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Down In The Polls, Trump Pitches Fear: 'They Want To Destroy Our Suburbs'

President Trump is making a play for suburban voters by trying to convince them that if Democrat Joe Biden wins, then crime will be rampant.
Mandel Ngan
AFP via Getty Images
President Trump is making a play for suburban voters by trying to convince them that if Democrat Joe Biden wins, then crime will be rampant.

President Trump has a message for suburban voters. And it's not a subtle one.

"They want to destroy our suburbs," Trump recently warned in a call with supporters.

"People have worked all their lives to get into a community, and now they're going to watch it go to hell," he said from the South Lawn of the White House.

Trump has been issuing increasingly dire and outlandish warnings about what Democrats will do to the suburbs. He warns suburbanites will face rising crime and falling home values if they elect Joe Biden.

The message: Be afraid, be very afraid.

The newest ad from Trump's campaign is a very dramatic dramatization of an older white woman calling 911 when she sees an intruder. But no one is there to answer her call for help. As she is attacked, the words "You won't be safe in Joe Biden's America" flash on the screen.

This is all based on the false claim that Biden wants to defund the police. Biden has specifically said he doesn't want to defund the police. His campaign says these are "smears" that aren't working.

From July 1 to July 20, Trump's campaign spent more than $18 million on television ads hitting this theme, according to the tracking firm Ad Analytics. It's a similar argument to one Trump made ahead of the 2018 midterms, that caravans of migrants would cross the border bringing gangs and crime. Democrats won control of the House in a wave election, led by a suburban backlash to Trump.

"People are not afraid of what he's trying to make them afraid of," said Christine Matthews, a Republican pollster who has been critical of Trump.

In 2016, voters in the suburbs made up 50% of the electorate. Trump won those voters narrowly that year. Now polls show him trailing Biden badlyin the suburbs.

Trump hadn't explicitly addressed suburban voters until about a month ago, when, in a speech to young supporters gathered at a Phoenix megachurch, Trump, referring to racial justice protests in Seattle, said it was bedlam.

"That's exactly what will come to every city near you, every suburb and community in America, if the radical-left Democrats are put in charge," Trump claimed.

From there, the appeals to suburban voters and his ideas about what issues matter to them have only gotten more direct. Trump has pushed for schools to reopen, threatening to pull funding if they don't, without explaining how it can be done safely while coronavirus cases spike. And he has targeted an Obama-era fair housing regulation, promising to sign an executive order halting it.

The 2015 regulation deals with racial segregation of housing and requires local municipalities to address historic patterns of it. But Trump warned last week that it would "destroy" the suburbs.

"Your home will go down in value and crime rates will rapidly rise," he said. "People have worked all their lives to get into a community, and now they're going to watch it go to hell. Not going to happen, not while I'm here."

That kind of racial view, pitting whites in the suburbs against Blacks and Latinos who might move in, is an appeal that seems to stem from an anachronistic view of the suburbs.

"He thinks it's basically the planned development of Levittown in the 1960s as opposed to today's suburbs, which are multiracial, diverse and highly educated," Matthews said.

Many suburban voters do think liberal activists have overstepped, said Ryan Costello, a former Republican congressman from the Pennsylvania suburbs. But, he added, they don't ascribe that to Biden, and they don't think he is going to defund their local police departments.

Costello said that right now, people in the suburbs are worried about schools opening safely, with the emphasis on safely. They're worried about the coronavirus and the economy.

"This is really a referendum on how President Trump is handling the pandemic," Costello said. "That's the kind of stuff that suburban voters that don't have a deep partisan allegiance are going to look at. And that's where they're going to render their value judgments."

And so far, Americans largely disapprove of the job Trump is doing handling the coronavirus. On average, 58% now say they disapprove of it.

Costello announced his retirement from the House of Representatives in 2018 rather than face near-certain defeat in a wave led by suburban backlash to Trump. He questions the logic of the president's current political strategy.

"If you're going to attack an opponent, there has to be something that is relatable in that attack on an opponent," Costello said. "I live in the suburbs, and I don't know how he would eliminate the suburbs. It doesn't make much sense to me."

The Trump campaign is downplaying this erosion of a key group that helped with his win in 2016.

"President Trump brought new voters into the Republican Party in 2016 and has realigned the political electorate, creating a broad coalition of support across all demographics that will carry him to victory in November," Trump campaign deputy national press secretary Samantha Zager said in an email when asked about Biden's apparent lead in the suburbs.

In 2016, Trump brought in a surge of rural white voters, who don't live in the suburbs but may respond to his messages about urban crime and the dangers of the left.

"What does suburban really mean?" Ernest McGowen, an associate professor of political science at the University of Richmond, asked rhetorically. "What does it mean as a thing? Is it a geography, or is it an identity?

McGowen, who has studied African Americans in the suburbs and lives in the suburbs himself, says that suburban identity is about accomplishment, but not excess. In the suburbs, you know your kids will go to good schools with extracurricular activities. You'll need a lawnmower.

And McGowen points out, that doesn't mean you are all that close to the city anymore. The suburbs have expanded into what used to be rural areas.

"What we're calling a suburb now is going to be part of the metro in a few years," McGowen said. "And what we're calling exurbs is going to actually be the suburbs as we would know them."

The suburbs are again shaping up to be where 2020 could be won or lost.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.