who has since worked on a phone bank for the Bush campaign. “I remember seeing all the television ads as a young kid, but now living where I do I can really feel the effect of the grass roots.”
Even more than a month after Bush’s visit, the buzz remains. As Lebanon Mayor Amy Brewer lunched on a cheeseburger recently at the Village Ice Cream Parlor, across the street from where Bush spoke, she was greeted by several constituents with a question: “You fixed the potholes yet?” They were referring to a standard joke from Bush’s stump speech, when he advises the local mayor to fill the potholes. In Lebanon, the line has been remembered.
In many ways, Warren County is a case study in Rove’s exurban theory. Since 2000, when Bush narrowly won both Ohio and the White House, the county has grown more than 10%, to about 180,000.
The increase in voter registration, county officials think, is a direct result of the intense efforts by the Bush campaign to locate new voters.
About 6,500 have registered this year already, compared with 7,000 in all of 2000. About 1,500 of those new registrants have come since the May 4 rally. In Ohio, voters do not declare a party when they register, but GOP officials say the new voters are disproportionately Republican.
“We are living in a Forrest Gump moment in Warren County,” said Wilkins, the former San Diego resident. “That movie was about being in the right place at the right time.”
Repeating the pitch she gives to prospective volunteers, she adds: “This county is going to help this state determine who wins this election, and you get to be a part of it.”