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The Vote In The Exurbs Isn’t As Red As It Looks

Former Democratic party voter and now fervent Trump supporter David Mitchko speaks during an interview with AFP outside his home covered with "Trump-Pence" banners in Olyphant, just outside Scranton, Pennsylvania.
Former Democratic party voter and now fervent Trump supporter David Mitchko speaks during an interview with AFP outside his home covered with "Trump-Pence" banners in Olyphant, just outside Scranton, Pennsylvania.

Exurbssit on the fringe of major metropolitan areas, in the space between suburban and rural America. They are inhabited mostly by white residents who are generally well educated and relatively wealthy. 

Though you’ll find some Democratic voters there, people who live in the exurbs are pretty comfortably Republican in their presidential votes. President Donald Trump won the exurbs by more than 17 percentage points in 2016, according to the American Communities Project by George Washington University. And Dante Chinni, who heads the project, says it’s likely he’ll win the country’s 222 exurban counties again in 2020.

Sean and Samantha Evans are a married couple who live in Lake Ridge, Virginia, about 25 miles from Washington, D.C. Sean, who is African American, and Samantha, who was born in Puerto Rico, are proud Republicans. 

“My issue with the Democratic Party is the ideas are not aligned with the Bible. And with the Republican party, it’s not necessarily that they’re perfect, but they allow me to worship freely,” Samantha, 42 says. “I don’t have to call things a ‘holiday.’ We celebrate Christmas.”

Sean, 47, says Lake Ridge is becoming increasingly diverse, with more of their neighbors leaning left than ever before. Part of the reason the couple has launched a podcastto lead open conversations about politics is because of that trend, he says.

“People who live in the exurbs like the tax cuts and they like the fact that [President Trump’s] doing good things for businesses because these are a lot of business people,” says Chinni.

The Evanses say they’ll vote for President Trump in November. The couple hasn’t yet marked their home with a Trump-Pence lawn sign, but say they plan to before the election in November. Samantha says they’ll vote the traditional way: on Election Day and in person.

“No mail-in voting for me. I don’t want to take any chances,” she adds.

But even in the exurbs, which have been reliably Republican for so many years, now-President Trump performed worse there in 2016 than Mitt Romney did back in 2012. Chinni says that was an early sign that the politics were changing.

Kathleen VanPoppelen, who lives in Rochester, Michigan, has voted for the Republican presidential candidate since 1970. But she voted third party in 2016. VanPoppelen calls Trump a “tyrant” and doesn’t like his demeanor. 

“I hate Trump even more [now] if that’s possible,” VanPoppelen says.

Her viewpoint has become more common recently in the affluent exurb situated an hour north of Detroit.

VanPoppelen describes her community as “fiscally conservative, but a little more liberal as far as social issues.” But she says it hasn’t always been that way. “Like 30 years ago, this would be all Republican. And strictly very, very conservative. But now, people are more liberal with their social concerns,” she says.  

A revolt of voters like VanPoppelen is one of the reasons Democrats reclaimed the House of Representatives in 2018. It’s also why exurbs like hers are trending bluer. For the first time, VanPoppelen plans to vote for the Democratic presidential candidate.

A retired nurse, VanPoppelen took a temporary assignment to help a nearby hospital during the pandemic. In June, she was infected with COVID-19. She thinks President Trump horribly mismanaged this crisis. 

“Because there was no leadership, I have a lot of friends who got exposed in the early days and some of them are still off work. So I resent his handling of the coronavirus,” she says.

While Chinni expects Trump’s handling of the coronavirus to be a headwind for him in the exurbs, it’s still unclear if that will erode his support among voters here. New polls in key battleground states like Michigan, North Carolina, and Georgia show Joe Biden is leading Trump.

But Sean and Samantha Evans in Virginia are sticking with the president. And while they are confident President Trump will win, the couple is preparing for the possibility he won’t. 

“I don’t think I’ll be upset. But I see the stock market dropping,”  Sean Evans says. “If you live in a Republican state, you should be all right. If you live in a Democrat [sic] state, your budget is going to be tight and money is going to be tight because they’ll raise taxes.”

With the election just two weeks away, the couple won’t have to wait too long to find out whether the man they backed to beat the odds four years ago can pull it off again.

Our seriesWide Streets, Narrow Marginsvisits a range of suburbs and spends time with those who live there to hear about the issues that resonate with them and their neighbors. 

1A National Correspondent Sasha-Ann Simons and Across America reporter James Morrison spoke with residents in Lake Ridge, Virginia and Rochester, Michigan about what is most important to them this election season.

1A Across America is funded through a grant from The Corporation for Public Broadcasting. CPB is a private, nonprofit corporation created by Congress in 1967 that is the steward of the federal government’s investment in public broadcasting.

Copyright 2020 WAMU 88.5. To see more, visit WAMU 88.5.