DePillis at the TNR and Badger at TAL read urban influence over US federal politics the wrong way, as usual

Post-election, there’s the usual Monday-morning quarterbacking about the role that the US’s urban areas are playing in presidential politics. Here’s two:

Lydia DePillus over at The New Republic The GOP Can’t Afford to Ignore Cities Anymore

Emily Badger writes about the Real Reason Cities Lean Democratic in the Atlantic Cities and presents some “Density, Yay!” assertions and concludes that the GOP’s focus on individualism is killing them in cities, where people believe in public goods.

So let’s cut through some of these.

First off, if cities were as simple in their politics as Badger wants us to believe–i.e., cities force us to have collective goods/and the Dems are the ones who believe in such things and therefore the GOP loses in cities–we would never have Republican mayors. But we do. Lots of them, throughout US history. Now, Democrats do dominate in mayoral politics, but one of biggest darlings among urbanists, Mike Bloomberg, ran and won as a Republican. And Republicans tend to dominate Governor’s offices, even in states with large metro areas.

It is entirely possible to support public goods for your metro area and not assume that it’s the federal government’s job to pay for it all.

Second, the majority of the US population lives in what the Census bureau delineates as ‘urban’, but the “city” population is actually smaller than the number of people who live in suburbs that are part of metropolitan regions. Regions are the real urban story in the United States, even though some of us are in the business of highlighting “cities.” My point is that the people DePillus talked to, and the “yay, cities!” people like Emily Badger, really don’t get that urbanized suburbs are far more important in the political calculus than cities are.

To illustrate the point:

The most recent tally I found: Obama took 61 million votes. Mitt Romney took 58 million. The difference: 4 million votes. That means 61 million people thought Obama should keep his job, and 58 million people thought he should lose his job. All re-election campaigns are referendums on the incumbent.

If the Republicans had managed to run anybody less of a clueless, stiff, humorless, John Kerry clone, there’s a damn good likelihood we would be having a different conversation. And, given those numbers, people in metro regions are still voting for the GOP. Just because we have a winner-take-all system doesn’t mean one party is dead or dying even in metro areas.

Second, the margin is 4 million people. That’s a little over the number of people who live in my fair city, Los Angeles. (Did you know that? Only 4 million people live in LA zip codes.) But there are 12 million in the MSA. So what is the most important constituency? The city? Or the metro region? All those little suburbs add up to quite a majority.

New York isn’t just New York (8.2 million). It’s the New York–Northern New Jersey–Long Island, NY–NJ–PA MSA of 19.2 million.

So what’s the deal? Are cities dominating? Or are suburbs becoming more and more urbanized? I’d argue the latter. With the suburbanization of employment and retail, the suburb-city distinction that looms so large in the minds of urbanists is becoming irrelevant even as more and more people scream about the importance of “the city” as a concept, and there’s very little reason why those in highly urbanized suburbs should vote differently than those in ‘cities.’