The Suburban Surge That Helped Save Joe Biden

College-educated voters have bounced from candidate to candidate all primary season – and they’ve settled on the former vice president.

In Iowa, the suburbs killed former Vice President Joe Biden. In New Hampshire, they did it again. On Tuesday, they saved his campaign.

In Ankeny, an upper-middle-class suburb of Des Moines, Iowa, Biden finished no better than fourth in 12 of the city’s 16 precincts. In one precinct, he finished sixth, trailing even Andrew Yang. In Hillsborough and Rockingham counties in New Hampshire, where many voters commute to Boston, he earned less than 10% of the vote.

These suburbs are populated with the type of white, typically college-educated voters who have bounced from candidate to candidate over the course of the campaign like Goldilocks choosing her bowl of porridge. In Iowa, it was former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg who was “just right.” Following a strong debate performance, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) took the title in New Hampshire. Voters in both states often described Biden as too old and perhaps unable to take on President Donald Trump.

But both those candidates faded in the more diverse states that were the next two to cast votes. In South Carolina, suburban voters ― many of them former Republicans disgusted by Trump ― turned to Biden. And on the most important night of the Democratic primary so far, at the urging of Klobuchar and Buttigieg, their suburban cousins around the country ratified their decision, helping Biden to neutralize or even surpass Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). (The final delegate count from Tuesday remains unclear.)

Biden ran up the score in suburban counties on the East Coast and in the South on Tuesday, thrashing former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Sanders, his major rival for the nomination. In Fairfax County, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, where 61% of residents have a college diploma, Biden won nearly half the vote and beat Sanders by 60,000 votes. In Dakota County, Minnesota, Biden was winning 43% of the vote over Sanders’s 27%, opening up a nearly 10,000-vote lead. He was even leading both Sanders and Warren in Middlesex County, Massachusetts.

Many of these places have swung toward Democrats in recent years, helping power the party’s gains in the midterms, and voters in them have always prioritized defeating Republicans over advancing specific policy goals.

“Voters are clearly looking for someone who can beat Trump and are making the calculation that he is the best option,” said Dan Sena, a Democratic strategist who was the executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee when Democrats took control of the House in 2018. “Remember, in 2018, it was the most electable Democrats that won primaries, not any given ideology that won the day.”

Supporters attend a Super Tuesday night rally for Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden in Los Angeles.
Supporters attend a Super Tuesday night rally for Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden in Los Angeles.
Kyle Grillot/Reuters

The suburban voters are not the most important part of Biden’s coalition. That remains Black Southerners, who rejuvenated him in South Carolina, provided him with massive margins in the Tidewater region of Virginia and may end up crucially providing him with all of Alabama’s statewide delegates. But they are the newest part, and could prove key as the race shifts to the Midwestern states of Michigan, Missouri, Illinois and Ohio in the coming weeks. (Sanders performed stronger with Black voters in Northern cities than he did with Southern Black voters in 2016.)

Addisu Demissie, who managed Cory Booker’s presidential bid this cycle and worked on Barack Obama’s campaign in 2008 and Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in 2016, noted Biden’s coalition was beginning to take on the same general outline as the former Democratic president’s.

And these voters are not only backing Biden, they’re also turning out in significantly higher rates. In Loudon County, adjacent to Fairfax, where the median income is above $135,000, turnout essentially doubled. In Mecklenburg County, which includes Charlotte, North Carolina, and its suburbs, turnout jumped 25%.

A surge of voters turning out for the moderate Democratic candidate in a primary is not unprecedented in the Trump era. In the runup to the Democratic primary in the 2017 Virginia governor’s race between now-Gov. Ralph Northam and former Rep. Tom Perriello, operatives in both camps assumed high turnout would boost the more progressive Perriello. But turnout ended up skyrocketing 70%, with the new voters mostly flocking to Northam.

“It’s the same trend we first saw in Virginia in 2017: Voters liked both candidates but clearly consolidated around the one they saw as most electable,” said Jared Leopold, who was the communications director for the Democratic Governors’ Association during the race. “The intraparty ideological fight pales in comparison to the thirst to beat Donald Trump and his buddies.”

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