election 2012

Suburban voters are a key prize in the race for the White House

  • Article by: KEVIN DIAZ , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 16, 2012 - 5:38 AM

Once solidly Republican, suburbs are a new political battleground.

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Norbert Timm, 79, like many suburban voters, says he is conservative about finances, less so about social issues.

Photo: Jim Gehrz, Star Tribune

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Suburban voters like Norbert Timm find themselves squarely in the sights of Republicans and Democrats seeking the last few uncommitted presidential voters.

Timm leans toward Republican Mitt Romney, but the Minnetonka retiree doesn't understand why rich investors should pay a lower tax rate than guys who dig ditches. But he's also not exactly thrilled with the weak economy and high government spending under President Obama.

"The job situation is not good," said Timm, 79, who has watched one of his three grown sons suffer through a long bout of unemployment.

A former computer repairman, Timm calls himself "damn independent." And voters like him in the affluent southwestern suburbs like Minnetonka, Eden Prairie and Edina closely resemble the up-for-grabs swing voters in the 10 or so battleground states that the campaigns are targeting this year.

Neither uniformly Democratic nor Republican, these communities have become a bellwether of the nation's shifting political winds. Their manicured lawns and high-end cars belie a silent tug-of-war over competing political ideologies, with many suburban voters residing quietly in the middle of the spectrum.

"The Democrats own the central cities and the first-ring suburbs," says former state legislator Myron Orfield, director of the Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity at the University of Minnesota. "If they have the wind at their backs, they push into the second and third tiers."

Republicans, Orfield adds, own the rim suburbs, the outer metropolitan edges, and much of rural America. "If they have the wind at their backs, they push into the second-tier suburbs, and the battlefield shifts back and forth."

'Middle ground'

If the pattern is familiar, the mix of ideologies is different in this election. Historic bellwether regions like Anoka County, in the Twin Cities' northern suburbs, have tended to blend economic populism with conservative social values. Now, analysts say, those areas reflect the increasing polarization between "Blue" and "Red" America, along with the GOP's strong Tea Party and libertarian factions.

This year's race could be decided by suburban voters who are fiscally conservative but socially moderate, a cohort that's more amply represented in wealthier southern suburbs like Eden Prairie, a bastion of business executives, corporate managers and other busy professional workers.

"You have middle-income people who are uncomfortable with the social side of the Republican Party, and uncomfortable with the tax rates of the Democratic Party," Orfield said. "They're looking for middle ground."

Many of them are searching for a party that represents them.

Seated at a drive-in coffee shop in a shopping mall near his Eden Prairie office, U.S. Rep. Erik Paulsen, a Republican, describes voters in this part of his district as independent thinkers with a bipartisan streak. "They're paying attention, not necessarily to a party, but to candidates and what their positions are," he said.

A lot of them work for the big corporations that call the southwestern suburbs their home: Cargill, Best Buy, United Health Care and Medtronic. "They're educated and they follow the news," Paulsen said, "They pay attention to the issues, especially issues centered around the economy."

The new suburban cross-currents can be seen in the way the campaigns pitch to suburban voters. "Romney is betting on the economic message, and the Obama campaign wants to call attention to other issues, and to Romney's traits," said Carleton College political scientist Steven Schier.

Once Republican strongholds, Minnetonka and Edina went comfortably in the Obama column in 2008. Eden Prairie, the newest of the three communities, went to Obama by about 1,000 votes, with margins of less than 10 votes in some precincts. In 2004, Eden Prairie went handily to President George W. Bush.

An outdated image

Eden Prairie Mayor Nancy Tyra-Lukens, an independent who doesn't caucus with either party, says the image of the suburbs as Republican citadels is outdated. "There's an image that we're uniformly white, uniformly Republican and uniformly rich," she said. "It's just not the case."

Politically, election maps of all three communities show shades of light pink and baby blue, not crimson and navy. At the legislative level, DFL candidates tend to tout their business acumen; Republicans emphasize fiscal issues over wedge social issues that make centrist voters uncomfortable.

"I think you would call this a swing district," said Ron Erhardt, a former Republican legislator who broke with former Gov. Tim Pawlenty over a gas tax hike and now is running for his old House seat from Edina -- as a Democrat. "It was populated by Republicans forever," Erhardt said, "but most of them were moderate Republicans."

Erhardt, along with Obama, now is counting on those same moderates to track with his more liberal views on abortion, gay rights and taxes.

Craig Olson, Obama's neighborhood team leader in Eden Prairie, says he finds many voters who don't want to identify outwardly with any party or candidate.

"In my neighborhood, I'm the only person with an Obama sign probably in a square mile," he said. "But you have to dig even harder to find a Romney sign."

Sex and marriage

More telling, though, is the preponderance of orange "Vote No" signs on the ballot issue banning same-sex marriage. That, Schier said, could be an advantage to Democrats in a highly sought suburban demographic that could tip the election one way or the other.

The leading edge of the potential cross-over vote is made up of women, another critical demographic that Democrats are hoping will put them over the top in similar suburban battlegrounds like Denver, Cleveland and the northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C.

Whether it's soccer moms or so-called Walmart shoppers, "Suburban women, once again, are the whole election," said GOP strategist Lance Olson, an aide to former U.S. Rep. Jim Ramstad, a moderate Republican who represented the district before Paulsen.

In Eden Prairie, women certainly represent the cross-pressure in the upcoming presidential election, said Laura Hookom, executive director of the Eden Prairie Community Foundation. She described a recent get-together at which voters were tugged from both sides. "The conversation was that Obama didn't make this [economy] happen. He inherited a lot of this. ... But at the same time, these very same people are Republicans and listening to what Mitt is saying."

From Minnetonka to Eden Prairie, both campaigns have reason to hope, Democrats banking on the moderate social views of professional suburbanites, Republicans on the intrinsic fiscal conservatism of the middle class.

In the latter category are retired professionals like Timm, who sees himself as the ultimate pragmatist, utterly averse to politicians.

An occasional churchgoer, he's fine with civil unions between same-sex couples, if not gay marriage itself. When it comes to politics and the economy, he voted for Jesse Ventura and doesn't care which party runs the country, as long as it produces results.

Timm, who has watched prosperous new communities grow up from the cow pastures that used to surround his modest single-story rambler 50 years ago, now worries that his children won't see the same upward trajectory.

"I don't know if they'll have the same opportunities I had," he said. "People have to start doing something for this country."

Kevin Diaz is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau.

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