The Realignment of America

Michael Barone, OpinionJournal.com, May 8, 2007

In 1950, when I was in kindergarten in Detroit, the city had a population of (rounded off) 1,850,000. Today the latest census estimate for Detroit is 886,000, less than half as many. In 1950, the population of the U.S. was 150 million. Today the latest census estimate for the nation is 301 million, more than twice as many. People in America move around. But not just randomly.

It has become a commonplace to say that population has been flowing from the Snow Belt to the Sun Belt, from an industrially ailing East and Midwest to an economically vibrant West and South. But the actual picture of recent growth, as measured by the 2000 Census and the census estimates for 2006, is more complicated. Recently I looked at the census estimates for 50 metropolitan areas with more than one million people in 2006, where 54% of Americans live. (I cheated a bit on definitions, adding Durham to Raleigh and combining San Francisco and San Jose.) What I found is that you can separate them into four different categories, with different degrees and different sources of population growth or decline. And I found some interesting surprises.

Start with the Coastal Megalopolises: New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, Chicago (on the coast of Lake Michigan), Miami, Washington and Boston. Here is a pattern you don’t find in other big cities: Americans moving out and immigrants moving in, in very large numbers, with low overall population growth. Los Angeles, defined by the Census Bureau as Los Angeles and Orange Counties, had a domestic outflow of 6% of 2000 population in six years—balanced by an immigrant inflow of 6%. The numbers are the same for these eight metro areas as a whole.

There are some variations. New York had a domestic outflow of 8% and an immigrant inflow of 6%; San Francisco a whopping domestic outflow of 10% (the bursting of the tech bubble hurt) and an immigrant inflow of 7%. Miami and Washington had domestic outflows of only 2%, overshadowed by immigrant inflows of 8% and 5%, respectively.

This is something few would have predicted 20 years ago. Americans are now moving out of, not into, coastal California and South Florida, and in very large numbers they’re moving out of our largest metro areas. They’re fleeing hip Boston and San Francisco, and after eight decades of moving to Washington they’re moving out. The domestic outflow from these metro areas is 3.9 million people, 650,000 a year. High housing costs, high taxes, a distaste in some cases for the burgeoning immigrant populations—these are driving many Americans elsewhere.

The result is that these Coastal Megalopolises are increasingly a two-tiered society, with large affluent populations happily contemplating (at least until recently) their rapidly rising housing values, and a large, mostly immigrant working class working at low wages and struggling to move up the economic ladder. The economic divide in New York and Los Angeles is starting to look like the economic divide in Mexico City and São Paulo.

Democratic politicians like to decry what they describe as a widening economic gap in the nation. But the part of the nation where it is widening most visibly is their home turf, the place where they win their biggest margins (these metro areas voted 61% for John Kerry) and where, in exquisitely decorated Park Avenue apartments and Beverly Hills mansions with immigrant servants passing the hors d’oeuvres, they raise most of their money.

The bad news for them is that the Coastal Megalopolises grew only 4% in 2000-06, while the nation grew 6%. Coastal Megalopolitan states—New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Illinois—are projected to lose five House seats in the 2010 Census, while California, which has gained seats in every census since it was admitted to the Union in 1850, is projected to pick up none.

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Twenty years ago political analysts grasped the implications of the vast movement from Rust Belt to Sun Belt, a tilting of the table on balance toward Republicans; but with California leaning heavily to Democrats, that paradigm seems obsolete. What’s now in store is a shifting of political weight from a small Rust Belt which leans Democratic and from the much larger Coastal Megalopolises, where both secular top earners and immigrant low earners vote heavily Democratic, toward the Interior Megalopolises, where most voters are private-sector religious Republicans but where significant immigrant populations lean to the Democrats. House seats and electoral votes will shift from New York, New Jersey and Illinois to Texas, Florida, Georgia, Arizona and Nevada; within California, House seats will shift from the Democratic coast to the Republican Inland Empire and Central Valley.

Demography is destiny. When I was in kindergarten in 1950, Detroit was the nation’s fifth largest metro area, with 3,170,000 people. Now it ranks 11th and is soon to be overtaken by Phoenix, which had 331,000 people in 1950. In the close 1960 election, in which electoral votes were based on the 1950 Census, Michigan cast 20 votes for John Kennedy and Arizona cast four votes for Richard Nixon; New York cast 45 votes for Kennedy and Florida cast 10 votes for Nixon. In 2012, Michigan will likely have 16 electoral votes and Arizona 12; New York will have 29 votes and Florida 29. That’s the kind of political change demographics makes over the years.

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