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The Suburbs Are Split Over Donald Trump

A new poll reveals a sharp divide between rural and urban populations over President Trump, yet it’s the suburbs that are torn down the middle.

President Trump gives a speech at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

Nothing divides the suburbs like President Donald Trump. Take one of the lingering questions over his most controversial executive order. Is it fair to call it a “Muslim ban” or is something softer warranted (“travel ban”)? The suburbs can’t decide: 52 percent say it’s a Muslim ban, 47 percent say it isn’t.

Or take the executive order itself: 50 percent of suburban respondents approve of Trump’s ban, according to a new CNN/ORC poll. The other 50 percent can’t get behind it.

After his contentious first two weeks in office, conservatives love what Trump is doing, while liberals loathe his term already. Rural and urban opinion align with conservative and liberal views. No surprises there. The suburbs, however, are torn down the middle. That says something about the ideological diversity of the suburbs. Suburban residents also think things are going better than either their urban or rural counterparts do—which doesn’t quite add up.

Nearly half (49 percent) of suburban poll respondents approve of the way Trump is handling the job so far, while 49 percent disapprove. That’s not to say that the suburbs are meh on Trump (beyond the 2 percent who somehow still have no opinion). Just like their country cousins and city-slicker friends, suburbanites feel strongly for or strongly against Trump, with little in between. The difference is that the suburbs aren’t ideological bubbles.

The CNN/ORC poll doesn’t strictly define what it means by “suburbs.” The poll’s methodology references the Census: “All respondents were asked questions concerning basic demographics, and the entire sample was weighted to reflect national Census figures for gender, race, age, education, region of country, and telephone usage.” The American Housing Survey codes for two kinds of suburbs—urban suburbs and rural suburbs, helpfully—but it’s doubtful that people answering a telephone poll would know offhand their community’s official designation one way or the other.

Taken broadly, the suburbs are politically contested ground, as questions about security, the economy, and other topics reveal. On healthcare policy, 46 percent of suburban respondents approve of the work Trump has put in so far, while 44 percent disapprove. On his handling of terrorism (50 percent approve, 47 percent disapprove) and foreign affairs (43/51), the gap is only a bit wider. By contrast, urban approval for Trump’s policies has typically registered in the 30s, with disapproval hovering around 60 percent—and vice versa for rural respondents.

About the only thing that the suburbs agree on as a bloc is that building a wall along the border with Mexico is a bad idea: 58 percent oppose it, while just 40 percent support it. The wall isn’t a winner anywhere. While 83 percent of Republicans and 71 percent of self-identified conservatives support the wall, they’re spread out. Trump’s border plan has only tepid support in rural America, his strongest bastion, with 53 percent in favor and 45 percent opposed. (When respondents were asked about building the wall through import taxes on imported goods from Mexico, support for the wall cratered across the board.)

The most interesting result from the poll may be that nobody thinks the country is heading in the right direction except the suburbs. Just 42 percent of urban respondents think things are going very well or fairly well. That makes sense, in political terms, since urban voters are largely Democrats and Democrats got their asses handed to them in the last election. You might expect rural Americans to hold a rosier view of things, but only 43 percent of them do. In the suburbs, though, 51 percent of respondents think things are fine.

This geographic distribution of satisfaction might spell trouble for the Republican Party down the road. Trump has a ways to go to convince suburbanites that things are terrible—that unemployment is actually high, that the liberal media is hiding evidence of terrorist attacks—in order to win support for his more divisive policies. But he’ll have to do so without convincing suburbanites that things are terrible because of Republicans. While Trump may like his base angry, he also needs to keep them satisfied, lest they lose faith in the president and other Republican incumbents.

As Hillary Clinton learned the hard way, geography is destiny. Trump may be soaring with conservative voters, but the Republican Party has to win places. If suburban opinion continues to sour on Trump, it will make it that much harder for down-ballot GOP races in the mid-terms and beyond.

About the Author

  • Kriston Capps
    Kriston Capps is a staff writer at CityLab. More

    Kriston Capps is a staff writer at CityLab, where he writes about housing, art and design. Previously, he was a senior editor at Architect magazine.