What We Mean When We Talk About 'Suburban Women Voters' "Suburban women" have been a political fixation for decades. "We're really talking about ... relatively educated and affluent whites," said one Republican strategist.
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What We Mean When We Talk About 'Suburban Women Voters'

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What We Mean When We Talk About 'Suburban Women Voters'

What We Mean When We Talk About 'Suburban Women Voters'

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SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

In any political season, you'll hear some reference to suburban women. In the past, they've been called soccer moms and security moms, among other things. And it's all code for a similar voting bloc. This year, with many key House races in the suburbs, they're once again major targets for campaigns. NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben has been looking into what this term really means, and she's with us now. Hey, Danielle.

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: Hey, Scott.

DETROW: OK, so we've had this series of high-profile elections lately where the successful candidates - whether it's Democrat Conor Lamb in the Pennsylvania special election or Republican Karen Handel in last year's Georgia special election - specifically courted and targeted suburban women voters. What was it about them that made these campaigns focus their attention there?

KURTZLEBEN: What you have is a confluence of different demographic groups - white people, educated people, higher income people and women. These all tend to be pretty high-turnout groups. They're not the only high-turnout groups in America, but you have a lot of people in the suburbs who are at the intersection of all them. So if you're a politician or you're a political strategist, what you're thinking is, I want to be as efficient as I can be. These voters might be theoretically persuadable. They think they can swing them.

DETROW: So we both cover politics. Our desks are right next to each other in the newsroom.

KURTZLEBEN: True.

DETROW: And many times, we have talked about suburban voters. But you wrote on npr.org this week, when political reporters like you and I use that phrase - when political consultants use that phrase, we're not quite talking about exactly what we mean to be talking about. What did you mean by that?

KURTZLEBEN: Right. So I mean, you know this as well as I do. When you talk to a political strategist or a political campaign, they will talk to you about suburban voters in a pretty reductive way. So often, it's code for white, when really, you know, suburbs - that's not entirely the case.

Suburbs, for example, they're not super white anymore. But 2010 census data showed us that the share of suburbanites who are minorities - it's about the same as the country as a whole. Around 65 percent, give or take, of suburban residents were white. Aside from that, you have a significant amount of poverty in suburbs. So if you flatten this to just talk about rich, well-educated, often white people, you're missing out on a lot of other people and a lot of nuance.

DETROW: One of the big trends of the past few special elections has been a big shift toward the Democratic candidates. If this is a lasting shift in this year's midterm elections, how big of a deal is that?

KURTZLEBEN: Right. And we should specify here that we're talking, once again, white, college-educated women have swung pretty hard towards Democrats in the last couple of decades. So the way that this shifts strategy - I was talking to a Republican strategist, and he was saying, you know, it's pretty simple. Is that, like, what we have to do is focus our energies more on non-college-educated white voters, which means, you know, focusing more on exurbs, the further out rings of suburbs, and also, you know, rural voters - rural white voters, that is. And that's what Republicans are doing.

DETROW: Looking back at some of the recent elections where candidates have targeted voters, what are some takeaways that we can infer from their success in doing that?

KURTZLEBEN: So I talked to the campaign manager for Ralph Northam. He is, as you know, the Democrat who won the Virginia governorship back - last November. What this strategist told me was that, you know, Ralph Northam's campaign focused really heavily on suburbs, but they had a sort of two-pronged strategy.

One of those strategies was to go after those white, affluent, college-educated, theoretically persuadable suburban voters, but to go after more Democratic base voters, which is to say minority and younger voters. That's what they did, and they won the election.

DETROW: All right. NPR political reporter Danielle Kurtzleben, thank you very much.

KURTZLEBEN: Thank you.

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