Are political preferences truly behind the census data showing migration away from places dominated by Democrats? Where is that heading?
We finally have at least some empirical evidence for the answers beyond the net population changes which we’ve already seen showing flight from blue states. It’s a national survey conducted by the Trafalgar Group last month indicating that America may be politically segregating at a much faster pace than is apparent from net population changes.
The national survey asked likely voters, “Have you moved in the last 3 years, or plan to move in the next year, to a region that aligns more closely with your political and/or personal beliefs?”
Over 4% of Republicans and independents said they had already moved, in the last three years, to a region more closely aligned with their political beliefs.
Far more importantly, over 10% of Republicans and over 9% of Independents say they plan to move in the next year to a region in which they are more politically aligned.
Just as significantly, those numbers are far smaller for Democrats. Results are summarized here:
If those answers are even close to accurately reflecting the direction of political migration, a national re-sorting is unfolding on an historic scale and it’s mostly right-of-center voters who are moving, though a few caveats are in order.
First, it’s possible survey respondents exaggerated since it implies that 10.7 million voters will be moving in the next twelve months for a region to which they are more aligned. That’s a large number given that only around 30 million Americans (not just voters) have moved annually for any reason over the last several years, according to the Census Bureau.
On the other hand, in earlier periods moving was far more common, often exceeding 40 million Americans annually in the 1980s and 1990s, so perhaps the survey reflects a coming return to high migration rates thanks to growing political division.
It’s also possible that far more people are moving for political reasons than a survey would uncover. A person who cares nothing about politics might well say, for example, that she moved to Florida for a good job, low taxes and less crime, not recognizing such things are inherently political.
Second, the survey asked about moves to a different region, which may or may not be a different state, so you cannot necessary let the survey characterize all interstate migration. Intrastate political migration happens, too. For example, liberals in southern Illinois may move to Chicago; conservatives in Portland may head to eastern Oregon and liberals in upstate New York might prefer NYC.
Still, what’s striking about the survey results is how much more likely Republicans and Independents are inclined to move for political reasons than Democrats. The survey therefore certainly does seem to confirm that political preference is a major factor behind the recently released new Census Bureau estimates of interstate migration. For 2022, the bureau estimated particularly severe population losses for New York, Illinois, California and other blue states, with Texas and Florida as the big winners. Taking the survey and census numbers together, in other words, certainly seems to indicate that conservatives and independents are fleeing the most liberal states and dominating interstate migration.
It’s key to remember, when thinking specifically about political segregation, that net population changes shown in census numbers don’t really matter. Net population changes may be small or large for any given state, but they say nothing about the gross numbers moving in and out, which are always far higher than the net. If those gross in and out numbers are based on politics, then the nation is politically segregating at much faster pace than is apparent.
The implications for America are huge. As right-of-center people move to more right-of-center places and vice versa, their new jurisdictions will be more inclined to accommodate them politically, expanding the division and becoming more still more unwelcoming to the other side.
We’ve seen much of that already. For example, Illinois voted in November to constitutionally outlaw right-to-work while Tennessee voted to enshrine it; some conservative states strictly limited abortion after the Dobbs decision while some liberal states moved to further protect it; and many states adopted voting procedures designed to favor the party in power.
If the net result is accelerating population gains for conservative states, their political power will likewise expand. If just the most recent interstate migration trends continue, without any acceleration, the next Congressional seat allocation in 2030 will mean gains of four House seats for Texas and three for Florida, with losses of 5, 3 and 2 for California, New York and Illinois, respectively, according to Michael Li, an analyst at the Brennan Center.
The Trafalgar survey is just a start. Much more research on this topic is badly needed. Given its importance, political scientists and pollsters should be all over this, targeting people who are confirmed movers with multiple, specific questions about their reasons for moving, where they left and where they went.
Call it what you want – the U-Haul Revolution, the Great Re-Sort or the National Divorce – it’s underway, it’s important and we need much better research on it.
States are “the laboratories of democracy,” as Justice of the Supreme Court Louis Brandeis famously wrote. Some are working and some are failing miserably. Get used to it. It’s working beautifully.