Geography vs. Demography
The Fight for Our Future Belongs to the ’Burbs
As Democratic voters leave high-priced, deep-blue cities for houses with garages, the question is if the new arrivals will change the suburbs or if the suburbs will change them.
Look away from President Trump and it’s easier to see how three long-term demographic and geographic trends are reshaping American politics.
The demography favors Democrats. A growing share of the population is made of the unmarried, minorities, children of immigrants, and millennials. These are the rising groups—what some Democrats like to call the “the coalition of the ascendant”—that were sure to propel Hillary Clinton into the White House. Until they didn’t.
The geography, on the other hand, favors Republicans. Although the election was won tactically in the Midwest, Trump’s largest margin of victory came from red states, many with swelling populations, such as Texas, Tennessee, Utah, Arizona, and the Carolinas.
A third shift—the toughest to predict the political impact of—could be the most consequential: the movement within metropolitan areas. The core base of the Democratic Party is built around the urban core, particularly in large cities; that of the GOP is located in more rural areas. Yet the most recent census data suggests growth in both of these areas have mostly stopped, while the big gains now are in suburbs and smaller cities, including some in the now Republican-leaning Midwest.
Over the past two decades, the non-Hispanic white population has declined from 76 percent of the population to 63. By 2030, according to Census Bureau projections, that percentage could fall to 56.
This is not good news for today’s Republican Party, which counts heavily on the votes of non-Hispanic whites. These voters, motivated in part by their diminishing share of the population and political pies, supported Trump over Clinton by 21 percentage points. Trump did somewhat better with black and Hispanic voters than his more genteel predecessor Mitt Romney. Still, Trump lost Hispanic, African-American, and Asian voters by wide margins—winning less than 1 in 3 Hispanic voters and less than 1 in 10 black voters.
In elections so far, millennials—who will be the country’s biggest voting bloc by 2024—also have tilted decisively to the Democrats. Still, support for Trump and the GOP has been edging up, particularly among white millennials, since the 2016 election.
Many millennials, faced with dismal prospects for higher wages and steady work and, in some areas, insurmountable barriers to home ownership, are embracing socialistic policies. High rents have added to the appeal of the redistributionist agenda of what the 538 website has called a Democratic version of the “tea party”—free college, rent control and subsidies, and guaranteed jobs. This approach, as opposed to Clintonian moderation, increasingly dominates Democratic politics, a trend reaffirmed in the recent primary elections across the country.
Ironically, the very forces, such as high housing prices, rents, and limited job opportunities are driving millennials, and minorities, to the very places that have served as bulwarks of conservatism, including Trump-friendly metros such as Dallas-Fort Worth, Nashville, and Indianapolis.
The trajectory of migration works largely against the Democrats. In a recent analysis for Chief Executive magazine we found that while blue regions like San Francisco, San Jose, Seattle, Denver, and Portland enjoyed the largest increase of people 20-29. But when people start entering their thirties—the fastest growing demographic cohort—Austin, San Antonio, Tampa, Orlando, and Raleigh take the lead. For people in their forties, Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Florida cities are preferred. Among boomers—second only to millennials in numbers—New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Jose, Boston, and San Francisco lose out to lower-cost Sunbelt metros including Phoenix, Austin, Las Vegas, Orlando, and Tampa.
The winners in the migration sweepstakes, notably among those approaching their child-bearing and house-buying years—are states that traditionally lean red: Texas, Arizona, Tennessee, Florida, Georgia, and Utah. Due also to higher birth rates, these states and their metro regions are growing far faster than their blue rivals, where Trump was generally trounced. New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut have long experienced sub-par growth; New York is barely growing at all. Most importantly, California, which once led the nation in population growth, is decidedly slowing down with growth last year below the national average as a result of strong domestic out-migration, faltering immigration, and a lower-than-average birth rate.
These numbers will alter the nation’s political balance. In the coming decade, congressional seats, and Electoral College votes, will continue to move to red states. Since 2000, the number of congressional seats has grown by two in both Texas and Florida while declining by two in New York and Ohio. The 2010 census added no congressional seats for California—for the first time since 1920.
It remains to be seen if demographic states turn red states purple or blue, or if the blue new arrivals end up turning purple or red. But the latter seems more likely. Texas, for example, has been said to be “turning blue” for almost a decade, but continues—even as it gets more and more young people, minorities, and immigrants—to vote heavily Republican.
Reporters who spend their time inside the 610 loop in Houston, and the cities of Dallas and Austin, may see the blue tide as inevitable, but it’s a different picture when you travel to the smaller cities, suburbs, and exurbs of this fast-growing state.
Even if the tide is turning, it’s happening slowly, and the GOP has political and cultural advantages in both Texas and Florida that will delay any turning of the tide even if they don’t finally stop it. Latinos in Texas, for instance, are considerably more GOP-leaning than their counterparts elsewhere. And surely some of the blue-state refugees won’t be inclined to support the same policies that led them to leave these states in the first place. The suburban areas that attract newcomers still tilt decisively GOP, and in 2016, turned out mostly for Trump.
As America bifurcates by generation, race, and geography, dispersion has continued apace. Despite efforts by politicians, pundits, and planners—mostly Democrats—to foster dense urbanization, Americans have continued to seek space, affordable housing, and safety. As the most recent census data shows, the much ballyhooed “return to the city,” always exaggerated in the press, has all but ceased while suburban growth is accelerating.
Indeed, in virtually every metro area, population growth continues to be mostly in the suburbs and exurbs. Even in metropolitan areas of over a million, upwards of 85 percent of people live in a world of backyards, cars, malls, and generally good schools, compared to under 15 percent around the urban core. And the suburban share continues to increase, as evidenced in last year’s census estimates.
The economy has followed the population, with suburbs accounting for 80 percent of all new jobs created since 2010. Some suburban areas, like Plano, north of Dallas, may soon have more office jobs than the historic downtown. The fastest growing big regions for jobs—such as Dallas-Fort Worth, Austin, San Antonio and Nashville—are clustered in deep-red states, Forbes has found. Six of the 10 fastest growing regions have virtually no traditional urban core; all six are in the south or Intermountain West.
That might change as millennials, immigrants, and minorities move to the periphery. The latest Current Population Survey on domestic migration indicates strong movement of Hispanics, African Americans, and Asians to the suburbs of metropolitan areas, and away from urban cores (.xls file). For example, a net 303,000 African Americans moved to the suburbs as 333,000 moved away from the principal cities. Suburbs are also home to many educated older voters, who, according to some surveys, are turned off by the Trump presidency.
The combination of greater racial diversity, older educated voters, and millennials could topple the GOP stranglehold this year. This has been happening already in key areas such as Fort Bend County, Texas, outside Houston (PDF), which by some measurements constitutes the country’s most diverse county, and increasingly Latino and Asian Orange County, California. Stronger enforcement of immigration laws does not work well in districts where a large chunk of the population is made up of immigrants and their children. Similarly, young suburbanites with children in school may be more susceptible to Democratic positions on issues like gun control and education.
Yet the Democratic drive to win these areas also faces challenges. As people buy houses and start families, they tend to become more conservative and Republican leaning. Millennials, now mostly renters according to American Community Survey data, are seen as reliably Democratic by most pundits but recent polls show that as they age into marriage, family formation, and homeownership, they seem considerably less disposed to support Democrats.
Suburban residents are more likely than urban core residents or aging rural residents to have children, nearly twice as likely to be homeowners and be part of the country’s large, albeit beleaguered, middle class. They may be swayed by a strong economy, which many millennials credit to the GOP.
Contempt for suburbia, so common among Democratic-leaning academics, planners, and media, could make appealing to these voters more difficult. Many party leaders support forced densification, anti-car strategies, and the annexation of suburbs—ideas that lack broad appeal in a country where most people live in single family homes and rely on cars and roads to conduct their lives. It may not help that some leftists in California and Seattle are now attacking single-family houses as inherently racist and environmentally toxic.
Ultimately the future of American politics will revolve around appealing to these increasingly diverse suburban and red-state voters. However unpalatable Trump may be to some, the Democratic Party’s lurch toward an intersectional agenda of open borders and more immigration, climate alarmism, cultural progressivism, and relentless centralization of power at the federal level may have limited appeal, particularly amidst a stronger economy. Since last fall, Democrats have seen their advantage on the generic ballot slip from 12 percent to 4 percent.
Parties win elections by paying attention to voters, their aspirations and how they like to live. Neither ultra-conservative rural areas or deep-blue urban cores represent the future of American politics—a future that will be decided in the largely suburban areas of our fastest-growing metropolitan areas.