Democrats Make Gains In A GOP Stronghold

America's suburbs and exurbs used to be bastions of Republicanism, but that is changing. One of those areas is the Chester County, Pa., where Republicans once outnumbered Democrats four to one. But that margin has narrowed and in 2006, the county elected a few Democrats to office for the first time in years.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne. This fall's election may tell us if important parts of the political landscape have changed. Those are the outer suburbs and exurbs, residential areas far from a major city.

INSKEEP: Four years ago, some voters on a porch pretty much told us the whole story of an exurb in Warren County, Ohio.

Can I just run across you really quick and ask each of you to say if you've decided who to vote for, and if so, who?

Unidentified Woman #1: I have. George Bush.

Unidentified Man #1: George Bush.

Unidentified Woman #2: George Bush.

Unidentified Woman #3: Undecided.

Unidentified Man #2: Yes, I have. George W. Bush.

INSKEEP: Republicans dominated those areas in 2004, and that was by design. They had a powerful organization led by political consultant Karl Rove. Democrats hope for different results in 2008. One clue to their chances comes from a Democratic voter named Alon Ben Schmuel(ph). He's noticing bumper stickers in his area 30 miles outside Philadelphia.

Mr. ALON BEN SHMUEL (Pennsylvania): Driving around, there's lots of Obama stickers, lots of faded W '04 stickers, not so many McCain stickers.

INSKEEP: Chester County, Pennsylvania, a mix of suburbs and exurbs, is changing. The population is climbing toward half a million, people like Schmuel who move their families into brand-new neighborhoods.

I can't help but notice this giant cinderblock concrete wall...

Mr. SCHMUEL: Yeah, it's a Target being built adjacent.

INSKEEP: A Target?

Mr. SCHMUEL: It's a Target being built adjacent to the neighborhood.

INSKEEP: And this growing county's voters may be changing too, like Diane and Paul Roberts. Both retired early only to find everything from gas to heat to food costing more than they expected.

Do you mind saying who you voted for in the last presidential election?

Ms. DIANE ROBERTS: Bush, believe it or not, but that eight years ago or four years ago.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PAUL ROBERTS: Yeah, I voted for Bush, but at that time both of us were registered Republicans. Now we're registered independents.

INSKEEP: You switched your registration?

Mr. ROBERTS: Yes.

INSKEEP: They switched when they moved to Chester County in 2006. This fall he's leaning toward John McCain but says he's open-minded. She's undecided, saying she doesn't know enough about Barack Obama but knows too much about John McCain.

Independents like them may decide who carries many places like Chester County. A national Democratic leader, Congressman Rahm Emanuel, likes his party's chances.

Representative RAHM EMANUEL (Democrat, Illinois): In the 2006 election, we won those areas. Of the 30 net seats we picked up in the House, 16 came out of what you would categorize as suburban to exurban districts, over half.

INSKEEP: Trends like that caught the attention of Republican political consultant Alex Gage(ph). He's been thinking about younger families, who often buy houses far outside town.

Mr. ALEX GAGE (Republican Political Consultant): I think that's what is a very distinguishing and life-changing thing for these young families, having children for the first time, having to deal with issues that they never had before.

INSKEEP: Well, that's something that in the past Republicans might have said this favors us because we're the party of families, and you're going to have different concerns as you get older.

Mr. GAGE: And I think this is an election where I think social conservative issue sets are going to be less important, and I think the economic issues are just going to be more important issues than the social issues.

INSKEEP: Alex Gage says the voters he studied are still conservative, but in 2006, Chester County, Pennsylvania elected a few Democrats to office for the first time in years.

Ms. CHRISTINE THOMAS (Executive Director, Republican Party, Chester County, Pennsylvania): The history of the county since 1855, which I believe is when the county party started, this is a Republican county.

INSKEEP: That's the party's executive director in this county, Christine Thomas. She says registered Republicans once outnumbered Democrats four to one here. As the county grew, Republicans maintained a two-to-one advantage. Then many Democrats registered to vote in this year's tightly contested Pennsylvania primary.

And so that two-to-one advantage in registration that you had is maybe a little less now than it was?

Ms. THOMAS: It's exactly 1.8.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: Not that you're counting.

Ms. THOMAS: Not at all.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: In Pennsylvania's primary, Barack Obama lost the state but won Chester County. Part of the change is the kind of people who've been moving here in the past decade. Consider the couple who sat down to talk amid their backyard crickets.

(Soundbite of crickets)

Ms. PAM FLITTERSDORF(ph): I'm a yellow-dog Democrat.

Mr. MIKE LINETTA(ph): I voted for McGovern.

INSKEEP: Pam Flittersdorf is a librarian. Mike Linetta works at a pharmaceutical firm.

Mr. LINETTA: That's what you have in this area.

Ms. FLITTERSDORF: You're in a pharma ghetto here.

Mr. LINETTA: It's pharma and people who are, you know, like working for banks and working in the city.

INSKEEP: They're high-paying jobs, but Mike and Pam notice a lot of pharmaceutical workers being laid off.

Ms. FLITTERSDORF: Yeah, it's in the background a lot. Do you want to do something to the house, or will you get in the middle of that kind of project and find out we're moving?

INSKEEP: You can find that kind of concern in many of the places studied by Republican political consultant Alex Gage. He looked at some of the fastest-growing areas of the country and wants Republicans to focus on Loudon County, which might decide Virginia, or other fast-growing areas that could decide Ohio, Florida and Georgia.

How worried are Republicans about what you've been seeing?

Mr. GAGE: Well, I think we're very worried. I mean, I said if you take all these sort of fast-growing communities, they represent about 10 percent of the total vote that'll be cast in the upcoming election. That's a huge battleground.

INSKEEP: He thinks that battleground could decide this fall's election. And that may be one thing that Democrats and Republicans alike are thinking about as their conventions begin, Renee.

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