Like the Falcons’ inexplicably terrible finish to Sunday night’s Super Bowl, the Democratic Party in 2016 blew what should have been a winnable election for them. It would not be beyond the pale to label the Democratic Party as it exists now an almost exclusively regional party—one that survives purely because of the existence of the reliably-left coasts and our nation’s major population centers.
But doing so exposes the other, less-scrutinized story of the 2016 election: Republican presence in major cities is evaporating.
In the days immediately following Trump’s victory a picture emerged of the glaring electoral weakness of the Democratic coalition. Clinton outperformed Trump handily in California, Massachusetts, and New York, but under-performed relative to Trump in the other 47 states collectively. But beyond those 3 states, Clinton also carried our nation’s largest metro areas decisively, as Obama did, and Bill Clinton before him. The general disappearance of conservative influence in our major cities is partly by design. Vibrant, bustling cities are magnets for the young, and risk-loving, single, and migratory— demographics which tend to favor Democrats. But in the same way the DNC narrowed its geographic focus in 2016 to its electoral peril, Republicans have gradually abandoned major cities, and this is worrisome.
On the right, pundits and politicians often denigrate America’s “coastal elite,” the affluent, over-credentialed busybodies who control both major cities and popular culture. And not content to merely control cities and culture, these elites weaponize both at the expense of “Real America,” comprised of the honest, hard-working middle-class families for whom the American Dream as their parents knew it has become increasingly out of reach…or so the story generally goes. But in writing off major cities, Republicans also risk ceding total control of our country’s major economic and cultural centers to Democrats. If Republicans are serious about regaining a presence in our major cities, there are a few key areas they could stand to prioritize, likely with success.
- Criminal Justice. Republicans have a clear opportunity to lead where criminal justice is concerned. Whatever differences urban, suburban, and rural populations might have in ideological vision, the desire for safe, prosperous neighborhoods is universal. The two sides of criminal justice are crime *and* overly expansive laws, like those which dictate occupational licensing standards, and sanction the use and abuse of civil asset forfeiture, threaten intra-community relations and stability. Right-of-center organizations like Right on Crime and Prison Fellowship understand the importance of balancing criminal justice reform and maintaining public safety, which makes them uniquely positioned to lead on this issue. Republicans would do well to follow their lead, particularly in cities.
- Economic Vitality. America’s cities are magnets for jobs and innovation, issues for which polls consistently reveal a Republican advantage in public opinion. Again, it would be a mistake for Republicans to fail to use issues like over-regulation, high tax rates, over-budget, idealistic infrastructure projects to mobilize potential voters. To be sure, achieving any measure of fiscal responsibility seems to be a challenge for both parties, and any campaigning where economic issues are concerned with be useless without post-election results. But running and winning on a platform of economic conservatism is not out of the realm of possibility for those on the right, as the recent reelection of Kevin Faulconer, mayor of San Diego, shows.
- Zoning and Transportation. America’s most expensive cities are often made more so by their lack of affordable housing. Restrictive zoning and city governments’ patent refusal to densify in any significant measure drives up the cost of housing, presenting a clear opportunity for those on the right to run on and advocate for market-based urbanism. The cost-of-living premium in cities is to be expected, but single-use zoning, and NIMBYism, among other issues, making cities less affordable for residents, and Republicans can and should capitalize on these facts.
Cities are increasingly home to a larger portion of America’s population, a trend that is expected to continue in the coming years. While Republicans are well-positioned on the state and federal level, leaving our nation’s major cities under near total Democratic control is poses long-term risks for the Republicans. Becoming competitive in cities again would not necessitate radical, off-message pandering, as some would argue. A conservative message can and does resonate, even within cities and indeed, 28 of America’s 100 largest cities have Republican mayors.But until Republicans decide to expand their geographical focus, Democrats will continue to extend their electoral dominance of our major cities.