Suburban women are more complicated than ‘soccer moms’

President Biden and former President Trump are both fighting for the suburban woman voter, but she’s no longer the “soccer mom” caricature that gained traction in the ’90s.

The label connotes a stereotypical picture of a white, college-educated woman, married with a couple of kids. She’s a type of suburban woman voter, but far from the only one.

The country’s suburbs have grown more racially and ethnically diverse, and looking at a single archetype of the suburban woman voter for 2024 risks missing key differences across the demographic.

“If you want to talk about suburban women, you want to get away from the caricature. It’s much different than it was … because there are many more people of color moving into the suburbs than there were before,” said Bill Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution.

In 1990, a few years before the “soccer mom” moniker caught on in the 1996 election cycle and early aughts, roughly two in 10 suburbanites living around major metro areas were people of color – but by 2020, that number was approaching five in 10, according to research Frey conducted using Census data.

Overall, the national population is also getting older and having fewer children, according to the Census, with a rising share of unmarried adults.

The white, college-educated women often described by the “suburban” label are a coveted group thought of as “likely to move with the times” and turn out to vote, Frey said, and they’re still set to be key in 2024. But the diversity of women in the suburbs – and even the attitudes of the suburbs’ white women with college degrees — appear to have shifted in recent years amid new pressures and social norms, experts said.

“They’re becoming more diverse, and also, the motherhood component maybe isn’t as strong as it once was,” Betsy Fischer Martin, executive director of the Women & Politics Institute at American University, said of the suburbs.

Soccer moms entered the fore as suburban women backed Bill Clinton against Republican Bob Dole. In the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack, then-Sen. Joe Biden declared that “soccer moms are security moms now” as Republican George W. Bush ran for reelection. 

“Starbucks mom,” “waitress mom” and “Walmart mom” popped up as labels in later cycles, largely referring to white suburban women more pressed by the economy than the soccer moms before them.

“They’re not all mothers, or even married,” Fischer Martin said in response to the “mom” packaging around suburban women. “These days, with politics, things don’t fit quite as neatly in a box as they maybe did in the past. … You have a more diverse suburbia in many cases, in terms of ages, or people in different stages of life.”

There’s also a growing gender gap in college education as more young women get degrees, and many suburban households rely on dual incomes.

“So even the mom that drives her kids to soccer is doing it with her cellphone on, holding a meeting on Zoom,” said Marcie Paul, chair of the Michigan-based group Fems for Dems.

A stereotypical suburban-mom figure often assumes women are only energized by family-focused issues – and it shuts out other categories of women who live in the suburbs.

For example, older suburban women are often involved in political organizing, but they’re interested in issues not usually associated with their younger counterparts, like retirement, Social Security and pensions, said Michele Swers, a professor of American government at Georgetown University with a focus on Congress, women and politics.

“When we come up with a catchy name and title for particular women – a soccer mom that, I guess, is supposed to represent a suburban, generally white woman who’s in a minivan driving her kids to soccer practice – it really limits the interests of that woman,” Swers said. “We don’t really have any catchy names for the women who are over 50, who are very participatory in politics.”

Suburban women voters remain a useful bloc to poll, examine and focus on, experts stressed. They’re an “up-for-grabs vote” consisting of people who are likely pretty tuned in to politics and ready to engage in November, said Fischer Martin.

But it will be key for candidates and pundits alike to take into consideration suburbia’s increasing diversity in 2024 – even as doing so poses new challenges for the White House hopefuls courting the bloc for November.

Trump, in particular, has seen warning signs from suburban women, though he argued at a campaign stop earlier this month that “suburban housewives actually like Donald Trump.”

“I suppose the few women that like to be labeled ‘suburban housewife’ – they might tolerate him, perhaps. But ‘suburban housewife’ doesn’t speak to the vast majority of women who embody many different adjectives,” Paul said.

Women broadly lean toward Democrats, and Biden won 56 percent of suburban women in 2020, while 54 percent of suburban men went for Trump, according to Edison Research exit polling. A new NPR/NewsHour/Marist poll released earlier this month found Biden up 28 points over Trump among college-educated white women.

But white women overall went to Trump in 2020, while 90 percent of Black women and 69 percent of Hispanic women backed Biden, according to the exit polls.

NBC News data analyzed this month by the firm Public Opinion Strategies found Democrats’ advantage among suburban women overall has shrunk from a 10-point margin in 2016 to a five-point edge in 2023.

Some polling has also suggested that voters of color are turning away from the Democratic Party — but Erin Cassese, a political science professor at the University of Delaware, shrugged those numbers off.

“It does seem to be men more so than women of color who are maybe shifting rightward, if it is a real shift,” said Cassese, whose research explores the behavior of women voters.

Overall, increased diversification in the suburbs is likely to lead to “an overall Democratic shift” among women, she argued, together with the increase in women’s educational attainment and salient issues like abortion taking center stage.

Democrats are counting on new state-level rulings on abortion and IVF, as well as abortion-related ballot measures in several states, to boost party turnout and appeal to women voters.

The number of female voters has exceeded the number of male voters in every presidential election since 1964, according to research from the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University (CAWP). Broken down by race, Black, Hispanic and white women all out-voted their male counterparts in both 2016 and 2020.

Women broadly still have spectators in suspense over which side they’ll lean toward — or whether they’ll pick a third-party candidate — but experts are optimistic that they’ll turn out in force in 2024.

“It’s kind of like a double-whammy of higher mobilization in the suburbs and then greater mobilization among women, and then mobilization on issues specific around abortion,” Cassese said, and even a small shift among white women could be “significant enough” to swing things in key battleground states.

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