No, hordes from Democratic states aren’t turning the U.S. blue

Success isn't this simple for the Democratic Party.

The New York Times’ Upshot site explores one of those nifty-sounding political theories that can easily be taken too far. In “The Growing Blue-State Diaspora,” Robert Gebeloff and David Leonhardt write, “residents of many traditionally liberal states have moved to states that were once more conservative. And this pattern has played an important role in helping the Democratic Party win the last two presidential elections and four of the last six.” In particular, migrants from blue states like California and New York “helped” Barack Obama win Colorado, Florida and Virginia, in both 2008 and 2012.

Though Gebeloff and Leonhardt don’t acknowledge it, their article poses a challenge to the “sorting” theory, which suggests that Americans prefer to settle where they can find like-minded voters. In other words, these state-to-state migrants are not the advance forces of an opposition party; instead, they’re reinforcements for the party already in power. Think of someone who decides to move from New York to Texas: Is he more likely to be a supporter of Hillary Clinton or Ted Cruz? Are California expats telling their new neighbors in Idaho that the state needs its own version of Jerry Brown?


“The Growing Blue-State Diaspora” has to cherry-pick some numbers. Gebeloff and Leonhardt write that ex-Californians have helped push Colorado into the Democratic column, but while 6 percent of Colorado residents are from California, a larger 8 percent of Utah residents are from California, and no one thinks the most Republican state in the 2012 presidential election is going to flip anytime soon. Similarly, ex-New Yorkers make up 4 percent of the population in now-purple Virginia, but also 4 percent of the population in steady-red South Carolina.

Another complication to the “blue diaspora” theory is New Hampshire, which Obama won twice. The interactive map accompanying Gebeloff and Leonhardt’s story shows that 25 percent of current Granite State residents were born in Massachusetts — proportionally, the biggest state-to-state migration in America. But not that long ago, most political observers agreed that ex-Bay Staters had helped make New Hampshire the most conservative state in the Northeast, as they were the ones fleeing the Kennedys and “Taxachusetts” for a promised land with less restrictive gun laws, no rule that motorcyclists had to wear helmets and no income or sales tax.

The border-crossers are not a unified voting bloc, and Obama surely won many votes from people who had moved from Massachusetts. But consider the regional differences within the state.

From 1988 (the last conclusive GOP win in a presidential race) to 2012, the Democratic share of the presidential vote in New Hampshire rose by 16 points, from 36 percent to 52 percent. The biggest swing was in Grafton County, which borders Vermont and not Massachusetts, and where the Democratic vote surged from 37 percent to 61 percent.

If there’s a Republican base in New Hampshire, it’s in Rockingham County, which covers the coast between Massachusetts and Maine. Mitt Romney won it with 52 percent, and the Democratic share rose by only 12 points between 1988 and 2012. Of the state’s 10 counties, Rockingham is also presumably the most affected by the Massachusetts–to–New Hampshire migration. It has the highest share of population born in another state, 66 percent (Census data on which states they came from is not readily available at the county level), and the number of votes cast for president in Rockingham went up 68 percent from 1988 to 2012, versus 58 percent for the state as a whole.

Without Rockingham County, Obama would have won New Hampshire by nine points instead of six points. The area with the most migrants from Massachusetts have kept the state purple, while the Democratic trend in Maine and Vermont has been stronger and quicker. (Indeed, exit polls found that Obama ran best among rural voters in New Hampshire, rather than in the suburban spillover from Massachusetts.)

Neither the “sorting” nor the “blue diaspora” theory may explain as much as changes in population density. Software developer Dave Troy got a lot of attention after the 2012 election with a chart showing a “tipping point” of 800 people per square mile: “below 800 people per square mile, there is a 66% chance that you voted Republican. Above 800 people per square mile, there is a 66% chance that you voted Democrat.” He also noted, “98% of the 50 most dense counties voted Obama. 98% of the 50 least dense counties voted for Romney.”

And the “tipping point” theory can reconcile the “sorting” and “blue diaspora” theories by placing them in sequence. First, Republican “sorters” move to fast-growing suburbs and exurbs in population-boom states like New Hampshire. Then, as those states become more urbanized, their newcomers become more ethnically and economically diverse, and more likely to lean Democratic.

This explains California trending Republican during its rapid growth from the 1950s through the 1970s, then trending Democratic from the 1990s onward as population growth cooled and its electorate became almost completely urban (and less white). Colorado and Virginia also became more reliably Republican when newcomers from the Northeast and Midwest began arriving in large numbers, only recently trending Democratic as high population density spread out from Denver and Washington, D.C., respectively.

Florida’s peak Republican period, the 1980s, coincided with the peak presence of ex-New Yorkers (10 percent of Florida’s population in 1980 and 1990, versus 8 percent in 2010). The state narrowly voted Democratic, in 2008 and 2012, only after a significant jump in the foreign-born share of its population.

As for Texas, its tipping point still seems decades away. Before then, Republican Party is bound to figure out how to avoid being urbanized out of existence.

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Joseph J Dunn
3 years 9 months ago
I agree with Mr. Sullivan that the "blue state diaspora" theory seems weak. The "sorting" theory, that people move across state or county borders just to be with others of the same political party, also seems strained. And I have never known anyone who moved or accepted a job transfer just to get to a state with a different population density. But over centuries there have been unending movements of peoples, of every nation or ethnic group, whose moving was motivated by a desire to improve their economic circumstances. Jared Diamond describes ancient movements like this in his "Guns, Germs, and Steel." Our own nation has been, and continues to be, populated largely by people from other lands seeking a chance for a better economic life. Yes, some moved to escape religious or ethnic persecution, but the movements into our western territories, the "gold rushes" into California and Alaska, and vast movements of rural people into cities looking for jobs in growing industries all point to an economic motive. Could it be that most people move to secure a better economic opportunity (higher after-tax income, or lower cost of living, or a combination of the two), and the voting registrations and election tallies are results, not causes?
J Cosgrove
3 years 9 months ago
I write this as I sit in Rockingham county at my conservative son and daughter in law's house who reliably vote Democratic. We do not have debates on politics because they are divisive but how they live and generally what they believe is much more in sync with Conservative ideals. We have long discussion on other things but not politics. There was an article yesterday jokingly suggesting that the Koch Brotherss should invest their money in women's magazines in order to stop the constant onslaught of misinformation about what the Republican party is about. My guess is that the liberal editors and writers would be horrified at such a move if it ever took place. I had a good friend from childhood tell me that Republicans are just plain mean. When I asked him to say why he believed this he spouted trivial things and nonsense. We went on to discussing sports and had a great time together. I would look to other reasons why Colorado and Florida have turned purple. Some of it is Hispanic but I bet much of it has to do with misinformation. Maybe, maybe not it is misinformation but it would not be hard to find out with research. Why are these Live Free or Die New Hampshire residents voting Democratic? It would be interesting to find the real reason. Parts of Rockingham is very rural with good old boys who can be heard shooting on a Saturday morning and parts are more urbanized around Portsmouth and surrounding towns on New Hampshire's short coast line. Maybe the density issue could be tested. The voting records are available.
Marie Rehbein
3 years 8 months ago
When I lived in Tucson my son went to preschool at a church where there was Republican primary voting going on. When I arrived to pick him up, I parked, went in, came out, and was buckling him into his car seat when one of your lovely Republican women began shouting at me that I was in her way. That's only one of the several run-ins that I have had with the charming Republicans that live in the places I have lived.
Tim O'Leary
3 years 8 months ago
Funny - but I have had the same experience with many Democrats, especially the pro-abortion fanatics and those against school vouchers.
Marie Rehbein
3 years 8 months ago
Well, I don't know what her personal opinions were on any given issue, just that she voted in Republican primaries.
J Cosgrove
3 years 8 months ago
The last two days I have been walking and driving around Rockingham county and I noticed hundreds of signs on people's lawns for upcoming elections. Not one identified the party of the person who was running for election. Is this a New Hampshire trend or typical across the country?
Tim O'Leary
3 years 9 months ago
After every election, some pollster somewhere predicts that the recent voting bloc is permanent, only to have to revise the theory 4 or 8 years later. Still, the sorting theory is interesting, even if it is only a weak effect and it is probably short-term. I am sure that movement of large ethnic groups (such as Hispanics) and downward fertility trends play much more important roles. Policies also matter - a lot. People change their voting patterns when they 1) are employed and are optimistic or pessimistic about future work, 2) directly feel the impact of social services or taxes, 3) worry about terrorism or impending war, 4) lose or "get religion," and most importantly, 5) grow up and have children, as the latter brings together all the other worries and plans. The Democratic party lost me, my extended family and millions of other natural voters with their unmitigated zeal for abortion. States that have eliminated income taxes are a magnet presently, and the debacle that is ObamaCare might end up killing any confidence in government's ability to address working peoples' needs. Similarly, the problems of inaction abroad (ISIS, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Ukraine, Iran, Korea, etc) appear even worse than the problems of action from the last administration. The mass killings by ISIS (250 Syrians summarily executed yesterday, the beheadings and ethnic exterminations, and even the Hamas executions in Gaza last week) is about the most terrible thing I have seen recently (since 9/11 or Rwanda) and our "leaders" appear completely inept or impotent, as in Obama's "We have no strategy yet". There is no chance the UN will do anything either, anywhere. This could have a big impact on someone's voting pattern.


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