Running against the city

A recent story in the Washington Post noted that Democrat Barack Obama, from Chicago, is the first big-city politician in years to run as a major party presidential candidate. Yet Republican John McCain lives in Phoenix, now America's fifth largest city. While Phoenix is more famous for golf courses and subdivisions than urban neighborhoods, McCain lives in a luxury high-rise in the highly citified Camelback district.

Both candidates are, technically, big city guys. But a better way to label them is “big metro guys.” Chicago and Phoenix also rank among the largest metropolitan areas.

More than half (53 percent) of all Americans now live in metro areas that exceed 1 million residents. The metros dominate the country's economy, accounting for an enormous share of its technology, venture capital and advanced services.

Were just the big metros to vote, the presidential race would be a Democratic rout every time.

In an analysis earlier this year, the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech found Democrat John Kerry won – often by lopsided margins – in three quarters of the nation's biggest and most globally networked metros. Even in regions Kerry lost, he almost always won in the core county. For instance, he battled former Texas Gov. George W. Bush to a draw in Dallas County and blew Bush away in the city of Dallas.

But the Democratic vote in big metros is counterbalanced by Republican ballots in rural areas, small towns and exurbs. In the last two elections, the Democrats counted on votes from cities and inner suburbs, while Republicans appealed to the regional fringe and beyond. The result has been a near even split in the electorate. Republicans won by running up overwhelming numbers in non-metro America while picking up enough votes among suburbanites and city dwellers to eke out narrow victories. The trick has been to energize the conservative rural base by running against big-city culture and lifestyle while not alienating moderate suburbanites.

This strategy may have run its course. Big metro regions are growing much faster than small towns. They are also becoming dramatically more diverse. The new destination for immigrants is not gritty lower Manhattan but the postwar suburbs surrounding cities.

The total Democratic-voting space in metro regions has expanded and now reaches even new suburbs. Consider metropolitan Washington. Close-in suburbs such as Arlington County, Va., have long been solidly Democratic. But a once-Republican suburban county such as Fairfax has shifted from supporting Bush in 2000 to voting strongly Democratic in recent state elections. Even exurban Loudoun and Prince William counties are now home to an increasingly diverse and Democratic-friendly population.

Those trends in northern Virginia shifted the state from solidly red to potentially blue. A similar process is at play in other rapidly urbanizing red states such as Colorado, Florida, Nevada and North Carolina.

The Republicans face a dilemma. If they run hard to their mostly white rural base, they risk turning off increasingly Democratic-leaning suburbanites. If Republicans court metro voters by dropping their message of small-town values, their base vote may fall off. In 2008, the Republicans clearly believe they can squeeze out one more victory under the old model. The choice of Sarah Palin as vice presidential nominee sealed the deal. She uses her experience growing up in Wasilla, Alaska – ironically, part of greater Anchorage – to prove her fitness for office. The Republican convention even featured former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani skewering Barack Obama for his supposed cosmopolitan, big city ways.

Maybe McCain can pull out one more win for small-town America. But the odds look increasingly long. More important, no future Republican nominee is likely to try another full-on, rural-based run at the White House. Nor is another likely to repeat the theme that rural places are “real” and “pro American,” implying that metropolitan areas are anti-American. We are a metro nation, and we do have a common stake in the success of all places – from the largest cities to the smallest hamlets.

Unless the Republican party grasps that and adapts its policy approaches and messages accordingly, it risks a long journey in the political wilderness.