The Pandemic May Hasten State-To-State Migration

Charlie "Chuck" Cook
December 28, 2020

The sea of red in the voting map of this year’s elections demonstrates just how inefficiently distributed Democratic voters are around the country. Democrats have long been highly concentrated in and around major metropolitan areas. This became highly relevant in the last two presidential elections, as the Democratic nominees won the national popular vote by 3 million and 7 million votes, respectively, while enduring one Electoral College loss and another result that was much closer than expected in key states. In those elections, Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden won California by 4 million and 5 million votes, respectively. Each won New York state by 2 million votes, far greater than any margins Republicans had in their big states.

Prior to the 2018 elections, Cook Political Report House Editor David Wasserman half-joked that if Democrats were really serious about winning and holding the House, they would embark on a major voter-relocation program, urging their voters to move away from the big cities and into districts and states where they are less numerous.

David’s line was always good for a few laughs, but with the coronavirus pandemic and resulting changes in the role of the workplace, we will see that happen to a certain extent. Many of those employed in the knowledge economy will continue to telework as the pandemic persists, and even beyond. In fact, an increasing number of jobs in the future will no longer require the physical presence of certain workers, other than perhaps for periodical meetings. The result will be certain workers choosing to live where they want to live as opposed to being tethered to a company’s headquarters. Skiing aficionados may choose to live in Colorado, Wyoming, or Utah. Those whose preference runs more toward the beach might head to North or South Carolina, Georgia, or Florida, or along the California coast. Others might cotton more to a ranch or a slower pace in a small town.

(Of course as President Kennedy famously said, “Life is unfair.” Many workers, particularly those in the “old economy” of manufacturing and distribution, or in the service sector, may never have that luxury, or at best it will take time before they can migrate to jobs away from big cities.)

In any case, the changes in the job market as a result of the coronavirus will be enormous, as will the political consequences. In a working paper for The Hamilton Project, MIT economist David Autor and urban planner Elisabeth Reynolds look at what they call “de-densification” as a result of the pandemic.

In 2017, 700,000 Californians moved away from the state, one reason why it is expected to lose one congressional seat in reapportionment before the 2022 election. In 2018, some 86,000 people moved to Texas. In fact, the migration from California to Texas was second only to that of New Yorkers moving to Florida.

The Texas counties of Harris (Houston), Dallas, Tarrant (Fort Worth), Bexar (San Antonio), and Travis (Austin) had the greatest influx of out-of-staters that year. Texas obviously did not turn blue for Democrats in 2020, but it is only a matter of time before the Lone Star State becomes very purple.

There is a fair-to-good chance that Alabama, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and West Virginia may lose congressional seats once the new Census figures are tabulated and reported. Their loss might mean a gain for states like Arizona, Colorado, Florida, North Carolina, Oregon, and Virginia.

With most Americans having been counted by Census workers early in the pandemic, any COVID-19-related migration will not affect the distribution of seats until 2030. But in terms of whose votes are counted where, the impact could show up much earlier, in 2022 and 2024.

Of course, there is more going on here than just the impact of the coronavirus scourge. We are seeing a political realignment in this country, with small-town and rural America and some smaller cities (populated largely by whites with less education than a four-year college degree) getting more red. Meanwhile, whites with college degrees, particularly women, have been trending in the opposite direction, in favor of Democrats. As Bill Bishop explained in The Big Sort, people tend to migrate toward, live near, and work with people like themselves. That’s one reason why we have developed ideological silos and greater intensity of political feelings. It also helps explain the decline of ticket-splitting.

Politics has always been dynamic, never static, with a variety of changes simultaneously taking place in ways that we can only barely comprehend. That’s why those who talk about long-term political trends with certainty are missing the boat. The red and blue maps from 20, 30, or 40 years ago are quite different from those today. We’re only getting a slight inkling of what the maps 10 or 20 years from now will look like.

This article was originally published for the National Journal on December 23, 2020.