A Clinton-Kaine campaign sign is seen behind a Trump-Pence sign in adjacent yards.
Neighboring residences with Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton campaign signs in their front yards in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, in 2016. Mark Makela/Reuters

A new poll finds that far from being more moderate than urban or rural voters, suburbanites are actually more partisan.

The popular image of America’s suburbs as a realm of swing voters, moderates, and independents is wrong, a new poll suggests. In fact, suburban voters are much less likely to be political independents than either urban or rural voters. Only 15 percent of the poll’s suburban respondents were independents, lower than the rate among rural or urban residents.

What makes the suburbs politically distinct in America may not be moderation, but rather a more even split between Democrats and Republicans than exists in left-leaning cities or right-leaning rural areas.

“I think people reached the conclusion that there must be a lot of independents and swing voters in the suburbs,” said Christopher Berry, a professor at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy, who conducted the poll with the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. “We found suburbs were just as partisan, if not more so than other areas. The reason elections were closer there was because there was a more even balance of partisans there, not because there’s more independents.”

Of course, “the suburbs” is a huge category, encompassing around half of the country’s population.1 Some individual suburbs are quite conservative, some quite liberal, and some moderate. But taken as a whole, suburban America shows no signs of the political independence often attributed to it. That’s true whether self-described independents are lumped in with the party they lean toward, or whether they are broken out into their own category.

CityLab previously documented how suburban areas swung the 2018 U.S. House election using the CityLab Congressional Density Index, which classifies each district based on the density of the neighborhoods within it. Before 2018, predominantly suburban House districts were closely divided between Democrats and Republicans, but after significant Democratic gains they now lean sharply left.

The survey was conducted by the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy and the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research between January 16 and January 20, 2019, using a mix of online and telephone interviews. It has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4.3 percentage points for overall results.

Differences among suburbanites

The poll highlights some differences within the general category of “suburb” and “suburbanite.” For example, when the survey’s 1,010 respondents were broken down by the density of their neighborhoods, the researchers found the results followed a continuous pattern: Residents of denser suburbs held beliefs more like those of city-dwellers than those of residents of low-density suburbs. (That echoes the Congressional Density Index, which found that districts composed primarily of low-density suburbs were more Republican than districts made up of higher-density suburbs.)

Researchers also looked at suburban residents based on whether they had ever lived in a city. Politically, Americans who moved from cities into the ’burbs voted much more like their former urban neighbors than their new suburban ones. Suburbanites who had never lived in a city were closely divided between Democrats and Republicans in the 2018 election, but ex-city dwellers voted overwhelmingly for Democrats:

But this didn’t explain why high-density suburbs voted more Democratic than low-density suburbs. Residents of dense suburbs were no more likely to have previously lived in a city than residents of sparse ones.

Which came first?

The UChicago Harris/AP-NORC Poll also sheds a little light on an ongoing debate among urbanism scholars: whether differences between cities, suburbs, and rural areas exist because different kinds of people move to those areas, or because living in a certain type of neighborhood spurs people to adopt certain habits.

To get at this, Berry and his colleagues asked people how long they had lived in their current community, and what kind of community they grew up in. The hope was to test whether people who’d lived for a long time in, say, the suburbs, had different beliefs than people who had moved there more recently from another type of community.

The researchers found no evidence of that effect—though they didn’t find enough evidence to disprove that theory, either, Berry said. But the poll’s results suggest that a lot of political differences between rural, urban, and suburban areas have to do with what kinds of people live there, rather than some characteristic of those types of neighborhoods.

For example, rural Americans are 24 percentage points more likely to approve of President Donald Trump than urban residents. But after controlling for the higher share of Republicans in rural areas, they’re only 4 points more likely to back Trump—not a statistically significant difference.

  1. In this poll, 46 percent of respondents identified as living in the suburbs, 27 percent as rural, and 25 percent as urban.

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