Following the 2012 election it was conventional wisdom to argue that traditionally red states were becoming bluer. Even as North Carolina and Indiana returned to their Republican roots by voting against Obama Mitt Romney was losing traditionally red states just as John McCain did a mere four years earlier. Obama’s victories fueled a number of new theories based on the general premise that demographic change was at work. But not just in-state demographic change but regional and national migratory patterns,
Two such articles sum up this theory nicely. The first, written by NPR political analyst Alan Greenblatt in early 2013, posited that socially liberal Californians were turning Nevada and Colorado blue. Greenblatt, aware that Idaho and Arizona have the third and fourth highest percentage of Californians in the West, makes the point that it has established liberal enclaves in both states such as Boise, Idaho and Tuscon, Arizona. More on this in a second.The second article was written almost exactly a year later by Robert Gebeloff and David Leonhardt. The authors analyzed migratory trends nationwide and found that traditionally red states were becoming bluer largely because liberal Northeasterners were moving into Virginia, North Carolina and other states.
But here’s the rub. Their theory is just that. A theory. And a number of good counterarguments, some of my own and others can easily be made to refute their claims. Let’s look at them shall we. The first comes from Harry Enten and Nate Silver at fivethirtyeight politics. They find that the migratory patterns have not led to Democratic dominance but rather increased geographic and partisan polarization. Enten and Silver write, “Remember, the GOP controls the House of Representatives, a plurality of state legislatures and amajority of governor’s mansions, and Republicans are slight favorites to take the Senate in November. Democrats have done well in recent presidential elections, but if Republicans take the Senate and hold the House, then by 2016 the GOP will have had control of the Senate for 12.5 of the past 24 years and the House for 18 of 24.”
Silver and Enten also find using Census track migration data and GSS (General Social Survey) information that the people who moved from the South Atlantic region (Virginia, North Carolina) are as liberal as those who moved from the Northeast. In other words, migratory patterns send liberals to liberal areas of states and vice-versa for conservatives. This should come as little surprise. Americans self sort all the time and as urban areas have become more liberal, rural areas have become that much more conservative.
My counterargument generally backs up these themes. Consider Idaho in the West and Virginia and North Carolina in the Mid-Atlantic. It has been noted that Boise has become bluer due to Californians moving into the state. Maybe so. But consider this fact. In 1990 Democratic Governor Andrus carried all but two counties in the state of Idaho. Since that point no Democratic candidate for Governor has won more than 10 of Idaho’s 44 counties. Just as Boise has turned Ada County blue the surrounding suburban and rural counties have become redder.
The same situation is unfolding in Virginia and North Carolina. Since 2000 the urban counties of Durham, Orange, Wake, Gilford and Forsythe counties have turned bluer. Mecklenburg county, which contains Charlotte has become bluer. But since 2000 Democrats have been losing ground in rural counties. No Democratic candidate has captured more than 10 rural, majority-white counties in federal races except Kay Hagan (08, Senate and she lost ground in her failed reelection bid).
The same could be said in Virginia. Bush captured Fairfax, Loundon and Prince William County in 2000. In 04 Bush lost Fairfax. In 2008 and 2012 when Obama won the state he won these formerly GOP strongholds but performed even worse in rural counties than Al Gore or John Kerry. Obama was carried by the massive margins these counties gave him.
Now, one could argue that the continued growth of urban areas in red states could make the increasingly Republican leaning inclinations rural counties moot. But, we are not there yet. Don’t believe me. Look at the results of races in North Carolina and CO in 2014 and Nevada in 2012. In 2012 even as Obama was carrying the state Dean Heller managed to hold an open GOP Senate seat. In 2014, Tom Tillis managed to defeat Kay Hagan even as she was crushing him in every urban country. In the West, Colorado, which had not voted for a statewide Republican candidate in federal races since 2004, sent Senator Tom Udall packing in favor of Congressman Cory Gardner.
So, the idea that Democratic gains in red states are due to the movements of liberal voters is a little thin. Rather, GOP struggles in red states seem increasingly related to their poor showings among minority voters. Consider Mitt Romney did just as well among white voters in CO as George Bush did in 2000 but he still lost the state. Why? Because whites made up a smaller share of the electorate than 2000 and Romney performed worse among the growing blocs of Hispanic and Asian voters. In other words, Republicans should not be worried about their poor showings in urban areas. They should be worried about their poor showings among minorities in those urban areas.
All told, the verdict is out on whether migratory patterns from blue to red states is really making a difference. Urban areas have become bluer but so have rural areas become redder. Perhaps the population growth of urban areas will permanently turn Nevada and Colorado blue and make North Carolina a light blue. But until that time comes the blue state diaspora is more conjecture than reality.