Do People Decide Where to Live Based on Their Politics?
Geography was front and center in the November 2020 presidential election as states announced their election returns over the course of days and Americans eagerly awaited results from particular counties. While some counties were close, other communities were considered electorally safe and the idea of the political sorting was a regular talking point argued by various politicos who claimed that Americans have clustered into increasingly, politically like-minded residential communities at the expense of the moderate middle. That is, while the national electoral results looked close, “most people lived in communities where the final vote wasn’t close at all.” The idea that American polity has sorted itself into politically homogeneous liberal or conservative communities is regularly embraced because it “feels right” at first glance to many. But the idea constantly fails to hold up to empirical scrutiny, and does so, once again, thanks to new data from the post-election Los Angeles Times-Reality Check Insights poll.
Specifically, the problem with the sorting idea is that it mischaracterizes our political system and how people actually choose to live; places are far more dynamic than stories of the sort seemingly suggest. Moreover, politics and selecting candidates are dominated by an extreme group of political elites who regularly nominate ideological purists, leaving the centrist, and often unengaged middle, to choose between two extremes. This creates the impression of deep socio-political division, when the reality is often far less extreme.
Consider the oft-stated notion that big cities are liberal centers and that rural areas are conservative bastions or the chestnut that people's concerns while planning a move include the search for “blue cities” or “conservative communities with traditional values.” Such a statements appear true if we look at voting outcomes: The LAT/RCI poll shows that Trump won just 14% of the vote in big cities compared to 47% of the vote in rural areas. However, big cities are not homogenously populated by liberals. 40% of big city residents are liberal compared to 13% conservative with the plurality - 48% - being moderate and slight ideological leaners. Yes, there are more liberals in big cities, but they are not even a majority. Similarly, 38% of rural residents identify as conservative though 20% are liberal with 42% being ideological moderates. These areas lean a bit in one direction but are not dominated by any ideology. In fact, it is the suburbs of both large and small cities that are the most ideologically balanced. 49% of those in the suburbs identify as moderate with 22% leaning to the right and 28% leaning to the left. No residential conurbation is ideologically monolithic and it is absolutely incorrect to assume that voting patterns reflect reality.
In addition to electoral outcomes being misleading, Americans choose where to live based on schools and community amenities, not the politics of a particular community. Partisanship is simply not important to Americans, whatsoever, when choosing where to live.
The LAT/RCI poll directly asked which neighborhood characteristics are essential in choosing where to live and these ranged from a neighborhood’s racial and ethnic diversity to the wealth and religious beliefs of its residents. When asked about having neighbors who share one’s political beliefs, only 12% of Americans believe that this is essential for their neighborhood and just 11% care about whether or not their religious beliefs or their racial or ethnic background is shared by their neighbors. What majorities of Americans do care about in selecting a neighborhood is having parks, recreation, and cultural amenities nearby, along with good schools, and slightly fewer Americans believe that it is essential to have racial diversity and family close by. While the nature of these local institutions will certainly vary, Americans are not generally thinking about are whether or not their neighbors are Democrats or Republicans when trying to find the right mix of parks and schools for their families.
Americans on the extremes are far more concerned with local politics of their neighborhoods. Almost a quarter of extremely liberal and a fifth of extremely conservative Americans believe that it is essential to find a community that shares their political beliefs, compared to just 9% of Americans who are either moderate or have slight ideological leans to the left or right. But even these figures are not majorities, and more extreme ideologues still value local amenities and schools above political and religious considerations. Nevertheless, as most Americans do not meaningfully participate in politics, this more extreme minority can and does have an oversized influence on their community’s choices and outcomes.
The central idea behind the big sort is that politics play a heavy hand in where individuals choose to live and this is a geographic change that the nation has witnessed which takes place, “at the micro level of city and neighborhood.” The problem is that while electoral outcomes appear to be extremely lopsided in favor of one party or the other, this is an outcome of the more extreme ideologues who generally participate in politics, and not those who actually live there. As such, the new LAT/RCI data make it clear that America’s cities and towns are not ideological monoliths, nor do political considerations drive decisions of residency. The political dysfunction and chaos of the Trump administration elevated the nation’s attention to politics, but most Americans are apolitical and consider potential homes based on how close they are to their families, schools, and places to eat, not the ideological beliefs of their neighbors.
Samuel J. Abrams is professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.