What Trump Misunderstands About Suburban Voters

The president stokes fears about low-income apartments, but NIMBY homeowners don’t need his help.

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During the Republican National Convention last month, the St. Louis homeowner Patricia McCloskey accused Joe Biden and his supporters of wanting to “spread chaos and violence into our communities.” She and her husband, Mark, had gained national notoriety in June for waving guns at Black Lives Matter protesters who were filing past their house in a gated neighborhood. The Democrats, Patricia McCloskey said in her convention speech, “want to abolish the suburbs altogether by ending single-family-home zoning.” Changing local land-use regulations, she said, would “bring crime, lawlessness, and low-quality apartments into now-thriving suburban neighborhoods.” Donald Trump, both McCloskeys said, would prevent this. On Twitter, the president himself has been stoking the same fears.

As a political scientist who has studied local land-use regulations, I’m surprised to see a national political campaign in 2020 place such an emphasis on the issue—which hasn’t figured much in presidential races in half a century. The Trump campaign isn’t wrong to think that white suburban voters—the obvious target of the McCloskeys’ speech—would oppose apartment construction in their neighborhoods. In a nationally representative survey of metropolitan areas that I conducted last year, a substantial majority of homeowners revealed a strong preference for single-family development and opposition to apartments. They also overwhelmingly agreed that residents of a community should get a vote on what is built there.

Yet however fervent those not-in-my-backyard sentiments might be, they are unlikely to win many new voters to Trump’s side. Decades of deference to local control of land-use regulations and the dramatic overrepresentation of white homeowners in local politics mean that these voters can feel confident in their ability to prevent low-income and high-density developments by pressing their demands through local political channels. When people who oppose housing construction in the United States can block it without the president’s help, even the most NIMBY-minded of homeowners are free to base their votes on other things.

Fifty years ago, local land-use priorities were much more likely to drive presidential voting. In 1968, George Wallace—who had previously pledged to maintain segregation now, tomorrow, and forever—won nearly 10 million popular votes and 46 electoral votes by inveighing against the ever-advancing encroachment of a federal government bent on integrating public schools and neighborhoods. While he likely helped Richard Nixon defeat Hubert Humphrey, Wallace lost. And later that year, with the passage of the federal Fair Housing Act, the issue of housing segregation receded from national debates. In the past several decades, the federal government has been a relatively minor player in the maintenance or dismantling of residential segregation. In 2015, though, Barack Obama’s administration approved an “Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing” rule, under which local governments receiving federal housing grants would have to document any patterns of housing discrimination in their community and develop plans to address them. This summer, Trump rescinded the rule.

In mid-July, the president began tweeting that “suburban housewives” would be glad he did. He claimed that he was protecting the “suburban lifestyle dream” from low-income housing that, he maintained, would be sure to bring crime and lowered property values. In a recent Fox News interview, Trump went as far as to portray New York’s wealthy Westchester County as “ground zero” in an effort to “destroy the beautiful, suburban place.” Yesterday, Trump falsely insisted that Biden had pledged to abolish suburban communities “as they currently exist.”

By linking his opposition to fair-housing laws with neighborhood protection, Trump is invoking the segregationist view—as the historian Kevin M. Kruse has characterized it—that homeowners have the “‘right’ to select their neighbors … the ‘right’ to do as they [please] with their private property … and the ‘right’ to remain free from … dangerous encroachments by the federal government.” Solidified in the middle of the 20th century, this rights-based mindset offers a superficially color-blind rationale for keeping communities exclusive. It allows residents to view their ability to settle in such places as the product of their own hard work rather than the outcome of deliberate public policy.

In reality, throughout the postwar period, a combination of federal policies and private actions made homeownership available only to white residents in suburban communities. Once developed, suburbs simply had to block diversification to maintain their privilege. They did so and continue to do so with a variety of regulatory tools that prevent the construction of housing that would serve people at the lower end (or even in the middle) of the wealth distribution.

Some commentators have argued that the diversification of the suburbs means that Trump’s statements are likely to find an eager audience. And suburbs do have more race and class diversity than they once did. In fact, this appears to be at least partially the basis for Trump’s claims that affordable housing has been forced into the suburbs. But Trump is not speaking to everyone who lives in suburban America. Bastions of privilege still exist, ensconced in decades of strategically deployed zoning laws and development standards.

And conservative voters in these enclaves were already likely to support Trump in the general election, just as they supported John McCain and Mitt Romney in previous elections. These voters do not need to be convinced that, as Trump and his supporters have insisted, “Biden will destroy” their “American dream” or that Trump is the “bodyguard of Western civilization.”

Like Trump, the McCloskeys never mentioned the race of the menacing hypothetical apartment dweller, but the implication was clear. Racially coded appeals have been at the core of Republican campaigns since the civil-rights era, and Trump’s reference to the “suburban lifestyle dream” fits comfortably alongside Nixon’s appeals to a “silent majority” and George H. W. Bush’s ads sowing fears about Willie Horton. Trump is, in effect, doing what any jaded political analyst might expect: He is talking about an issue that resonates deeply with the racial sentiments of his core supporters in order to drum up enthusiasm for his candidacy.

And yet the history of exclusionary zoning reveals that it has long been a bipartisan activity. Obama’s Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule was the first major action taken by any presidential administration to enforce the 1968 Fair Housing Act, which despite its lofty promises has not resulted in an integrated America. During the 1976 presidential campaign, Jimmy Carter assured voters that he was not “going to use the federal government’s authority deliberately to circumvent the natural inclination of people to live in ethnically homogenous neighborhoods.”

My survey data revealed no significant difference between white Republican and white Democratic homeowners in their opposition to high-density housing. I also found overwhelming agreement that apartment complexes would increase crime rates, decrease school quality, lower property values, and degrade the desirability of a neighborhood.

Plenty of white Democrats continue to work vehemently to block low-income-housing development in their neighborhoods. A glance at the fate of recent state efforts to compel cities in California to build more housing is illuminating. Legislation to loosen zoning requirements around transit lines has been largely opposed by California’s handful of Republican legislators, but it has also been opposed by many Democrats—some worried about gentrification in poor, predominantly minority areas, but others simply seeking to limit development.

What this means is that Trump’s approach could conceivably appeal to white suburbanites more broadly, not just Republicans. And yet the evidence suggests that this is unlikely. Most white Democrats support the development of affordable and subsidized housing in the abstract and will feel comfortable rejecting Trump’s similarly abstract opposition to it. Where white Democrats oppose such development is when it arrives in their own backyards. But they do not need Trump to block it.

By celebrating the McCloskeys, the president is appealing to racial anxieties and portraying himself as the savior of the suburbs. But segregation and exclusion are already  entrenched in local law and the landscape itself, so much so that Trump’s claim that Biden will upend the status quo simply isn’t credible. For the Democratic and swing voters whom Trump hopes to win over, other concerns—such as the pandemic, economic decline, and, perhaps ironically, racial and social justice—will probably matter far more than the potential loss of their suburban property rights.