In 2020, the Suburbs Are Stressed

Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

The American suburbs have long been a place for families to put down roots away from the bustle of urban areas.

Children play outside of picture perfect homes with neatly trimmed lawns.

In 2020, they are one of the most important battlegrounds in the fight for the presidency.

Republicans have lost the suburbs only three times since 1980, but their dominance this year is far from certain.

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A photographer visited neighborhoods in Midwest battlegrounds to see how politics have intruded on tranquillity.

Photographs and Text by Ruth Fremson

Children are romping on playgrounds and riding bikes along tree-lined streets. The backyards are big enough for barbecues with the neighbors and the public schools are quality. Life is typically slower and gentler in the suburbs, away from the ruckus of dense urban areas.

In 2020, however, politics have disrupted this sense of calm. The suburbs are shifting in both their racial and political makeup. Lawns are packed with campaign signs, leaving no doubt where residents stand in the presidential contest.

Traveling through hundreds of miles of suburbs in the Midwest battlegrounds of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan and western Pennsylvania, I could clearly see this transformation.

Supporters of President Trump have decked out their homes with banners and flags as if decorating for Halloween or Christmas. The smaller signs for Joseph R. Biden Jr., the Democratic nominee, are more a period than an exclamation point on his supporters’ determination to turn the tide in November.


In Lakeville, about 25 miles south of Minneapolis, local Democrats set up a pop-up shop to distribute campaign signs. Lorraine Rovig, 72, drove an hour round trip from her home in Northfield because she couldn’t wait for the roving distribution site to come to her.

Ms. Rovig, a former Republican, had been waking at 5 a.m. every day to get to a busy street corner in time for rush hour to wave her Biden sign. There, Ms. Rovig said, she would withstand an onslaught of insults from passing cars.

“I don’t remember this nastiness in any other election,” she said. “I thought, What can I do? I can encourage people and let them know they are not alone. The quiet Democratic people are out here, too.”

The Rev. J. Michael Byron offered a socially distanced Mass for about 90 congregants in late September. He asked them to pray for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who had died just days before, for people who have the coronavirus and for those celebrating the Jewish New Year.

No one mentioned the big event that was coming up in November: the election. Although the members of the congregation are politically diverse, Father Byron said, they all rally around a shared value of justice and service to the broader community, especially the poor.

Patrick Kelly, 53, a real estate agent, hosted a birthday party for his 2-year-old granddaughter in his home’s large backyard in Fridley, 10 miles north of downtown Minneapolis. The city was rocked by racial justice protests this summer after the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, in police custody.

While Mr. Kelly voted for Mr. Trump in 2016, his adult children remained dedicated Democrats. That changed, however, with the unrest over the summer.

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“It feels as though we are being forced to choose between the lesser of two evils,” Mr. Kelly said. He will be voting again for Mr. Trump and will be joined by his children this year.


Winning Wisconsin’s 10 electoral votes has been a priority for Democrats since Mr. Trump’s narrow victory there in 2016. Outside the Ozaukee Democrats office, James Quick, 58, said that people who sat out that election were now energized by anti-Trump sentiment. The suburbs of Milwaukee, however, remain split between Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden.

Brad Disbrow, a registered independent who lives in Belgium, about 37 miles north of Milwaukee, said that he was not fond of Mr. Trump, but that he did not see any option but to support the president.

Mr. Disbrow, 53, said opposing abortion was the top priority for him and his wife. “We were unable to have kids so we adopted,” he said. “We went to Russia to get them. We have a deep feeling when it comes to unborn babies — it’s a very personal issue.”

Carolyn Bomkamp, 33, updated her voter registration at a booth run by students at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside in Somers, on the outskirts of Kenosha. She has suspicions about both candidates and finds neither impressive, she said, adding that she is likely to decide in the voting booth.

“It’s about who I think will follow through with a third of the things they said,” Ms. Bomkamp said.

Mayor Shawn Reilly of Waukesha, a Republican, has become more outspoken about his views. He did not vote for Mr. Trump in 2016, he said, and he won’t this time either. He said a billboard near Lake Mills that simply says “ENOUGH” resonates with him.

“Enough Covid, enough inaction by our leaders, enough of people not getting their unemployment checks, enough Trump,” Mr. Reilly said.


About 50 miles north of Detroit, in White Lake, roughly 30 people gathered at Luanne Stencil’s waterfront home for a party organized by Women for Trump, a group that promotes the president’s re-election. Most of the women wore patriotic colors. None wore masks.

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They drank wine out of plastic cups, nibbled on cheese and crackers, and listened to members’ remarks as the sun began to set. The group has held over two dozen luncheons and 32 wine and cheese parties.

Lori Goldman founded “Fems for Dems,” a nonprofit group for suburban women, shortly after the 2016 election. The group has attracted nearly 9,000 members, who canvass neighborhoods in Novi, about 18 miles from White Lake. The area has been represented by both Republicans and Democrats in Congress in the past decade.

Most residents who opened their doors listened politely and a few engaged in discussions about the candidates. One man paused a work call to chat with the women. The canvassing was hard on Wendy Bolton’s feet, so she took off her shoes to be more comfortable.


When Conor Lamb, a Democrat, won a special election in 2018 to represent a Pittsburgh-area district in Congress, his party saw how crucial suburban support could be.

Rick Saccone, the Republican in that contest, remains a strong supporter of Mr. Trump; his western Pennsylvania home is covered — inside and out — with the evidence.

The front lawn of Bobbi Bauer’s two-story brick home in Elizabeth Township, about 20 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, is decorated with rose bushes, small American flags and a giant Trump banner stretched across her white garage. She runs a day care at her home, and her clients have a mix of party affiliations.

“In the suburbs, it feels like you know everybody and everybody knows you,” she said, “and that’s what is important to me.”

Ms. Bauer, 72, explained that politics was a taboo topic when she was growing up. She marvels at the number of campaign signs in her neighborhood this year, and even at her own boldness to display her politics in her yard.

On a Wednesday evening, members of the West Hills Women’s Democratic Organization, a group of party volunteers based about 40 miles northeast of Pittsburgh, gathered under a rented park shelter. Michele Knoll, a candidate for state representative, spoke to the group in person while a Biden campaign regional organizer addressed them virtually.

The group worked until the only light left in the area came from the glow of a laptop. “We are trying to move ahead and make sure we don’t have a repeat of 2016,” Debbie Turici, 66, said. “It’s not just an election. It’s about your values, your integrity.”

LaKeyshia Price, 44, moved back to her parents’ home in New Kensington with her 14-year-old son, L.J., so that she could save money. She says her relatives are split between Democrats and Republicans to the point that they have stopped speaking about politics at all.

“We have a lot of people locked in the house together and we choose our battles carefully,” she said. “We just want to love on each other, eat some good food and have some peace.”

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