Suburban Reversion, And A Twisted Form Of American Exceptionalism -- by Evan Scrimshaw

(We're pleased to have Evan Scrimshaw (@EScrimshaw) write this column today for us as a guest writer. Evan has years of experience with global election forecasting and is an expert on Australian, American, British, Irish, Scottish, and Canadian electoral politics. We're excited to feature his work here.)

There's always a moment after an election, once all (or almost all) the results are in when you start digging around in the entrails of the results, either to jog one's memory of exact details or to learn the details which were missed in the rush of results. It can be fairly rudimentary at times, but sometimes, it can be revelatory. 

There have been three such moments for me in the last 15 months, one after each of the three major elections of that time (yes, a Canadian election is a major election). In Canada, it was the suburban Ontario seat of Milton, held by the Deputy Leader of the Conservative Party of Canada. While watching the results come in, I knew she had lost her seat to the Liberals, but when checking the results fully, I seemed to have missed the fact that she had lost her seat - won in 2015 by 5% - by 15%. It was a bloodbath in a seat where Mainstreet Research's seat polling pointed to a Liberal-leaning tossup. 

In the UK it was Putney, a seat that we had planted our flag on going to Labour. It was a Tory marginal after 2017, but national swing suggested it was primed to stay Tory - except, of course, it was a strongly Remain area in a posh part of London. I knew Labour won it on the night, but my obligations that night meant that the size of the swing - a victory for Labour of just under 10%, on a night when they wouldn't gain a single other seat - was just truly astonishing. 

In the US, Georgia's 6th Congressional District provided the shock, with Joe Biden winning the suburban seat - which voted 25% right of the nation in both 2008 and 2012 - by over 10%. That result in itself isn't that shocking, but in the context of a night where Democrats lost Joe Cunningham and Kendra Horn, it was stunning. 

What all three of those seats provided wasn't just a shock to the system, although that they did - they were rule breaking results. Incumbent governments in Canada don't go backwards in their vote share and margin in Ontario while taking out the biggest scalp possible. Labour in the UK had only won Putney during the Blair landslides, and suddenly they were winning it when losing country-wide by double digits. And Newt Gingrich's old House district voted for a Democrat by double digits. None of these things should have happened, but they all did. 

* * * 

There is a willingness to accept as true, and lasting, those political trends which help the GOP - namely, that things can get worse for Democrats in places that are full of Ancestral Democrats. The skepticism about Collin Peterson all cycle showed a willingness to believe that trends amongst rural whites were real - probably, in fairness, because it's been a decade in the making, both in and out of power - but that same willingness isn't afforded the trends that help Democrats, namely the shifting suburbs. The argument - that Trump was a singular bad candidate for the suburbs, and that the down ballot results are more representative of how a "normal" Republican would do - is persuasive, at least nominally. But it's really, really hard to reconcile that with what we are seeing globally - and specifically, what Putney and Milton tell us.

It is a special kind of American exceptionalism that says that a global political trend that has radically changed the rules of politics is just going to skip the US, and it is an additionally twisted version of exceptionalism to ignore the global evidence and pin the suburban swing on Trump alone. If it were just Canada, or just the UK, or just America, then yes, you could talk about this as a function of candidate quality and circumstance. If those three countries aren't enough for a trend, head to New Zealand, where the suburbs swung wildly to Labour in October's general election, or Australia, where Labor lost seats in 2019 in rural, working class areas and got swings to them in upper middle class, wealthy suburban areas.

The suburban swing in 2020 was real and substantial, even if the polling showing even bigger wins for Democrats made it seem less impressive. Georgia 6th wasn't the only big swing in 4 years - Kansas' 3rd district went from marginally Clinton to a double digit Biden win as well, and even something like the California 39th - a House loss for Democrats - was still won by Biden by 10%. All of this work wasn't about Joe Biden's singular strengths, but a continuation of a trend. You can draw a straight line from Milton to Putney to Georgia 6th, but many choose not to do so.

International politics has many of the answers to questions posed by the US 2020 result - or, at least, similar questions can exist in multiple places. Why, for instance, did the Northeast come home for Biden so strongly? It's unclear, but it's probably worth noting that Atlantic Canada, despite a demographic profile that would suggest more Conservative voting, underwhelmed Conservatives last year. Older, mostly secular whites didn't move right as much as more religious older whites in the west did. But nope, there's definitely nothing that could be gleaned from that in terms of the United States. Things Are Very Different Here, as they all say. Except for the fact that they really aren't.

The US is not an island, and it is not immune to the challenges and changes of a global world. Understanding British or Canadian politics will not suddenly provide the key to understanding the world, but it would make things make more sense - at least, sometimes. Are the suburbs going to continue to turn blue? I can't say for certain whether they will or not, but the global precedent says there hasn't been a centre-right party able to staunch the suburban slippage. To ignore that would be an interesting choice - a final, twisted version of an American exceptionalism that has long since passed its usefulness.


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