May 9, 2014

Conservatives and Liberals Want to Vote With Their Feet

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If you could move to any state in the country, which one would you pick? What factors would you consider in this choice? If you are passionate about politics, a new survey out of Cornell University indicates that your ideology might influence the way you answer that first question – and that could be a problem.

In a recent national opinion poll conducted by undergraduates at Cornell, survey respondents were asked almost exactly that question. In a phone survey with almost 600 respondents during the month of March, Americans all over the country were asked to consider where in the USA they would most like to move. The survey found that respondents who wanted to move and identified as “conservative” or “very conservative” picked states that gave, on average, seven percentage points more of their votes to Mitt Romney than the states chosen by people who identified as “liberal” or “very liberal.” To put it more plainly, conservatives picked “redder” states than liberals when asked where they’d like to move. When compared to moderates, these trends continued with the conservative crowd tending towards Romney states and the liberals towards Obama states. Even when controlling for weather, which some might assume plays a role in people’s moving decisions, this correlation persists. The data was weighted by region and education level to be even more representative and all statistical tests were held to a 95 percent confidence level. People’s ideology was a statistically significant indicator for where they wanted to move – and that could be very bad.

This trend could have huge implications for American governance for several reasons. First, when people choose where to move based (even subconsciously) on political ideology, this adds to the polarization of American politics. Congress is as politically polarized as it has ever been, and communities forming around political ideology exacerbate that problem. Members of Congress have to represent constituencies who have become more homogenous and extreme ideologically. These survey results shows how that can happen through people “voting with their feet.

A second dangerous tendency this survey could portend is even fewer swing states in upcoming presidential elections. There are already very few states that are genuinely competitive, and as people move according to their ideology it stands to reason that these few battleground states will dwindle even more. In 2012 only five states were decided by less than a five percent margin, further ideological sorting could make these competitive states even more rare. This means that in presidential election years even fewer Americans will have the chance to make their voice heard as candidates focus on those few competitive states.

Of course, a survey is only capable of capturing people’s responses, not their actual actions, so it is not clear that this political migration is occurring just from this evidence. Yet, it is worrying that people who were asked a seemingly nonpolitical question responded in a way that matched their ideology so significantly. Also troubling is the likelihood that this preference was subconscious rather than people making purposeful political choices. This subtle permeation of political preference demonstrates the way political migration can occur without people making a conscience effort. Politically engaged individuals may be sorting themselves with no idea they are doing it and no thought towards the ramifications.

It’s important to remember that one survey that shows a correlation between conservatives picking red states and liberals picking blue does not necessarily mean the country is coming apart at its ideological seams. Also, surveys are imperfect tools for many reasons, including the fact that the type of people who answer surveys might be more politically motivated than the average American. Still, these results should give us pause and maybe make one consider whether there is enough healthy political discourse among people who disagree ideologically. This survey reveals how political preference can play out through life decisions as large as where to live, and also how that can be dangerous for the entire political system.