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The Sun Belt Spikes Could Be a Disaster for Trump

The Atlantic logo The Atlantic 6/25/2020 Ronald Brownstein
© Covid Tracking Project / Getty / The Atlantic

Updated at 7:39 p.m. ET on June 25, 2020.

The wildfire of coronavirus cases burning through the Sun Belt’s largest cities and suburbs could accelerate their movement away from President Donald Trump and the GOP—a dynamic with the potential to tip the balance in national elections not only in 2020, but for years to come.

Until the 2016 election, Republicans had maintained a consistent advantage in the region’s big metros—including Atlanta, Houston, Dallas, and Phoenix—even as Democrats took hold of comparable urban centers in other parts of the country. But under Trump, the GOP has lost ground in these diverse and economically thriving communities. And now, a ferocious upsurge of COVID-19 across the Sun Belt’s population hubs—including major cities in Florida and North Carolina where Democrats are already more competitive—is adding a new threat to the traditional Republican hold on these places.

“There’s a lag between the trends that we have seen in some of these big northern metropolitan areas and the southern metros,” Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University, told me. “But they are definitely going in that same direction.”

In 2016, Trump won all five of the large Sun Belt states that could be battlegrounds in November. But the improving Democratic performance in the big metros provides Joe Biden a beachhead to contest each of them. Polls consistently give the former vice president a lead in Arizona and Florida, show him and Trump locked closely in North Carolina, and provide the president only a small edge (at best) in Texas and Georgia. New York Times/Siena College polls released today give Biden solid leads in Arizona, Florida, and North Carolina, and commanding advantages in the major population centers of each state, including Phoenix, Miami, Charlotte, and Raleigh. Fox News polls also released today show Biden leading Trump narrowly in North Carolina, Georgia, and (even) Texas, while opening up a comfortable 9-point advantage in Florida. Among suburban voters, Biden led by 20 percentage points or more in each of those states except Texas, where suburbanites still preferred him by 9 points.

After winning one Arizona Senate seat in 2018, Democrats are also pressing to capture Republican-held Senate seats in Arizona, North Carolina, and Georgia, and more suburban House seats near Raleigh, Atlanta, Houston, Dallas, and Tampa, among others.

Even the Republicans relatively confident that Trump’s grip on rural voters will allow him to hold most, if not all, of these states recognize the implications of a trend that has them losing ground in the communities that are preponderantly driving economic and population growth.

“The trends of 2016, ’17, ’18 are continuing apace, with continuing weakness of the Republican brand in suburban areas that had traditionally voted Republican, coupled with strengthening of the Republican brand in rural areas that had traditionally voted Democrat,” Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster who has long specialized in southern suburbs, told me. “The problem, of course, is that the Republicans are trading larger, faster-growing areas for smaller, slower-growing areas, and the math does not work out in the long run with that sort of trade.”

[Read: An unprecedented divide between red and blue America]

The new twist in this ongoing reconfiguration is the coronavirus. After weeks in which the outbreak did not hit the southern metropolitan areas nearly as hard as major northern cities, the number of new cases in and around Sun Belt cities is exploding. “If we stay on this current trajectory, then we will overwhelm our hospitals” in July, Steve Adler, the mayor of Austin, Texas, told me yesterday, echoing the public alarms of many mayors across the region.

The trend lines are daunting. From May 23 through Tuesday, the total number of confirmed cases more than doubled in the counties centered on Austin (Travis), Houston (Harris), and Dallas; nearly doubled in Fort Worth (Tarrant); and roughly tripled in San Antonio (Bexar). In Maricopa County, Arizona, which comprises Phoenix and its sprawling suburbs, the total number of cases more than quadrupled from 8,151 on May 23 to 34,992 yesterday. In Florida, daily new cases in Miami-Dade County rose from 113 on May 24 to 947 on June 22. The map of cumulative cases maintained by the Georgia Department of Public Health is a soothing shade of blue across most of the state—except for the bright red marking Atlanta and its sizable surrounding suburbs of DeKalb, Cobb, and Gwinnett counties. Statewide, both Florida and Texas announced more than 5,500 new cases yesterday, a record for each. (California, the largest Sun Belt state, is also suffering a surge, but it is not politically competitive, with Biden enjoying a huge lead there.)

Public-health experts expect the numbers to continue rising for weeks. In Arizona, “we are experiencing a second surge after an early-May plateau,” Joe Gerald, a professor at the University of Arizona College of Public Health, told me. “This surge is much larger than the first one and basically our foot is still on the accelerator. It is going to get worse before it gets better.”

In Texas, Peter Hotez, the dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, described the situation in equally ominous terms. “I’m extremely worried,” he told me. “I sometimes use the word dire because the numbers are just accelerating so dramatically. If you look at the curve [of case growth], it’s very much an exponential curve.”

Both Gerald and Hotez, like Adler, told me that if the current trend is not slowed, hospitals’ capacity in their areas will be overwhelmed in the next few weeks. “The implications are: We’ll see in Houston what we saw in New York City in the spring, which is a surge on intensive-care units and hospitalizations, and we’ll reach or exceed capacity,” Hotez said. “You don’t want to do that, because that’s when the mortality rates start to climb.” Yesterday, Houston’s massive Texas Medical Center projected it could exceed its intensive-care capacity by as soon as today. Coronavirus hospitalizations in the Houston area have nearly tripled since Memorial Day, the Houston Chronicle has reported.

Likewise, the number of coronavirus patients hospitalized in Maricopa has more than doubled since late May, and just 12 percent of the state’s intensive-care-unit beds were available as of yesterday. The pressure on local medical workers is growing so intense that Ross Goldberg, the president of the Arizona Medical Association, told me the state may soon need to ask for volunteer health-care professionals from other states, as New York did earlier this year. “Obviously there is going to be a finite amount of space and a finite amount of staff,” Goldberg, a surgeon in Phoenix, said. “Is this a time where we start looking for help elsewhere? That is something we need to be considering.”

Across almost all of the Sun Belt states, the spikes are exacerbating tensions between Republican governors who rely mostly on suburban and rural areas for their votes, and Democratic local officials in the most populous cities and counties. Taking cues from Trump, Republican Governors Ron DeSantis in Florida, Brian Kemp in Georgia, Greg Abbott in Texas, and Doug Ducey in Arizona have all moved aggressively to reopen their state economies; refused to deviate from that course as the caseloads have increased; and blocked municipal officials from reversing or even slowing the pace of the reopening.

The one concession from DeSantis, Abbott, and Ducey has been to allow local governments to require some degree of mask wearing. But experts say that requirement alone, especially given the uncertainties of compliance and enforcement, cannot stop the rapidly rising caseload in these states. “I don’t think [masks] are going to be sufficient to slow the spread or prevent us from exceeding our hospital capacity,” Gerard told me.

Very little polling is available to show how voters across these Sun Belt states are reacting to the surge in new cases or the determination of the GOP governors to plow forward despite them. Mike Noble, who polls for nonpartisan clients in Arizona, told me that in his surveys this year, most residents have consistently worried more about reopening too quickly than too slowly—though with a sharp partisan divide between Democrats and Republicans. He told me that he expects his next survey in early July to show heightened anxiety and diminished confidence in Ducey’s handling of the outbreak.

“I assume voters will be souring,” Noble said. “We thought originally that here in the desert, we’re not going to be affected.”

The core political question in the large Sun Belt metro areas may be whether residents are grateful that their governors have given them more freedom to resume daily activities or resentful that they have put them at greater risk by reopening so widely. Ayres said the answer is likely some of both. “I really think there’s a limit to how long you can enforce a rigid lockdown in a country where freedom and liberty are core values,” he told me. “That said, it is now impossible to dismiss this pandemic as a hoax or just the flu or any of the other dismissive appellations that have been applied to it.”

For Trump and the GOP, an urban/suburban backlash against these Republican governors—combined with a broader negative verdict on the federal pandemic response—risks accelerating the trends reshaping metropolitan politics across the Sun Belt.

[Read: The real threats to America’s cities]

After advancing in the populous white-collar suburban areas in the Northeast, the Midwest, and California during the 1990s, followed by gains in the metros of Virginia, Colorado, and North Carolina starting around 2004, Democrats are now finally seeing the same trends fortify their position in the Sun Belt population centers.

Take Gwinnett and Cobb counties, outside Atlanta. In 2014, Republican Senator David Perdue, who’s up for reelection in November, won comfortable margins of about 55 percent in each. In 2016, though, Hillary Clinton won both by relatively narrow margins against Trump, and in 2018, the Democratic gubernatorial nominee, Stacey Abrams, carried them more resoundingly. Abramowitz expects them to continue moving toward the Democrats in 2020, with margins sufficient enough to give Biden and Perdue’s Democratic opponent, Jon Ossoff, a competitive shot at the state, and also to flip an open U.S. House seat in Gwinnett.

In Texas, the arc looks similar. The University of Houston political scientist Richard Murray has charted a clear blue bend in voters’ political preferences in the 27 counties that comprise the state’s four huge metro areas—Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, and Austin—which together account for about 70 percent of the state’s votes and jobs. As recently as 2012, GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney won 55 percent of the vote across them. But in 2016, Trump fell just under 50 percent, the first GOP nominee to lose them since Barry Goldwater running against native son Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964. In 2018, Democratic Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke carried all four of those metros with 54 percent of the vote.

Murray said he expects Biden to capture as much as 58 percent in November. With the higher presidential-year turnout, he predicts, that could produce an advantage of more than 1 million votes for Biden in and around those four cities. Murray said there is no guarantee Trump can squeeze out enough rural votes to hold Texas. But even if he does, the GOP faces some brutal arithmetic: As Ayres and Murray both noted, it’s relying more and more on the places that are shrinking or stagnant in population while retreating in the growing places. This problem is especially acute in Texas, Murray said, because the metropolitan areas are among the nation’s fastest growing, and they are becoming much more racially diverse as they expand.

Paul Begala, the veteran Democratic strategist and a Houston native, predicts this realignment will be on hyperdrive because of the pandemic. “People in the suburbs today more readily identify with their neighbors in the city than they do with folks 100 miles away who refuse to wear a mask,” he told me. “That’s a tectonic change. The suburbs exist because people there didn’t want to be around people in the cities. But the shift has been happening for quite some time, and this COVID makes it worse.”

Gains for Democrats in the Texas suburbs sufficient to allow them to win statewide would likely qualify as the most significant political development of the 2020s. But for November, Arizona is the state where these dynamics may matter most. Many Democrats see Arizona, which Democrats have carried only once since 1948, as Biden’s best chance to reach 270 Electoral College votes if he can’t dislodge Trump’s hold on either Wisconsin or Florida.

Maricopa County is the key to those hopes. It was the biggest county in America that Trump won in 2016, when he carried it by almost 45,000 votes. But in 2018, it propelled the Democratic Senator Kyrsten Sinema to her victory when she took it by about 60,000 votes. Noble’s recent polls have consistently found both Biden and Democratic Senate candidate Mark Kelly leading their respective Republican opponents by roughly double digits in the sprawling county—unprecedented in recent years for Democrats. As Noble noted, only one Republican (a superintendent of public instruction, in 2014) has recently won a statewide race while losing Maricopa, no matter how much Republicans run up the score, as Trump is likely to do, in the state’s rural regions. “They are still in trouble in Maricopa County,” he said.

Both a precinct-by-precinct analysis of the 2018 results that Noble conducted and his monthly polling this year have convinced him that Republicans are leaking support from two groups in Maricopa: college-educated white voters (especially women) and seniors. Both populations are among those who have expressed the most concern about the coronavirus, even before the fearsome surge now buffeting the area.

Trump’s response? When he stopped in Maricopa for a rally in north Phoenix on Tuesday, he did not wear a mask or require one for those attending the event, despite public pleas to do so from Mayor Kate Gallego. He barely mentioned the outbreak in his 90-minute speech. In other words, even while visiting metropolitan Phoenix, Trump’s focus seemed to be on his preponderantly white base in the exurban and rural communities beyond it. Across the Sun Belt, November will test whether Trump’s base-first strategy can overcome the resistance that’s coalescing against him in the population centers now confronting the full force of the coronavirus outbreak.

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