From the Newmaverse: Why red states could turn blue

A bunch of readers pointed out something I overlooked when I wrote recently about high-cost blue states hemorrhaging residents, who are moving to lower-cost red states. My story focused on the threat to Democrats as they lose representation in Congress and have to sustain costly benefit programs in states and cities with a declining tax base.

But there could be other important consequences. “With the migration from blue states to red states, will this change the political dynamics in the red states?” Lindsey Evans of Albuquerque asked. “Though it was a narrow victory for the Democrat senators in Georgia last time, might this occur in other red states that are experiencing this blue wave migration?”

Many others asked similar questions, so I looked into it—and the answer is yes, the movement of people from state to state could change partisan dynamics in ways that affect elections. In fact, it’s probably already happening. Demographic patterns can be complex and take place over decades, and many factors affect voting trends. So it’s important not to oversimplify. Yet more liberal voters moving to the South and West may have tipped Georgia and Arizona to Joe Biden in the 2020 election, with future changes possible. 

[The Newmaverse is Rick Newman’s community of commentators, critics, cranks and crazies. Join by following Rick on Twitter, signing up for his newsletter or sending in your thoughts. Future stories may result.]

“There’s not much question, in my mind, that migration patterns have made a difference,” North Carolina State political science professor Irwin Morris told me. “People moving into the South tend to be more Democratic. People moving from one place to another in the South tend to be more progressive. Within 10 to 15 years, the Democrats could be in a very good position.”

Georgia’s vote for Biden in 2020 was the first time the state went Democratic in the presidential election since Bill Clinton’s victory in 1992. Biden’s 2020 win in Arizona was the first for a Democrat there since Clinton’s reelection in 1996. Both states also have two Democratic senators, another sharp reversal for Republicans. Yet both states have Republican-controlled state governments and deep pockets of conservative voters, so they could be hard-fought battleground states for years to come.

Georgia has grown by attracting workers to the booming Atlanta region, while Arizona has grown thanks to retirees and transplants from the West Coast. The idea that transplants bring liberal politics with them may be too pat, however. 

“I’ve seen studies that show when people migrate, they adopt the politics of their new locale instead of bringing their politics with them,” Ted Johnson, a scholar at the Brennan Center for Justice, told me in an email. “Of course, as the Big Sort suggests, people are likely to move to places that share their politics. So the Californians moving to Texas are just increasing the number of liberals in places where liberals already live—like Austin.”

There are other caveats. Voter-turnout efforts in Georgia energized Black voters who went for Biden and two Democratic Senate candidates who won January runoffs. Meanwhile, incumbent President Donald Trump's baseless attacks on election integrity may have backfired by depressing Republican turnout. Tribal votes for Biden were an unusual swing factor in Arizona. Democratic presidential or Senate candidates may not be able to repeat those 2020 victories in upcoming elections.   

Morris’s research on 11 southern states suggests that faster-growing ones are likely to become more liberal over time, because people who move tend to be younger, more educated, more racially diverse and more liberal-leaning. Of the 11 states Morris has studied, six are growing fairly rapidly, opening them to more political change: Virginia, North and South Carolina, Georgia, Florida and Texas. Slower-growing southern states such as Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Arkansas are more likely to stay conservative.

For perspective, the internal movement of people in the United States has always shaped the nation’s political economy. The “Great Migration” of 6 million blacks from the South to other parts of the country during much of the 20th century remade many cities and contributed to the civil rights movement. Democrats had a lock on the South for nearly a century after the Civil War, but Republicans became the dominant party after Presidents Kennedy and Johnson pushed and enacted sweeping civil-rights reforms that alienated southern whites. Republicans seem to have benefited more than Democrats from demographic changes of the last 30 years. The huge bellwether Florida has gone for the Republican presidential candidate in seven of the last 10 elections, for instance, and Florida of course tipped the contested 2000 election to Republican George W. Bush.

If demographic changes were to help Democrats capture Florida or Texas, that would be a political game-changer, since those are large states getting bigger and gaining more political punch, while some of the blue coastal powerhouse states are shrinking. But plenty of things could spoil that blue dream. Donald Trump showed a remarkable ability to garner votes from working-class whites who have now become core Republican voters. The Democratic party has trouble shaking a reputation for urban elitism. Gerrymandering and other political chicanery could help Republicans keep control in the South even if they fall out of favor with home-state voters.

At least a few people leaving blue states hope conservative enclaves remain exactly as they are. Jim Doherty, who describes himself as libertarian, wrote to say he’s moving his family from Illinois to Alabama because taxpayer-borne pension costs for unionized government employees are getting out of control in the Land of Lincoln. 

“Do you think enough blue folks will ‘mess up’ the red states?” he asked.

We exchanged a few emails and decided that if he’s aiming for low-cost state likely to stay conservative, blood-red Alabama is probably as safe as it gets.  

“The last to fall is why we picked Bama,” Jim concluded, with an LOL. “Florida almost elected Gillum [a Democrat, as governor] and Texas could be more purple than we know.” Yep.

Rick Newman is a columnist and author of four books, including "Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success.” Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.

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