Can Republicans reclaim suburban voters turned off by Donald Trump?

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Gwinnett County election workers look over absentee and provisional ballots at the Voter Registrations and Elections office on Nov. 6, 2020, in Lawrenceville, Ga.

WOODBRIDGE, Va. – As morning shoppers stroll the aisles of a suburban supermarket, Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin is at the checkout talking to voters about grocery taxes and higher prices.

"It's getting to be too expensive to live in Virginia," Youngkin told a gaggle of reporters and potential voters at Todos Supermarket in a strip mall about 25 miles south of Washington.

The occasion was Hispanic Heritage Month, but Youngkin's trip to Todos – along with other visits to grocery stores and gas stations across Virginia – was designed to appeal to a large group that shifted sharply to the Democrats during the Donald Trump era: suburban voters.

Voters in the suburbs propelled Joe Biden past Trump in the 2020 presidential election, polling data in several states shows. Republicans look at Youngkin's campaign as a possible model for recapturing at least some of those former Republicans who defected – a year before gubernatorial and congressional elections in pivotal presidential states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.

For Youngkin and other Republican candidates, that means stressing jobs and economic growth, as well as "kitchen table" issues such as food and gas prices. It means downplaying divisive cultural issues such as COVID-19 vaccinations, abortion, immigration, removal of Confederate statues and false allegations of voter fraud – items that still drive Trump and his voters but tend to turn off people in the suburbs.

More: Trump baselessly claims voter fraud in cities, but suburbs actually lost him the election

Related: My 'suburban mom' demographic is supposedly all in for Biden. But I'm voting for Trump.

Democrats are talking to suburban voters about another issue: Trump.

Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic candidate in Virginia, constantly links Youngkin to the ex-president, saying the GOP gubernatorial contender wants to bring Trump's economic policies that mainly benefit the rich and his divisive style of politics to the state and its suburbs.

Mimicking Biden's 2020 approach in many ways, McAuliffe and Democrats nationwide seek to capitalize on Trump's unpopularity in the suburbs by arguing that the ex-president still controls the GOP and its candidates.

McAuliffe described Youngkin as a "Trump wannabe" who is "following all of Trump's policies."

As Republicans try to win governors' offices and recapture control of Congress in 2022, many see the suburbs as decisive – and political analysts said the suburbs could turn on lingering feelings about the volatile former president.

"The key thing is the Trump factor," said Patrick Murray, director of the Polling Institute at Monmouth University in New Jersey.

Gwinnett County election workers look over absentee and provisional ballots at the Voter Registrations and Elections office on Nov. 6, 2020, in Lawrenceville, Ga.
Gwinnett County election workers look over absentee and provisional ballots at the Voter Registrations and Elections office on Nov. 6, 2020, in Lawrenceville, Ga.

Target: Suburbia

Though he has Trump's endorsement, Youngkin rarely mentions the former president's name on the campaign trail. A businessman in his first political race, Youngkin instead talks about plans to eliminate Virginia's grocery tax, suspend a gas tax hike and be what he calls the "jobs governor."

People who saw Youngkin work with cashiers and bag groceries at Todos said they liked him, but he has his political work cut out for him. Virginia has trended Democratic in recent elections, mostly because of the suburbs. It has not elected a Republican governor since 2009 and rejected Trump soundly during both of his presidential campaigns.

Carlos Castro, 66, president and CEO of Todos Supermarket, said his community includes Hispanic immigrants who feel "betrayed" by the Republican Party, and "the last president didn't help much in the regard."

Describing himself as undecided, Castro said "the right wing" of the party "has been very hard on the moderate Republicans" and pushed many voters away from GOP candidates. He said he might support Youngkin because "he seems like a very smart businessman" and could be a "formidable governor."

More: California recall, Virginia governor among the 2021 off-year election races to watch

Suburbs turned Democratic beyond Virginia. Among the reasons: disenchantment with Trump, especially his divisive rhetoric.

Trump's loss to Biden "was due mostly to voters in large metropolitan suburbs, especially in important battleground states," said a post-election analysis published by the Brookings Institution. Regions classified as "large suburban areas" gave a Democratic presidential candidate the advantage for the first time since Barack Obama in 2008.

According to the study published after the November election: "In terms of aggregate votes in these large suburban counties, there was a shift from a 1.2 million vote advantage for Trump in 2016 to (at last count) a 613,000 vote advantage for Biden – a nearly 2 million vote flip."

The suburban shift created close margins in major states. In the four suburban counties that surround Philadelphia, Biden polled 171,000 more votes than Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton did against Trump in 2016. "That was enough, by itself, to flip the state his way," reported The Almanac of American Politics.

Nationally, Biden edged Trump 50%-48% in the suburbs, according to exit polls – those same areas that gave Trump a 49%-45% advantage over Clinton four years ago.

As a result, Republicans put special emphasis on the suburbs. It starts with governors' races in Virginia and New Jersey, which traditionally hold statewide races a year after presidential contests.

In the 2022 midterm elections, Republicans will try to reclaim governor's offices in Democratic-run states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan, Nevada and Wisconsin. The GOP is trying to hold onto statehouses in Georgia and Arizona.

Biden carried all six of those states with big help from the suburbs.

Most of the GOP pitches to the suburbs will be economic in nature, party members said, with a stress on rising inflation. The annual inflation rate was 5.3% for the 12 months that ended in August; the 2020 annual inflation rate was 1.4%.

"Every time these suburban voters check out at the grocery store, pay their electric bill or finish filling up at the pump, they are reminded their paycheck isn’t going as far as it used to," said Joanna Rodriguez, spokesperson for the Republican Governors Association.

Democrats will try to recapture statehouses in Florida and Texas by casting those Republican governors – Ron DeSantis and Greg Abbott – as clones of Trump and by seeking to exploit the newfound advantage in suburbs. They plan to emphasize GOP efforts to outlaw abortion and restrict voting.

Next year, Democrats will look to maintain control of the U.S. House and Senate. Their goal of making Trump an issue shouldn't be too difficult; the former president pledged to get involved in many 2022 races.

Democratic strategists said the suburban turn against Trump remains an inflection point. GOP candidates in the near future, they said, will not be able to separate themselves from the polarizing ex-president, no matter how hard candidates such as Youngkin might try.

Geoff Garin, a pollster for McAuliffe, said the campaign will continue to pound Youngkin over his opposition to COVID-19 vaccination mandates, abortion rights and gun control legislation. Youngkin's relationship to Trump is a "liability" with suburban voters, he said.

"The suburbs are clearly the battleground," Garin said.

The suburbs and Trump: It's a personality thing

In poll after poll, focus group after focus group, suburban voters said it's not Trump's policies that bother them, pollsters said.

"It wasn't about policy. It was about personality; it was about character," said Sarah Longwell, co-founder of the organization Defending Democracy Together and a political strategist who conducted numerous focus groups.

In March 2020, as Biden emerged as the Democratic nominee, a Pew Research Poll said that "just 15% of U.S. adults say they liked the way he (Trump) conducts himself as president," and even most Republicans disdained his behavior. "Republicans largely agree with Trump on issues, but only about a third say they like his personal conduct," the poll said.

In January, as Biden prepared to take the oath of office and Trump protested the election with false claims of voter fraud, 49% of his own voters said his conduct was only fair or poor, said another Pew report.

Trump's flouting of political and legal norms didn't go down well in the suburbs and contributed to his defeat, pollsters said, and some Republicans are looking for a new approach.

"That strong Trump polarization message, I think, has to be softened," said William Frey, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of the post-election study on suburban voters.

Virginia governor's race: Terry McAuliffe, Glenn Youngkin argue about vaccination mandates

In Virginia, McAuliffe is trying to turn Trump into Youngkin's running mate, an approach likely to be mimicked by other Democratic candidates next year. Their pitch is aimed largely at women and college-educated voters who led the suburban turn to the Democrats.

Democrats have gained in the suburbs of Virginia for many years, especially in the giant cluster of municipalities near Washington. McAuliffe won the governor's race in 2013. Because Virginia governors are limited to one term in a row, McAuliffe made way for Democrat Ralph Northam to win the 2017 race, with big help from the suburbs in Northern Virginia and near Richmond.

Perhaps the best bet for Youngkin and other Republican candidates is to try to cut into Democratic margins in the ’burbs while churning out voters in the rural parts of the states.

J. Miles Coleman, associate editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said, "Suburban counties like Loudoun and Henrico, which used to be swingy, are solid blue now. So the best Youngkin can hope to do is keep McAuliffe’s margins down in places like that."

Another challenge for Youngkin and future Republicans: Suburban areas are growing in population, according to 2020 census data, meaning possibly more skeptical voters that have to be won back. Rural areas, the heart of the Republican base, are shrinking, the data said. Overall, metropolitan areas grew by 9% over the past decade, while there was only 1% growth for smaller areas.

Takeaways from the US census: A slower growing but more multiracial society, as cities outpace rural areas

Overdoing appeals to suburbs could carry a risk to Republicans: alienating Trump voters who like his aggressive, hard-edged approach on issues ranging from immigration to allegations of voter fraud.

"Obviously," Longwell said, "it's a tough needle to thread."

After Youngkin's visit to Todos Supermarket in Northern Virginia, Gina Castro, 35, an executive assistant at the store and daughter of CEO Carlos Castro, said the Republican candidate has to show voters he's his own person and can deliver the things he says he can.

"There are always promises," she said. "But it's what they can do."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Donald Trump alienated suburban voters. Republicans want them back.