Doug Sosnik is a man whose famed strategy memos are considered essential reading in Washington. He’s a former Clinton administration adviser, chief of staff on the Hill and crisis-management expert who’s been influential for decades. But now, he’s analyzing the political landscape from his own perch, and argues America’s most important political battlegrounds are its suburbs.
Today, Playbook co-author Ryan Lizza chats with Sosnik about what campaign strategists are getting wrong about our current political landscape and how the suburban vote is the new key to winning House, Senate and even presidential elections. Transcribed excerpts from that conversation are below, edited for length and readability.
Ryan Lizza: So one of the interesting facts that you wrote about is relying on Bloomberg data that you can actually sort of pinpoint the dead center when it comes to population density where things start to turn from red to blue. But there’s basically a sort of number that is the swing geography of American I think it’s 1,800 people—
Doug Sosnik: Eight hundred.
Lizza: Excuse me. Eight hundred per —
Sosnik: Per square mile.
Lizza: Per square mile. What’s an example of that? What’s a county that people would be familiar with or a place that that’s about the size of? Because as you point out, defining a suburb is not a science, right?
Sosnik: Right. And even what constitutes the suburbs.
Lizza: Yeah. People use different definitions. You used the Bloomberg sort of gradient.
Sosnik: So America has gone through — pre-Covid — we’ve become increasingly less mobile as a society. Now, part of it is young people aren’t going to move across country somewhere for a job. They’re going to stay where they want to live.
But starting in the middle part of the last decade, people started leaving cities. There was a big suburban growth in the first latter part of the first decade and second part of the second decade. But there was a trend away from cities. Now, part of its affordability, schools, and all the rest of it.
And then Covid came and that’s even going to push it more. What Bloomberg did was put together six different kind of buckets of communities based on the census data of the last decade. So we are just redrawing the lines now of the new country based on post-reapportion redistricting. So it’s old data based on old lines. They basically had six buckets of how you cluster people. So if you take one extreme, which is pure urban or highly urban and the other is rural, and those are really kind of spoken for politically, then you’re left with four others. And then you’ve got mostly rural with some tinge of more growth and whatever on the one side. Then you have mostly urban with a tinge of suburban, like Bethesda, Maryland, on the other side that leans more Democrat.
Then you’re left with these two in the middle, which are kind of the swing areas. One of them is closer to cities but further out, which leans Democrat. Then the other group, which are exurban, which are more rural but are also kind of moving closer to the more kind of dense populations, which lean Republican, but are more mixed.
Lizza: This is the remaining swing geography of America.
Sosnik: Those are the two main ones. Yes. If you were to leave Washington, D.C., if you were to go south and west and north-ish, you could do three different kind of car rides with someone with their spreadsheets and their new data and in a matter of, like, 35 or 40 miles, you could go through 20 pockets of these kind of communities.
Lizza: The swing communities you’re talking about…
Sosnik: The swing communities, yeah.
Lizza: …that are in this inner suburb, and it’s basically the area that are sort of — what would you call it? Outer suburb into exurbs. It’s that cluster.
Sosnik: You had in the ’80s with this whole thing about cities are all screwed up. People moved to all these exurbs. They get five times bigger houses. So all these schools are built with trailers because the people moved there so fast, they didn’t have time to build the school buildings.
And then like 10 or 15 years later, it’s like, “Oh, the traffic is so awful and whatever. I spend an hour-and-a-half whatever.” So people are like, “I don’t want to spend all the money on the yard.” You couldn’t give these houses away. They’re all moving to the city.
Kind of pre-Covid but certainly post-Covid, it’s sort of like, “Well, first of all, I don’t have to drive in every day,” or, “My God, I don’t want to be all around these people. I need a backyard.” So there’s kind of a move back out to these more further-flowing areas.
Now you’re seeing a different kind of demographic profile now of people moving out to these areas. Higher educated in some of these exurban areas. You look at the census data that came out last week. I mean, you see it everywhere all the time. The census data last week was like, “Okay, well, where are the most apartments that were being built in the country?”
So the view was economy drives our country, economy drives our politics. Twentieth century America: industrial economy, Midwest, steel, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, coal. That was the engine that drove 20th century manufacturing in America. That was the area that controlled political power in America. If you were in those areas, you controlled power in our country.
Lizza: And what you’re saying is now that —
Sosnik: Twenty-first century is South and Southwest. People are moving there for more space. It’s cheaper. It’s lower taxes. It’s better weather. So then if you look at all the metrics of like, “Okay, what cities have had the biggest decline of population,” they’re all in these — I don’t know what to do with California, San Francisco — the Left Coast and the East Coast.
They’re moving out of those areas. And where are they moving? They’re all moving to this South, Sun Belt, Sand Belt, whatever you want to call it. So, like, where were the most apartments built in the last couple years? Well, it’s all in the Sun Belt.
Where are the cities that had the biggest population losses? Well, they’re all these bigger urban areas. And so the power in this century is going to be where these people are moving. These were all suburban areas. These were all cornfields or orange groves. Whatever they are is not what they were.
Lizza: And to be clear, what you’re saying is these are the swing areas, not the highest population areas.
Sosnik: Well, I’m saying that this is where as a general matter, this is where the population in our country is moving. They will be the power centers of our politics in this century. By the 2040s, North Carolina, Georgia, Florida and Texas will be four of the six biggest states in the country and with it, the political power. These are all Sun Belt. These are all suburban-driven states.
In the macro sense, this is where the power’s going to be in our country. This is where the economic power in our country’s going to be. And when you have economic power comes political power. These are communities that are coming out of nowhere and people are moving there. This was happening before Covid but Covid’s accelerating that. So that’s where the battleground’s going to be in our country going forward.