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GOP Plants Flag on New Voting Frontier

Times Staff Writers

The center of the Republican presidential coalition is moving toward the distant edges of suburbia.

In this month’s election, President Bush carried 97 of the nation’s 100 fastest-growing counties, most of them “exurban” communities that are rapidly transforming farmland into subdivisions and shopping malls on the periphery of major metropolitan areas.

Together, these fast-growing communities provided Bush a punishing 1.72 million vote advantage over Democrat John F. Kerry, according to a Times analysis of election results. That was almost half the president’s total margin of victory.

“These exurban counties are the new Republican areas, and they will become increasingly important to Republican candidates,” said Terry Nelson, the political director for Bush’s reelection campaign. “This is where a lot of our vote is.”

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These growing areas, filled largely with younger families fleeing urban centers in search of affordable homes, are providing the GOP a foothold in blue Democratic-leaning states and solidifying the party’s control over red Republican-leaning states.

They also represent a compounding asset whose value for the Republican Party has increased with each election: Bush’s edge in these 100 counties was almost four times greater than the advantage they provided Bob Dole, the Republican presidential nominee eight years ago.

In states like Ohio, Minnesota and Virginia, Republican strength in these outer suburbs is offsetting Democratic gains over the last decade in more established -- and often more affluent -- inner-tier suburbs. As Democrats analyze a demoralizing defeat in this month’s presidential election, one key question they face is whether they can reduce the expanding Republican advantage on the new frontier between suburbs and countryside.

“When any party is losing a growing group of voters, that’s a problem -- and this is a group where support for Democrats is diminishing as the size of the group grows,” said Mark Mellman, Kerry’s campaign pollster.

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The Times analyzed the 100 counties that the Census Bureau identified as the fastest growing between April 2000 and July 2003, the latest date for which figures were available. Stretched across 30 states, these counties grew cumulatively over that period by more than 16%, reaching a total population of 15.9 million.

These are places defined more by aspiration than accumulation, filled more with families starting out than with those that have already reached their earnings peak.

They include Union County, N.C., 25 miles southeast of Charlotte, where poultry farms are being converted into new developments so quickly that nearly one-seventh of the population is employed in construction. In Douglas County, Colo., about 20 miles south of Denver, so many young families have relocated that the budget for the local Little League is estimated at $500,000 a year.

Delaware County, Ohio’s fastest-growing area, is absorbing a torrent of families leaving apartments and townhouses in Columbus for big kitchens and their first backyards. New homes are sprouting on land that grew soybeans and wheat not long ago.

“The fastest-growing segment of our population is 2 and under,” Delaware County GOP leader Teri Morgan said.

In this month’s election, Bush romped across this terrain, the Times analysis showed. Of these 100 fast-growth counties, Kerry carried three: Clark County, Nev., which includes heavily unionized Las Vegas; Chatham, N.C., near Chapel Hill, where Kerry is holding a five-vote lead pending a recount; and tiny Nantucket, Mass., which made the fast-list only because it increased its population of 9,520 by about one-eighth.

In almost all the other fast-growing counties, Bush not only beat Kerry, he beat him badly.

In a handful of these counties, officials are still finalizing their vote tallies. But based on virtually complete totals for the 100 counties, Bush took 70% or more of the vote in 40 of them, and 60% or more in 70 of them. In all, Bush won 63% of the votes cast in these 100 counties.

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That broad appeal, combined with the rapid population growth, allowed Bush to generate much greater advantages from these counties than he did four years ago. In 2000, Bush won 94 of the counties, but they provided him a smaller cumulative advantage of 1.06 million votes.

This year, Bush increased that cumulative lead by more than 60%. “We were overwhelmed by the lines in the voting places,” said Tom Grossman, co-chairman of the Republican Party in Warren County, Ohio, one of those on the list. “We had lines lasting until 10:30 that night. It was a staggering number of people.”

The change is even more dramatic when compared to 1996. In that campaign, Bob Dole won 74 of what today are the 100 fastest-growing counties. His margin of victory over President Clinton in the 100 counties was 450,000 votes, compared to Bush’s significantly larger margin this year of more than 1.7 million votes.

The enormous gains in just eight years underscore the potential value of these communities to the GOP. Almost all demographers believe these “edge” counties will continue to grow rapidly, which means they will pose a growing threat to Democrats if the party cannot improve its standing there.

“There’s no sign whatsoever that the popularity of these places is decreasing,” said demographer John D. Kasarda, director of the Kenan Institute for Private Enterprise at the University of North Carolina.

No one knows exactly how much the Republican advantage in these counties reflects a relocation of GOP-leaning voters from communities closer to urban centers, say analysts like Mellman and Robert E. Lang, director of the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech in Alexandria.

The decision to move away from more racially diverse counties closer to the urban center and toward fast-growing areas on the periphery “may indicate a political attitude that was already in transition,” Lang notes.

But many agree that in these high-growth communities, as in much of the South, identification with the GOP has become a kind of cultural and social statement that also carries along voters who might be more open to Democrats in a less conservative environment.

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“It’s possible that the nature of these places changes people,” said Mellman, the Kerry pollster. “If you are in, say, Montgomery County [Maryland], you are talking to other Democrats, your friends and family. Then all of a sudden you move to Loudon County, Va., and your social networks are dominated by Republicans.”

The Bush campaign believes these counties created new Republican votes in another respect: by concentrating large numbers of sympathetic residents that the party could target for voter registration and turnout efforts. The campaign placed these high-growth exurban counties at the top of its priority list for such organizational efforts.

“We focused very heavily on these exurban areas,” said Ken Mehlman, the campaign manager for Bush who has been tapped to head the Republican National Committee. “While in some cases you are seeing people who have moved and were already Republicans, in other cases you are seeing a lot of people who are new voters and represent an addition.”

Most analysts agree that the basic sociology of these counties provides the GOP an advantage. The high-growth counties are not especially affluent. The median income is above the national average in 71 of them, but in only about one-fifth are incomes even 50% above the national average. In only 40 of them is the percentage of college graduates higher than the national average.

Instead, they are filled with young families, most of them white, many of modest means, willing to trade time for space -- accepting longer commutes into urban areas so they can afford homes.

“If there is an Ozzie and Harriet-ville in America today, these are the places where it is,” said William H. Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution.

That basic demography ensures a leg up for Republicans, who typically run well with married parents. “I think people are never as conservative as they are when they have kids,” said Rep. Thomas M. Davis (R-Va.), the former chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Adding to the GOP advantage, many of those who relocate to these high-growth counties tend to be more socially conservative and eager to distance their children from urban cultural influences -- and, in some cases, from the heavy concentration of minorities and new immigrants in urban areas.

Republican messages about lower taxes also find a receptive audience in these edge communities, and some analysts believe Democrats are faced with the perception that they disapprove -- at some intrinsic level -- of families who abandon the urban centers and flock to developments that pave the distant countryside.

“I think their conservatism is born out of a feeling that Bush looks like a regular guy, and the Democrats are all snots and they are not addressing my concerns,” said analyst Lang.

Democrats don’t necessarily need to win these places in order to win the competitive states. Their problem is more the size of the margins that Bush amassed. His advantages in these high-growth edge counties helped him blunt the most important Democratic advance of the 1990s -- the party’s breakthrough into metropolitan suburbs.

Under Clinton, the Democrats broke the GOP hold on the more mature inner-tier suburbs (in places other than the South). These were places like Montgomery and Delaware counties near Philadelphia; Oakland County outside Detroit; affluent New York City-area suburbs of New Jersey and Connecticut; and Montgomery and Franklin counties surrounding Dayton and Columbus, Ohio.

Clinton and then Al Gore in 2000 won these places with a fiscally moderate, socially liberal message.

This year, Kerry held almost all of these counties and even expanded the Democratic advantage in some areas. For instance, he became the first Democrat since Lyndon Johnson in 1964 to win Virginia’s affluent Fairfax County.

Politically and socially, these inner-tier suburbs have become “an extension of the cities” they surround, said Lang. Increasing concentrations of ethnic minorities, generally liberal attitudes on social questions like gun control and abortion, a greater presence of singles in high-rise and condominium developments and a receptivity to arguments for environmental protection and planned growth have all made them increasingly valuable terrain for Democrats.

Analysts in both parties also don’t rule out the possibility that the Democratic hold on the inner suburbs is solidifying because many conservative whites that used to live there have left for the fast-growing outer suburbs. In Virginia, said Congressman Davis, “I go out to [exurban] Prince William County and people say, ‘I remember when you used to be my supervisor in Fairfax.’ ”

The problem for Democrats is that in almost all metropolitan areas the distant Republican strongholds are growing much faster than either the cities or the inner suburbs.

Big Democratic-leaning suburbs like Oakland County in Michigan, Montgomery and Delaware counties in Pennsylvania and Fairfax in Virginia all grew by about 3% or less from 2000 through 2003, according to the Census Bureau. Big urban counties like Wayne (Detroit), Cuyahoga (Cleveland) and Philadelphia all lost population over that period.

But all of the 100 counties that the Census Bureau listed as fastest-growing increased their population by at least 12% during that same time. With each election, they are producing more votes to offset Democratic advantages in the cities and inner suburbs.

Bush’s popularity in the high-growth counties propelled his victory in Florida, brought him close to winning in Minnesota and largely thwarted Kerry’s hopes of competing in Colorado, North Carolina and Virginia, despite solid Democratic performances in more urban areas.

In Ohio, the two counties on the top 100 list -- Warren, north of Cincinnati, and Delaware, north of Columbus -- provided Bush a combined margin of nearly 67,000 votes, helping him overcome unprecedented Democratic turnout in Cleveland and the rest of Cuyahoga County.

Davis said that in the last congressional redistricting, the GOP consistently sought to strengthen its legislators by moving their districts further away from the inner suburbs toward more exurban areas. “If you get down to it, we’re not carrying many inner suburban districts,” he said. “We gave up those districts to move our guys further out.”

These edge counties were an equal priority for the Bush campaign, which targeted them with intense attention from its get-out-the-vote operation and, in several cases, with appearances by Bush. “Previous chairmen would disagree with me, but this is the best organized we’ve ever been,” said John Snyder, the GOP chairman in Union County, N.C., where Bush won 70% of the vote.

For Republicans, these fast-growing counties offer another dividend. Just over four-fifths of them are in red states that Bush won twice, with Georgia (20 high-growth counties), Texas (12 counties) and Florida (9 counties) leading the list. That growth helped the red states gain seven more electoral college votes after the 2000 census -- and seems certain to power further gains during the next reapportionment in 2010.

Democrats haven’t focused nearly as much on these areas. Mellman, the Kerry pollster, said that “nobody has been willing to spend the time and money to figure out why” the party is running so poorly there.

Left-leaning analysts Ruy Teixeira and John B. Judis, in their 2002 book “The Emerging Democratic Majority,” argued that the fast-growth exurbs aren’t as much of a threat to Democrats as commonly believed, because most of them are still much smaller than the urban centers. They also predicted that as these edge communities fill in, their increasingly metropolitan character will make them more receptive to Democrats.

But Bush’s enormous margins in the fast-growth counties suggest that, if anything, these places are growing even more solidly Republican.

And in some of the most hotly contested states -- Michigan, Ohio, Florida and Colorado -- that trend could leave the Democrats trying to squeeze out even more votes from static or shrinking urban centers and inner-tier suburbs, while Republicans are dominating the counties exploding in population several exits down the interstate.

Even in several states Kerry won, Democratic blue was concentrated in urban areas, with Republican red covering almost everything else.

“The Democrats just need to look at the map: Their constituency is very concentrated,” said demographer Kasarda. “It’s a wake-up call.”

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Red shift

How the 100 fastest-growing counties compare to the rest of the nation:

*--* Nation overall Number of counties Median household income $41,994 71 Homeownership 66.20% 93 White, non-Hispanic 69.10% 83 College educated 24.40% 40

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Source: U.S. Census

Times staff writer Kathleen Hennessey contributed to this report.


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