Owning a home is part of the American dream, and home ownership in the United States has reached record levels. Two researchers say the trend has political implications. It is helping Republicans and offers a lesson for Democrats, if they choose to listen.
The percentage of home ownership in the United States is double that of industrial countries in Europe. In 2004, 69-percent of U.S. households were living in their own home, up from 50 percent five decades earlier.
Joel Kotkin, a demographic expert, and economist Susanne Trimbath, wondered whether the so-called ownership society was voting more Republican or Democratic. Ms. Trimbath and her colleague compared housing and voting statistics to get the answer. "And what we found was that no matter what level we studied, that homeowners tended to vote Republican," he said.
The two authors saw the trend in states, cities and regions across the country. They outline their findings in the March issue of the publication "The American Enterprise."
The analysts describe a population shift from cities in the north and east to the sprawling urban centers of the south and west, around Orlando, Florida, for example, Atlanta, Dallas, Houston and Las Vegas. These cities are all in states that voted Republican, along with much of the south, west and center of the country.
The authors also see population movement within some states from dense cities like San Francisco to smaller communities. They cite the example of a family that moved from San Francisco to Fresno, California, where the couple began a business and started raising their children in an affordable new home.
Democrats, says Joel Kotkin, are blind to the shift. He says many oppose urban sprawl and focus on reviving inner cities, and they are, in fact, getting the vote in cities like San Francisco. But he adds that the Democrats are losing it in places like Fresno. "They continually target their policies to the places in the country that are losing people and to some extent have contempt for the parts of the country that are gaining people," he said.
Susanne Trimbath says neighborhoods with high home-ownership rates tend to be stable and have residents who are engaged in civic activities. Homeowners are more likely to belong to "neighborhood watch" programs, for example, which work to keep down the crime rate, or to get involved in school associations. They also tend to respond to the issues that the Republican Party embraces.
She says President Bush's proposals are often addressed to this group. For example, the Bush administration hopes to partially privatize social security pensions, and uses the language of ownership to describe the proposal. "They (the Bush administration) are talking economics to people who are already homeowners. Now when the president comes out and talks about an "ownership society" and personal ownership of your Social Security accounts, et cetera, he's already talking to a group that has an ownership mindset," he said.
The president's Social Security proposal faces some hurdles. Democrats oppose it, and some Republicans are less than enthusiastic.
Joel Kotkin says, however, that Democrats have an even bigger problem. They are losing the suburban vote in presidential elections by nearly a two-to-one margin. He says the issue of home ownership is one that suburban voters will respond to, and he is preparing a paper for the Democratic Leadership Council making that point.
He also sees another shift in many U.S. cities that could spell trouble for Democrats. Minority groups are moving to the suburbs as soon as they can afford to. In Los Angeles, for example, African-Americans and Hispanics are moving to Riverside County, where homes are much more affordable. The analyst suspects their traditional embrace of liberal politics and support for the Democrats tends to weaken in the process of buying a new home in the sprawling Republican suburbs.