LITTLETON, Colo. —
Call them Panera voters, a wide swath of caramel-latte-swilling, hormone-free-chicken-munching, WiFi-surfing suburban voters in a few swing states who have experienced the economic crisis mostly as anxiety, rather than panic.
They still eat out, but they don't eat junk food, and they are looking for a bargain. On any given day, they can be found flipping open their laptops alongside their roasted artichoke turkey paninis and bowls of French onion soup at Panera cafes that have emerged all across the country as a cultural and consumer touchstone of the new suburbia.
The St. Louis-based Panera Bread is a burgeoning part of the restaurant sector called fast-casual, which has boomed during the economic downturn as people sought to find quality for less. Like these suburban voters themselves, Panera has proven somewhat recession-proof, opening nearly 300 cafes since the end of 2008, including 50 in the battleground states of Virginia, Ohio, Florida and Colorado.
The chain has thrived on the idea that despite the recession, plenty of people are still able to pay $8 for the right kind of sandwich in warm, inviting surroundings.
People who study suburban voting patterns say change has made these areas more fluid in their political allegiances. These voters are more highly educated than average and influenced by their communities' growing diversity, a mixing of people that came with the last economic boom, as newcomers from cities pressed farther out into what was once the countryside and, in some areas, were lured from overseas by new jobs.
"These communities are places where you start to see the city gather," said Robert Lang, a demographer and professor of sociology at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. "It's where the highways go from four to six lanes. . . . If there's a giant movie theater with 14 theaters and cars wrapped around it, that used to be a solid space for Republicans. Not anymore, and that's what's different."