Another Way to Understand the Divide: Migration

Anyone who pays attention to politics is going to get flooded with various takes on how to slice and dice the electorate in order to explain past elections and predict those that are to come. But what I’ve noticed is that we tend to fall into ruts where you see the same kind of analysis run into the ground over and over again. We’re seeing this now with all of the attention being paid to urban vs rural, white working class vs people of color, etc. to explain the 2016 election and prepare for the one in 2018.

My interest in thinking outside the box on these questions is why I noticed an article by Joel Kotkin and Wendell Cox titled, “The Politics of Migration: From Blue to Red.” As the title suggests, they focus on a factor that is perhaps more significant in this country than just about anywhere else on the globe, but mostly ignored when it comes to political analysis: migration.

Despite all the hype about a massive “back to the city” movement and the supposed superiority of ultra-expensive liberal regions, people are increasingly moving to red states and regions, as well as to suburbs and exurbs…

They go on to note that big cities like Los Angeles, NYC and Chicago are growing at much slower rates than places in the Sun Belt like Austin, Tampa-St. Petersburg, Raleigh, Jacksonville, Las Vegas, Charlotte, Orlando, Nashville, Phoenix and San Antonio. Data also shows that Americans are migrating to smaller cities and suburbs.

The obvious bias of these authors leads them to suggest that this is a positive development for conservatives — primarily because they attribute it to conservative politics.

This suggests not an intrinsic political calculation so much as a series of very personal decisions by individuals and families. People move for varied reasons — cheaper homes, lower  taxes, employment opportunities, better schools, more value to the paycheck — but the upshot is that they are settling in states that tend to be red or, at least, purple in political coloration.

But this might not be the boon for Republicans that Kotkin and Cox are hoping for. It turns out that this was something a polling firm actually looked at in the lead-up to the 2016 election.

How people plan to vote appears to correspond, albeit broadly, with whether they decided to move away from where they grew up. According to the just-released PRRI/The Atlantic poll, 40 percent of Donald Trump’s likely voters live in the community where they spent their youth, compared with just 29 percent of Hillary Clinton voters. And of the 71 percent of Clinton voters who have left their hometowns, most—almost 60 percent of that group—now live more than two hours away.

The effect is even stronger among white voters, who already tend toward Trump. Even a bit of distance matters: Trump wins by 9 points among white likely voters who live within two hours of their childhood home, but by a whopping 26 percent among whites who live in their hometown proper.

Last September, Josh Barro opined on the topic.

Donald Trump is underperforming the typical Republican candidate in states that are magnets for migration — places like North Carolina, Colorado, Georgia, and Texas.

He’s doing unusually well in states where net migration is low or even negative, such as Iowa, Maine, and Michigan…

But could it also be partly because Clinton is more appealing to the sort of person who would want to move somewhere new, while Trump appeals more to people who would prefer to stay somewhere familiar?

This election, much more than most, is a referendum on openness and optimism: Are we scared of the changes happening in our country? Do we believe our best days ahead of us?

Moving is a sign that you believe your own actions can improve your personal circumstances; that America offers opportunities so long as one is willing to seize them. It also signals openness to change: If you moved across the country, you might not be so scared of “taco trucks on every corner.”

While Kotkin and Cox suggest that this migration is fueled by people who are attracted to the outcome of conservative policies, it is just as likely that Barro is on to something and that the people migrating to these areas will make them less conservative, or, as would be the case in cities like Austin, TX, even more liberal.

The thing that is important to keep in mind is that voters — especially in this country — are not static in terms of place. Things are constantly shifting in many areas around the country and, over time, that can build to create realignments.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.