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2020 Suburban Voters: Who Are They?


President Trump has been making aggressive appeals to suburban voters lately. Many of these messages appear to be mostly targeting white voters, but the suburbs have been changing, and that could impact what happens in November. NPR's Juana Summers is here to explain.

Hey, Juana.


SHAPIRO: What do the suburbs look like today?

SUMMERS: Yeah. So they look really different than they did in the mid-20th century, and there's a couple reasons why - the changing racial and ethnic makeup, the influence of new immigrants and the aging of the population. To put some numbers behind this, back in 2000, suburban populations across the country were about 76% white. In 2018, that dropped to 68%. The growth in the nonwhite population in the suburbs in large part has been fueled by growth among Hispanics. I talked with Karyn Lacy, who is a sociologist at the University of Michigan, about the influx of immigrants to the suburbs beginning in the late 1960s.

KARYN LACY: So groups who once had been excluded from the suburbs have now gained access. And the most important group is likely immigrants because the influx of immigrants explains about 30% of suburban growth.

SUMMERS: Lacy told me that one of the driving factors here is that immigrants are moving to suburban communities rather than ethnic enclaves within cities. And it's changing what these communities look like as well as the nature of their politics.

SHAPIRO: OK. So what does that demographic shift mean for President Trump's effort to win over suburban voters?

SUMMERS: Yeah. So if we think back to 2016, voters in the suburbs made up about half of the electorate, and then-candidate Trump won those voters narrowly that year. But since then, they've swung away from him. Democrats took back the House in 2018 with a lot of that success coming from suburban districts. And now polls are showing President Trump trailing Joe Biden badly in the suburbs. We've seen the president making a lot of broad appeals to suburban voters, for example, saying they'd face rising crime and declining home values if Joe Biden is elected president. And that seems to be an explicit appeal to white suburbanites. But, Ari, as we've been discussing, the suburbs are changing. They are no longer overwhelmingly white. So there's a question as to how much impact those appeals could have.

SHAPIRO: OK. So with 99 days left till the election, where on the map do you see this making a difference?

SUMMERS: Oh, my gosh, there are so many great targets, but here's just one example that I've been really interested in. And I've been talking to a lot of Democrats who see a number of opportunities to gain ground in the state of Texas at different levels. And one example is the suburban Houston district that President Trump won by eight points in 2016. Republican Congressman Pete Olson is retiring. And in that district, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is doing something it hasn't done before. The committee is actually running Hindi and Chinese-language video ads in the district. Last week, I talked to the committee's chairwoman, Congresswoman Sherry Bustos, about that strategy.

CHERI BUSTOS: This is the first that we are doing in this case in Hindi and Chinese, but we will expand this. But, you know, we know that there are about 20 different ethnicities and even more language in dialects. And, you know, so our goal is that we will work to grow our capacity to communicate with voters from every community. And this is the first step in that process.

SUMMERS: Yeah. And, Ari, talking about the demographics of this district, I'm told that the voters in that district, Asian American and Pacific Islander voters, make up about one-fifth of the population. And Congresswoman Bustos told us she expects that we'll see lots more ads like this, too, in the future.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Juana Summers on the suburbs, thank you very much.

SUMMERS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.