In political vernacular, “urban” issues have long been code for policies of primary concern to minorities. In coming decades, that stereotype will start to look outdated as Americans of increasing diversity move to the nation’s big cities.
That migration is affecting our politics. Census data from 2010 show Democrats are much more likely to collect electoral-college votes from the most urbanized states. At the same time, the states with the fastest-growing urbanized areas are now more likely to vote Republican. Taken together, the data suggest the growth of urbanized areas across the nation could put more Republican-dominated states in play in the long run.
More voters who tend to cast Democratic ballots are moving to urban areas, while voters who tend to live in exurban and rural areas continue to give Republicans most of their votes. As the years progress, those lines are becoming harder to cross.
The percentage of Americans living in urbanized areas—that is, areas with populations greater than 50,000—has never been higher. The 2010 census showed 71.2 percent of Americans live in these urban areas, up from 68.3 percent in 2000 and 61.4 percent in 1980. And Democrats do well in the most urbanized states; including the District of Columbia, President Obama won the 10 most urbanized states, ranging from traditionally blue New Jersey and Rhode Island to perpetually purple Florida and Nevada. Republicans managed to win just five of the 25 most urbanized states—Utah, Arizona, Texas, Georgia, and Louisiana.
On the other hand, John McCain won electoral votes in 15 of the 20 least urbanized states, including eight of the bottom 10 (Maine and Vermont were the lone Democratic wins among those rural states).
The division arises because more urbanized areas are likely to be more ethnically and racially integrated, and growth in the nation’s major cities has largely been within minority communities, according to William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution.
“The groups that do tend to move to urbanized areas—and these are the growing demographic groups in the country—are minorities, younger people, and more educated people,” Frey said. “Older white people tend to disproportionately be stayers, and they tend to disproportionally be in suburban and exurban areas.”
In an August 2011 study, Frey calculated that Hispanics and non-whites accounted for 98 percent of the population growth in large metropolitan areas over the last decade. And many of the states with the fastest-growing urban populations are also home to booming Hispanic and African-American populations.
National Journal Daily’s own analysis shows those booms are happening in Republican-heavy states—that is, a blueish tint is creeping into what had been several very red populations. Republicans won 12 of the 15 states in which the urbanized population grew the fastest over the past decade, most of which are in the South. South Carolina, North Carolina, Arkansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, Kansas, and Alabama all saw their urbanized areas grow by more than 5 percent as a fraction of the electorate; Democrats won only North Carolina and New Mexico among those states. That growth, according to Census data and Frey’s report, came mostly among Hispanics. The Carolinas provide the starkest example: The Hispanic population over the decade grew by 173 percent in Charleston, 151 percent in Columbia, 153 percent in Charlotte, 152 percent in Raleigh, and 145 percent in Greenville.
These numbers raise the question: Are fast-growing urbanized areas in red states a sign that Democrats can make inroads, or a sign that Republicans are performing better among more urbanized communities? Election results suggest the former: Consider Mecklenburg County, N.C., home of Charlotte: In 2000, George W. Bush beat Al Gore in Mecklenburg County by about 7,000 votes out of more than 270,000 cast. By 2008, Obama beat McCain there by 100,000 out of more than 400,000 cast. Democrats have done better in states with less change over the last decade; Obama won electoral votes in all but four of the 17 states in which urbanized areas grew by less than 2 percent as a portion of the population. That suggests Democrats have already achieved the demographic diversity they need to build a winning coalition in those states.
The changing face of America, on its surface, appears to benefit Republicans; after all, Americans are streaming out of Northeastern and Midwestern blue states and toward Sun Belt and Southern states. But peeling back just a single layer reveals that the Americans who are moving, especially as the country becomes more urbanized, are those most likely to turn red states a brighter shade of purple.