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Why Growing Geographic Polarization in the United States Should Have Your Attention

Image via Brookings

When the pandemic forced people to spend almost all of their time at home, many reevaluated not only what they wanted from life, but where they wanted to live. High housing prices and taxes pushed many liberals in high-cost-of-living states like California to move to more affordable cities in red states. Widespread acceptance of remote work made such moves possible. For many conservatives living in California and other liberal states, government vaccine requirements and mask mandates spurred them to move to red states, where such policies were not implemented. 

While news outlets were quick to label these demographic movements as a “California exodus,” the pandemic shone a spotlight on a population shift that has been occurring for the past decade. The Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) reported that between January 2020 and July 2021, California lost around 300,000 residents. 

Since the start of the pandemic, most outbound domestic migration has come from California, New York, New Jersey, Illinois, and Massachusetts. The states with the most inbound domestic migration are Florida, Texas, Arizona, North Carolina and South Carolina. The journalist Bill Bishop describes such trends as “The Big Sort,” a phenomenon in which Americans choose to live in locations with people who share similar belief systems. Bishops writes that “America may be more diverse than ever coast to coast, but the places where we live are becoming increasingly crowded with people who live, think, and vote like we do.”

Bishop’s theory explains why the United States is now more geographically polarized than it has been at any time since the lead-up to the Civil War in the 1860s. This geographic polarization and “way-of-life segregation” greatly contributes to political polarization. Larry Sabato, an American political scientist and analyst, reveals that the number of “super landslide” counties, or counties in which a presidential candidate won over 80 percent of the vote, has grown significantly in recent decades. Of the 3,143 US counties, 22 percent experienced super landslides in the 2020 election. In 2012, this number was under 10 percent. 

While the theory of “The Big Sort” explains the motivations for the conservative minorities in blue states to move to the South, it fails to account for the migration of liberals to red states. In fact, considering the recent overturning of Roe v. Wade in the landmark Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision, such movements make little sense when viewed through an ideological lens. The Supreme Court’s decision revoked constitutional protection for women’s right to an abortion. Following Dobbs, many red states enacted laws completely forbidding abortion, even in instances of rape and incest. 

The Dobbs decision fomented social media discussions of liberals fleeing states with abortion bans. The real estate company Redfin predicted that “People will vote with their feet, moving to places that align with their politics.” A recent poll of US adults conducted by Leger, in collaboration with The Atlantic, revealed that 14 percent of respondents reconsidered where they lived following the overturning of Roe v. Wade.

While the theory of “The Big Sort” paints an image that ideological sorting is the main motivator behind geographic trends, it excludes the vast majority of Americans who are bound more by economics than by ideology. The 2020 US census reveals that the major motivators for Americans to relocate are related to housing, family, and jobs. Politically driven relocation does not exceed 5.4 percent. For many, living situations are determined far more by socioeconomic factors than by political beliefs. According to the PPIC, residents leaving California are less affluent than those moving to the state. The PPIC also found that “Those who say housing costs are a big problem in their area also think more often about moving, regardless of ideology or other political opinions.”

While there is no data yet concerning the impact of Dobbs on geographic trends, my prediction is a continuation of the status quo. Conservatives of all socioeconomic backgrounds in blue states may continue to move to the South. For lower-income groups, red states often provide more affordable living situations. And for wealthy conservatives, they can afford to choose to live somewhere more compatible with their belief systems. For liberals, the situation is more complicated. Democrats may threaten to flee red states, just as they heralded moving to Canada given a Trump presidential win. However, economic factors will likely swing the pendulum more than ideological opposition to conservatism. While Democrats may deeply disagree with the Dobbs decision, this policy will most likely not deter lower-income liberals from moving to red states for a better economic situation. The level of reproductive protections in a given state may impact which universities liberal students find attractive and where people choose to take a job offer.

These demographic shifts will significantly impact the political landscape in the coming decade.

In the 2018 Texas senatorial race, more native-born Texans voted for the Democrat Beto O’Rourke than the incumbent Republican Senator Ted Cruz. However, among those who had moved to Texas, 57 percent voted for Cruz. Thus, the influx of conservative residents has already impacted statewide elections, turning the red state even more red. While Texas’ five most populous counties went for Biden in 2020, Trump still won the state by nearly six percentage points. The role of gerrymandering and the concentration of liberals in a handful of densely populated blue cities has diminished the electoral impact of Democrats in the state. 

While conservatives leaving California makes the state more blue, it is also shrinking. For the first time in its history, California lost a congressional seat. It is possible for the state to increase its population through external means, like increased immigration, but ultimately, if California wants to stop the outflow of residents, state leaders must address high housing prices and the ongoing homelessness crisis.

The long-term effects of this population shift may cause purple states to become more red or blue in the next decade. The clincher lies in gerrymandering. States with high levels of gerrymandering, mainly located in the Rust Belt, will likely continue to shift red, even with an influx of liberal voters, as this group mostly moves to urban areas within red states, limiting their electoral impact. In states without gerrymandering, an increase in liberals could dramatically alter the politics of the state. Purple states like Arizona and Nevada are growing rapidly and may gain new House seats and electors in the Electoral College following the next congressional redistricting. These Sun Belt states are becoming bluer and more diverse, with both states electing Democratic senators in the 2022 midterm elections. Thus, the seat Democrats lost in California could be made up in the Sun Belt states with the continuation of these demographic trends. 

Over the next decade, Americans will continue to move and sort, motivated by both ideological and economic factors. I predict increased geographic and political divisions. Purple states in the Rust Belt will shift redder, and purple states in the Sun Belt will grow more blue. California will become more progressive, and Texas will become more conservative. The implementation of polarizing public policies, like Dobbs, will occupy the public sphere, overshadowing the economic issues most Americans intimately face and which ultimately drive population movement.