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Great debate: Who will best serve the suburbs?

US Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney shakes hwith woman after ordering his lunch Chipotle restaurant Denver Colorado October 2 2012.

US Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney shakes hand with a woman after ordering his lunch at a Chipotle restaurant in Denver, Colorado, on October 2, 2012. US President Barack Obama and his White House rival Romney hunkered down on Tuesday to prepare for the high-stakes televised debate upon which their political futures depend. AFP PHOTO/Jewel SamadJEWEL SAMAD/AFP/GettyImages

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Presidential Debate tonight

The first of three scheduled presidential debates between Democrat President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney is scheduled for 8 p.m. Wednesday.

ON TV: The debate will be broadcast live from the University of Denver in Denver, Colo., on ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC, PBS, C-SPAN and on cable news channels including CNN, Fox News and MSNBC.

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Updated: November 4, 2012 6:06AM

Within the handful of swing states, the presidential election will come down to a handful of swing counties: namely the suburban voters who reside in about the last contested places in American politics.

Even in solid-red states, big cities tilt overwhelmingly toward President Obama and the Democrats, and even in solid-blue ones, the countryside tends to be solidly Republican.

What remains contested are the suburbs, which —despite the breathless talk in recent years of an urban revival — have accounted for 90 percent of metropolitan growth over the past decade.

As the suburbs have grown — in large part by collecting families priced out of cities or seeking more space or better schools — they’ve shifted from reliably Republican territory to contested turf. Barack Obama won 50 percent of the suburban vote in 2008, a better performance than either Bill Clinton or John Kerry.

Obama’s success resulted from demographic changes sweeping the periphery of most major cities.

Long derided by blue-state intellectuals as stultifying breeders of homogeneous white bread, the suburbs increasingly reflect and shape the country’s ethnic diversification. The majority of foreign-born Americans now live in suburbs and have become more ethnically diverse than their corresponding core cities. Among the metropolitan areas with the highest percentage of suburban minority growth are swing state regions Des Moines, Iowa; Milwaukee; and Allentown and Scranton, Pa.

Hispanic growth

Minorities, according to a recent Brookings study, now represent 35 percent of suburban residents, similar to their share of overall U.S. population.

(In the Fox Valley, Kane County’s white population is about 59 percent; Kendall is 74 percent white; DuPage is 70 percent and Will about 67 percent white, according to the U.S. Census.)

Nationwide, well over 5 million Latinos moved to the suburbs during the past decade — and many more Latinos now live in suburbs than core cities. In the past, Hispanic suburbanites tended to vote somewhat more Republican than their urban counterparts. But this year, they appear to be solidly Democratic—as Latinos have been repelled by the GOP’s embrace of nativism, and drawn to Obama’s clever election-year move to offer effective amnesty to young illegal immigrants.

skipping city

Asians — another group that’s strongly favored Obama — have moved even more quickly into the suburbs.

While many immigrants hail from some of the world’s densest cities, few immigrants come to America dreaming of a small apartment near a transit stop.

“Many Asian immigrants today are bypassing the city entirely and going straight to suburban neighborhoods first to fulfill their version of the American dream,” says Thomas Tseng, a founding principal at New American Dimensions, a Los Angeles-based ethnic marketing and research firm.

Over the past decade the Asian population in suburbs has grown at nearly four times the rate of that in cities, with 2.7 million more Asians in suburbia compared to 770,000 in the core cities. In Florida, there are now well more than 100,000 more Asians in the suburbs of the Sunshine State’s four major cities — Miami, Jacksonville, Orlando, and Tampa — than there were a decade ago. (DuPage County’s largest percentage of foreign born residents are Asian — nearly four in 10.)

Obama also will likely receive significant backing from white professionals, who tend to cluster in the suburbs of cities such as Columbus or around Washington, D.C. Virtually all the 10-best educated counties in America are suburban.

Affluent appeal

So what about Romney? He’s clearly a product of the suburbs, growing up in the tony periphery of Detroit and now living in leafy Belmont, Mass., a comfy close-in commuter suburb that has seen little population growth since 1950.

In the primaries, Romney did well in suburbs, particularly upper-class ones, and those voters played a critical role in putting him over the top against Rick Santorum.

Romney continues to score roughly 50 percent support in polls with voters making at least $100,000, a group that tends to live in affluent commuter towns ringing cities. But to win, the Republican needs to reproduce his party’s wave of 2010, when they captured roughly 55 percent of the suburban vote on their way to retaking the House.

So can Romney reach beyond his classic country-club GOP base to the middle- and working-class swing state suburban voters?

On paper, he should do well in lower density suburban areas, in large part because they tend to have far larger concentrations of married families with children, a group that tilts Republican.

Romney may be missing a chance to appeal to suburbanites on the contentious issue of “smart growth.” Opposition to suburban housing has become a favorite cause among Democratic politicians, and widely praised by the Manhattan-centric national media.

In his term as governor of Massachusetts, Romney showed a penchant for the kind of planning that uses strict growth controls to constrain suburban expansion.

In this sense Romney resembles other politicians from the gentry class — such as Al Gore, Arnold Schwarzenegger and John Kerry — who, in the name of “rational” societal objectives, make it harder for middling-class people to achieve the suburban dream they’ve taken for themselves.

No champion
in race

So while they represent the majority of the nation, suburban voters have no real champion in this election. Taken for granted by conservatives and betrayed by Wall Street, they have few friends in high places — except at election time. They are also increasingly detested by progressives, a long way from the days when Bill Clinton keyed in on “soccer moms.”

Instead the suburbs have evolved into a shapeless political lump, divided by income and race, cultural conflict, and regional rivalries.

On balance, this all works to the president’s favor. If Obama can manage anything close to a split in suburbia, as he did in 2008, he will win a second term.

Such a loss, at a time of economic hardship, may be enough to force the GOP back to the drawing board to confront their inability to win over enough of the suburban voters (homeowners, small businesspeople, parents of any races) who should provide the GOP an electoral majority, but so far are not.

Joel Kotkin is a presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University in Orange Calif. © 2012, The Newsweek/Daily Beast Company, LLC. All rights reserved.

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