The Color of Exurbs

The connection between federal spending and voting habits isn't so obvious on the outskirts of town.

No one believes that federal spending alone drives voting behavior. But no one can reasonably argue that it doesn't play a role, either. Just as Democratic control of big-city America was a consequence of the rise of the social services complex, Republican dominion over suburbia can be traced in part to the party's staunch anti-communism and support for increased military spending. These positions fostered the growth of defense and aerospace industries that at one time employed tens of thousands of workers in suburbs as varied as Orange County in California, and Nassau County in New York.

Federal money didn't buy New York City's loyalty to the Democratic Party any more than it bought Orange County for the Republican Party. But the values and politics associated with those expenditures had a profound and lasting influence in those places.

It's not yet clear what effect federal expenditures will have on the newest voting frontier, the exurbs. But a new Census Bureau report suggests that the rapidly growing exurbs, the outer fringes of metro areas, might follow a different political path than the cities and suburbs. According to the Consolidated Federal Funds Report for Fiscal Year 2004, a document that tracks domestic ex-penditures, some of the fastest-growing places in the nation get some of the worst returns on their federal tax dollars.

The report includes data from a broad range of cate-gories including grants; government salaries and wages; procurement contracts; direct payments for individuals such as Medicare, Social Security or food stamps; direct loans; guaranteed or insured loans; and insurance. Much of the data confirm what you might expect. Counties with high levels of poverty or military presence or large elderly populations tend to see more per capita spending than those without. Agriculture-dependent counties also are magnets for federal dollars.

Curiously, many of the places that rank lowest in federal spending per capita are the exurban counties that played a pivotal role in the 2004 presidential election. Eight of the bottom 10 counties in per capita federal spending rank among the top 30 fastest-growing counties. Douglas County, Colo., which ranked dead last among the more than 3,000 counties, averaged just $1,206-roughly six times less than the national average. But it was the third-fastest growing county from 2000 to 2004.

The low level of federal expenditure is in part a reflection of exurban demographics. These communities are filled with young, married white couples with children-in other words, a cohort that tends to be neither poor, disabled nor retired. The housing developments in which they live have replaced subsidized farmland; in many cases, the newly emergent local economies are not dependent on military spending.

In 2004, these precincts were key to President Bush's reelection strategy. According to a Los Angeles Times analysis, Bush carried 97 of the nation's 100 fastest-growing counties.

It's tempting to assume that these places will remain impregnably Republican. Exurban voters seem to be doing just fine without the more active and expansive federal presence that Democrats might prefer. But it's important to keep in mind that, within this vacuum, nothing is anchoring them to the Republican Party either. As these places age and lose their luster, they will require more federal spending on social services and infrastructure.

Already, there is evidence of political volatility. Democrats point with hope to once reliably Republican Loudon County, Va., the nation's fastest-growing county, which backed Democrat Tim Kaine in his successful 2005 run for governor. Just two months later, Loudon voters again went for the Democrat, this time in a special state Senate election. For this Northern Virginia exurb, in both elections, one concern mattered above all: the consequences of unchecked growth.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec