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Election 2019: Changing Demographics Explain Democrats' Victory in Virginia

It's not suburbs vs. cities but inner vs. outer suburbs that determined the outcome of elections in Virginia last Tuesday that flipped the General Assembly from red to blue.
November 12, 2019, 12pm PST | Irvin Dawid
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Virginia State Government
Eli WIlson

As a result of the Nov. 5 election, Democrats won two seats in the Virginia State Senate to claim a 21-19 ruling majority and seven seats in the House of Delegates to hold a 55-45 majority, the first time since 1993 that Democrats controlled both legislative chambers and the executive branch. When the General Assembly convenes in January, the Old Dominion will become the nation's fifteenth Democratic state government trifecta, where one political party controls the governorship and both branches of the state legislature.

 Sabrina Tavernise, the lead writer for The Times on the Census, and Robert Gebeloff, a reporter specializing in data analysis, attribute the leftward movement, "a stunning political realignment for a southern state," to the changing demographics of Virginia's suburban counties.

Once the heart of the confederacy, Virginia is now the land of Indian grocery stores, Korean churches and Diwali festivals. The state population has boomed — up by 38 percent since 1990, with the biggest growth in densely settled suburban areas like South Riding [in Loudon County, the state's third most populous]. 

It’s not just Virginia. From Atlanta to Houston, this pattern is repeating itself — a new kind of suburbanization that is sweeping through politics. The densely populated inner ring suburbs are turning blue, while the mostly white exurban outer ring is redder than ever [see 'Michigan split' below].

The role of immigration, as well as education, plays a key role in the new politics that helps to describe suburbanization. Foreign-born people make up nearly 14 percent of the U.S. population, up from five percent in 1965, "almost as high as the last peak in the early 20th century," note Tavernise and Gebeloff. "The concentrations used to be in larger gateway cities, but immigrants have spread out considerably since then."

The influx of immigrants and their U.S.-born children, the spread of high-density suburbia and the growth of higher education all tilt the field toward the Democrats. Still, that doesn’t give them a lock on the state, said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.

Michigan suburban split

The inner vs. outer suburban demographics were described by the two Times reporters in greater depth in an Oct. 25 piece, "Are the Suburbs Turning Democratic?" The dateline is East Grand Rapids, Michigan, a small, overwhelmingly white suburb of Grand Rapids, illustrative "of an equally powerful demographic trend — the rise of outer-ring suburbs, whose white population has grown by 25 percent since 1990, compared with a 1 percent decline in the inner ring." 

The other Kent County city described is Kentwood, far more racially diverse due in large part to immigration, and one of Grand Rapids’s largest inner-ring suburbs.  "In 2008, Kentwood tipped blue, and it never went back."

Democrats may be advancing in the inner-ring suburbs, but that does not mean they have conquered the suburbs over all. In many cities, the inner-ring advantage is not enough to counteract the powerful force of Republican voters in the outer ring.

Additional reading on the politics of the suburbs in The Times:

Related in Planetizen:

Full Story:
Published on Saturday, November 9, 2019 in The New York Times
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