Which counties gained and lost population in the 2020 Census. Courtesy of Census Bureau.

In real estate, they say the three key things are “location, location, location.”

I’ve always thought of that in terms of viewsheds or proximity to schools, parks and other amenities.

These days, though, is there another factor to consider – namely, politics?

Last year, the real estate company Redfin reported the results of a survey that said people are increasingly citing politics as a reason for choosing the place they’re moving to (or from). It found that 15% of those surveyed would refuse to live in a place where abortion was “fully legal,” while 12% said they would only live in a place where it was “fully legal.” That was before the U.S. Supreme Court decision that overturned a national right to abortion, but the point is that politics are now showing up as a relocation decision.

Redfin reiterated that point in its 2022 forecast: “Now that workers have more control over where they live, more people will seek out areas where there are like minded people with laws that fit their political beliefs. People who prefer to live in areas without mask and vaccine mandates will leave cities like New York and Los Angeles. People who are against voter-ID laws will move to places where voting is more accessible. People who are pro-choice will avoid states with restrictive abortion laws. We will also see more blue enclaves grow within red areas and vice versa, as parents select school districts that align with their preferences regarding mask mandates, critical race theory and other controversial issues.”

To some extent, this isn’t new. The author Bill Bishop wrote about all this back in 2008 in his landmark book “The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded Americans Is Tearing Us Apart.” It’s one thing, though, to see communities realign politically – rural areas more conservative, many suburbs more liberal – but those generally involve people already living there. It’s quite another for people to make relocation decisions based on the politics of where they’re going.

There’s evidence, though, that this is happening. Penn State researchers documented some of this in a study in 2019. Even though I like to think I believe in data, I was still something of a skeptic. Do people really make relocation decisions based on politics?

Then this summer I wrote a seven-part series on migration patterns involving Virginians, all based on Internal Revenue Service reports. The installment that really got people’s attention was the one headlined “More people are moving out of Northern Virginia than are moving in.” To my surprise, I heard from multiple readers who said they had moved out of Northern Virginia. They tended to cite the same things – taxes too high, traffic too slow, affordable housing too hard to find. But several also said they moved out because the region was becoming too liberal for their conservative tastes. I even heard from one American expatriate now living in Canada who wanted to move to Virginia for family reasons, but wanted to be sure that he moved to a conservative county and not a liberal one. He was especially curious about Alleghany County. These real-life examples got my attention in ways that no amount of data ever could, even for a data nerd like me.

And then there was this. In response to the column “Why aren’t more people moving from Northern Virginia into Southwest and Southside?,” someone with the handle “2DollarPistol” responded on Twitter: “Y’all keep ignoring the Real reason people avoid SWVA and Southside: MAGAs! Decent people don’t want to live in the middle of nowhere surrounded by FASCISTS. Amazingly, that truthful opinion is never mentioned, ‘non-partisan.’ Botetourt living has made you ignorant to reality.”

So there’s that.

I’d been mulling over all this until I saw the commentary piece by David Leonhardt in The New York Times: “’A Crisis Coming’: The Twin Threats to American Democracy.” One of the threats he sees is a faction of the Republican Party that refuses to accept defeat and contends elections are fraudulent unless they win. The other threat is this geographical polarization that has cleaved the nation in two by our political preferences.

I documented the latter on the Virginia level in a column after last year’s gubernatorial election: In 2017, there were only five counties where one candidate topped 80% or more of the vote. In 2021, there were 16. Leonhardt documented similar numbers nationwide. We’ve always had our political differences – Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton” puts those into song – but what’s new is this kind of stark geographical polarization. This can’t be healthy for the country. It leads to one-party districts where the most extreme factions dominate – far-left in blue ones, far-right in red ones. How can we hope to govern the country if each side comes to view the other as some kind of existential threat?

It was a lot easier to move on after an election defeat if the other side wasn’t that bad. When we had a lot of swing districts, parties tended not to move too far left or right because if they did they wouldn’t win. Now, with fewer swing seats, parties are free to move as far left or as far right as they want, and the results sometimes aren’t pretty. Yes, gerrymandering has something to do with fewer swing seats, but “the big sort” has more. You simply can’t draw a Democratic district in Southwest Virginia or a Republican one in much of Northern Virginia. That’s not gerrymandering, that’s just realignment. And if people are now choosing where to live based on that, then geographical polarization will only get worse, not better. It’s as if we’re going through a slow-moving national divorce. They say familiarity breeds contempt but lack of familiarity breeds something even worse: We have some in each party who have come to view the other side as not simply wrong, but un-American. In his New York Times piece, Leonhardt faults both parties – Republicans for tolerating the election deniers, Democrats for not caring enough to make the compromises necessary to reach out to rural areas. In those big one-party districts, compromise becomes a dirty word.

Leonhardt spends a lot of time in his piece writing about how some of our institutions aren’t built for this kind of polarization. It’s now easier for a popular vote loser to win the presidency. A minority of the population can exert a majority in the U.S. Senate because small, generally rural, states get the same number of votes as massive urban ones. If you like the outcomes of those elections, and those votes, then maybe that’s not a problem for you – but we all ought to be able to acknowledge that it’s generally not a good idea if losers keep winning and a minority consistently governs a majority.

Philosophers and other deep thinkers may have thoughts on how to address this, but here’s a practical one I haven’t seen others address: Political parties could encourage people to move.

I don’t expect this to happen, of course, but bear with me as I work through the math and the logic.

Both parties right now have a surplus of voters, just in different places. Nationally, Democrats have surpluses in places like California; Republicans have surpluses in smaller states, such as Wyoming. On a statewide basis, you can think of it in these terms: Democrats have surpluses in Northern Virginia, Republicans have surpluses in much of rural Virginia. None of these surpluses are helping either party. Democrats could export voters from California – or Fairfax County – and still win those places handily, but by relocating them they might be able to win some other places. Republicans could do the same. So why don’t they? Political parties can’t make people move, of course, but they could sure encourage that. Think of it as a new form of “get out the vote.” Having voters cluster among like-minded neighbors doesn’t help either party. In practical terms, an 80% majority is no better than a 51% majority – perhaps worse, because 29% of those voters are effectively “wasted.” OK, a party with 80% share doesn’t have to work as hard as it does in a swing area, but after awhile, a lot of those votes don’t really matter much.  Both parties would benefit from moving some of those voters into swing states.

For instance: Republicans lost Georgia in the 2020 presidential election by 11,779 votes (the votes that Donald Trump wanted state officials there to “find”). They lost Arizona by 10,457 votes. But they won Wyoming by 120,068 votes and North Dakota by 120,693. Looking ahead to 2024, maybe Republicans can win back those states with better candidates, better campaigns, better policies (and maybe some buyer’s remorse from some voters). But all that is uncertain. A more certain way to win Arizona and Georgia would be to move some of those “surplus” voters from Wyoming and North Dakota.

Democrats have even more opportunity, and a bigger well to draw from. Biden won California with 63.48% of the vote – and a margin of 5,103,821 votes. Think of all the other places Democrats could have won if only some California Democrats had moved there. In terms of electoral votes, the big prize is Texas. Republicans won there by 631,221 votes. What if Democrats moved that many voters there? That wouldn’t jeopardize their California stronghold, but it would bring in another big state’s electoral votes, and those close calls in Arizona and Georgia wouldn’t matter. Or, if you’re counting Senate seats, think how many Senate seats they could pick up if they moved voters into some small states in the Rockies and Midwest. They wouldn’t have to count on Joe Manchin’s vote then.

There’s another way to think of this. So far I’ve focused on the surplus – how many votes Democrats or Republicans could give up and still win a state. But both parties also have supporters in states they can’t win, and those voters do them no practical good. This wouldn’t address the political polarization problem but it would bring more swing states into play: What if Republicans gave up on California and moved their supporters there elsewhere? Trump had more votes in California than any other state – more than 6 million – but never had a chance of winning there. Likewise, if Democrats pulled all their supporters out of Idaho, there are 287,021 voters that could be redistributed elsewhere – shoring up those margins in Arizona and Georgia, or winning the Dakotas or Iowa or Kansas or Mississippi, take your pick.

Now, obviously none of this is going to happen but the math helps illustrate this point: If voters take politics into consideration when moving, they’re taking into account their own personal comfort, not the best interests of their party. A conservative voter who decamps from Fairfax County to move to a conservative (generally rural) county may feel cultural affinity with their new neighbors, but they’d do their party more good if they moved to a swing district where they might help tip the balance. Likewise, a liberal voter moving out of some city for whatever reasons may want to seek out a swing district for the same reason.

Now, I can’t imagine either party in, say, Fairfax encouraging people to move out: The other side would light ’em up if they did. But the math remains. If enough conservatives moved out of Fairfax for the Roanoke Valley, that might help Republicans win a state Senate seat next year (John Edwards, D-Roanoke, and David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County, are paired in the same district). And if enough liberals moved out of Northern Virginia and into Southside, they might help the party win the 5th Congressional District; Republican Bob Good’s winning margin two years ago was 20,673 votes. For comparison purposes, that’s less than one-quarter of the 88,778 people who moved out of Fairfax County in 2020.

There’s an old saying about how sometimes people vote with their feet. Here’s an opportunity for both parties.

Dwayne Yancey

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at dwayne@cardinalnews.org.