Three reasons to focus on suburban voters

Hello from SurveyMonkey! 

Today, Axios uses SurveyMonkey data to examine the way President Trump is turning safety into a wedge issue ahead of the election, particularly in the suburbs. That story is linked below—but first, we thought we could dig a little deeper into the focus on suburban voters, as seen here, here, here, here, and here… you get it. Why is there such a focus on suburban voters among both politicians and the political media every election season? 

Here are three insights from SurveyMonkey’s own polling experience. 

  1. Suburbanites make up about half of the country. If you add up all the people who live in cities and all the people who live in rural areas, you get the approximate population of people who live in the suburbs. But those numbers vary by state in ways that are useful in making political decisions. Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, for example, look nearly identical in their breakdown by urban, suburban, and rural populations. Wisconsin, which is usually grouped in with those other midwestern swing states, has a substantially smaller suburban population but larger urban and rural populations. Understanding the urban/suburban/rural divides by state is as important as understanding other population demographics, like race and education.

  1. Suburban voters are split between Democrats and Republicans. In SurveyMonkey’s latest data, 32% of registered voters who live in the suburbs identify as Republicans and 33% as Democrats--about as even of a split as is possible. Urban voters skew heavily towards the Democratic party, while rural voters skew heavily toward the Republican party. The suburbs are more up for grabs. 

  1. There’s no single agreed-upon definition of the suburbs.

This counts as fun in the polling world: there’s no single, universally agreed-upon way to determine whether someone lives in a suburb. It’s easier to know if someone lives in a city, and it’s pretty easy to know if they live in a rural area, but suburbs can be much harder to define. Here’s a great slide deck from experts at the Kaiser Family Foundation and SSRS for anyone who wants to learn more. 

SurveyMonkey’s preferred way to discern urbanicity is to ask respondents themselves; the charts above all come from self-reports. We’ve experimented with different ways of modeling whether someone lives in an urban, suburban, or rural area, but we’ve never gotten something we really like.

Other organizations have their own methodologies. In one of our recent polls with Fortune (linked below), they used zip code data to map our respondents to urbanicity data from Nielsen that is even more detailed. The Pew Research Center determines whether someone lives in an urban, suburban, or rural area using county categories based on the National Center for Health Statistics Urban-Rural Classification Scheme. A recent New York Times story includes this sentence on their methodology: “Nearly half of voters live in a suburb, defined here as the parts of metropolitan areas that lie outside central cities, like Philadelphia or Baltimore, and that aren’t considered rural by the Census Bureau. In the Times/Siena poll, Mr. Trump trailed Joe Biden by 16 points, 51 percent to 35 percent, in suburban areas, notably worse than his eight-point deficit in similar areas against Hillary Clinton in 2016.” 

All of these definitions work—and the general story about how the election is playing out in the suburbs is more important than the strict definition of suburbia. But the subtle distinctions in methodology can sway the findings, and it’s important to keep that in mind. 

Polling highlights:

  • “White suburban women who feel "very safe" prefer Biden by about a 20 percentage-point margin, the survey finds. Biden's lead disappears among white suburban women who say they feel only "somewhat safe."” by Margaret Talev for Axios (link)

  • “And it looks like cities will get hit hardest: The Fortune-SurveyMonkey poll finds Americans living in urban areas are twice as likely to say they’ll move out as a result of the pandemic (11%), compared to Americans living in rural areas (5%).” by Lance Lambert for Fortune (link)

  • “A majority of American adults don't trust what President Donald Trump has said about a coronavirus vaccine, according to new data from the NBC News|SurveyMonkey Weekly Tracking poll, as the share of people who say they would get a government-approved vaccine has decreased.” by Ben Kamisar and Melissa Holzberg for NBC News (link

  • “Most American teens think online school is worse than going in person, but less than a fifth of them think that it makes sense to be in person full-time while COVID is still circulating, according to results of a new survey shared first with Axios.” by Ina Fried for Axios (link) → full report from Common Sense Media (link)

  • New SurveyMonkey research report: How to adapt and thrive in times of crisis (link)

What we’re watching:

That’s it for this week—thanks for reading! Hit reply to send us any questions or feedback. 

-Laura Wronski