Politics Counts: Can Mitt Romney Keep Winning the Suburbs?

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Two votes into the Republican presidential primary season, Mitt Romney can claim two important titles. First, and most obviously, he won both contests – the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. But second, and perhaps more important, he has laid claim to being the GOP candidate who resonates most with wealthy suburban communities. That's good for him, but it may be becoming challenging.

The former Massachusetts governor won the vote coming out of those counties in both Iowa and New Hampshire – counties called the Monied Burbs in Patchwork Nation’s demographic/geographic breakdown. He took 43% of the vote in New Hampshire’s Monied Burbs on Tuesday, four percentage points better than what he did statewide.

That’s significant because nationwide those 286 counties hold 69 million people and the vote in them tends to swing between Democrats and Republicans. They often decide who wins the presidency: In 2008, President Barack Obama won them by double digits.

Any Republican who wants to beat Mr. Obama needs to eat into his margin in the Burbs, and Mr. Romney can now credibly make the case that he’s the one who can go head-to-head against Mr. Obama in those places. The Burbs tend to vote on economic issues and those are Mr. Romney’s forte – the rationale for his candidacy.

But set against that good news for Mr. Romney is one challenge, and it may be growing: The economy appears to be improving, especially in the Monied Burbs.

Recent months and weeks have brought relatively sunny economic headlines, including unemployment is declining and consumer confidence is rising. Those headlines are coming just as the presidential race is seriously entering most people’s consciousness. And the Monied Burbs, better educated and wealthier than other types of community in the U.S., are on the front of the wave of good news. They tend to feel the effects before other types of counties.

Consider this: The latest available set of county unemployment data – numbers from November – shows the Burbs now have an unemployment rate of 7.5%. That’s 1.2 percentage points below the national average for November and a full point below where the Burbs themselves were back in June.

READ ALL OF THIS WEEK'S POLITICS COUNTS COLUMN ON THE WALL STREET JOURNAL'S SITE.

The map below, featured in that column, shows the change in unemployment by county from January 2009 to November 2011.