The pandemic has changed where and how we work and live as a country – and with those changes, where and how we vote.
Pandemic-induced mobility patterns challenge our traditional understanding of urban and rural electoral blocs – and our perception of who lives in these areas. Some areas have grown and others have declined as some have fled high-density, high-priced urban environments for more affordable, low-density communities.
For example, the population of Phoenix, Arizona increased by 13,224 in 2020-2020. Meanwhile, North Las Vegas, Nevada gained 9,917 new residents. Two of the top five cities that gained the largest populations during the pandemic— North Las Vegas and Phoenix — are located in states that still count votes.
Three days after the election with 80% of the vote in Arizona, the Democratic candidate Kelly is ahead of the Republican candidate Masters who has 46.1% by 51.7%. Meanwhile, in the Nevada Senate race three days after the election with 88% of the vote, it’s neck and neck with Republican candidate Laxalt with 49% of the vote against Democrat Cortez Masto with 48% of the vote. . With such narrow margins, the focus is now on where to place outstanding ballots.
During the COVID pandemic, a significant number of voters began to move within the country. Remote work gave them the ability to move to new, more affordable communities as long as they had a good internet connection. The US censusin conjunction with the Annual Business Survey (ABS), found that between 2019 and 2020, the percentage of businesses with employees working from home increased from 28.1 to 41.9 percent.
Like attracts like
Understanding geographic mobility patterns is key to understanding voting patterns since people and places are interdependent. Tobler’s first law of geography states, “everything is related to everything else, but near things are more related than far things”. Translated into a voting context, we would expect two voters living close to each other to be more likely to have similar voting habits than those living farther away. In short, “like attracts like”.
People have moved in response to both long-term socio-economic forces and the unique circumstances of the pandemic. What is not yet clear is whether the political norms of the communities these people moved to were motivating factors in selecting them or whether other factors (environment, cost, etc.) guided their choices and led them to migrate to communities with different political and electoral perspectives. grounds than the places they left.
Walter Frey, Principal Investigator at Brookings Subwaycommented on New Great Migration South, including a shift to “younger, college-educated black Americans from northern and western places of origin. They have contributed to the growth of the New South, especially in Texas, Georgia and North Carolina…” This demographic shift contributes to voting pattern changes in Georgia and North Carolina.
The influx of new voters in metropolitan, suburban and rural areas can significantly influence election results. Geographic density and the distribution of voters and constituencies represent a pattern that has limited Democrats in the past, even when they have won the popular vote.
In 2019, writer Derek Thompson posed the question, “What would happen to America’s political image if more Democrats left their overly liberal enclaves to redistribute themselves more evenly across the vast expanse of red America?”
The pandemic and remote work may have prompted this kind of movement.
Stanford political scientist Jonathan Rodden notes that “Democrats tend to be clustered in politically homogeneous cities, while Republicans are spread out in more heterogeneous suburbs and rural areas.”
Towards new geographies
During the pandemic, many people moved to more affordable places as their incomes were reduced or, failing that, opted to explore environmentally diverse rural and suburban areas.
In July 2021, the US census reported that only six of the 15 fastest growing cities with a population of 50,000 or more were also among the fastest growing in 2019 before the pandemic hit. These were often smaller towns: Georgetown, Texas; Leander, Texas; Buckeye, AZ; New Braunfels, TX; Fort Meyers, Florida; and Meridian, Idaho.
Cities with the highest growth rates during the pandemic were primarily in the West and South, including (in order of gain) San Antonio, Texas; Phoenix, Arizona; Fort Worth, TX; Port Lucie Florida; North of Las Vegas, Nevada; Cape Coral Florida; and Buckeye, Arizona.
The general trend was that many of the largest or densest cities in the country lost residents. Between 2020 and 2021, New York saw the largest decline (305,465 people), followed by San Francisco (54,813), Chicago (45,175) and Los Angeles (40,537). When we compare these numbers to pre-pandemic declines, the difference is clear: in 2018-19, New York lost 53,264 people, Baltimore lost 8,953, Chicago lost 7,447, and San Jose lost 6,225. people’s preferences about where they wanted to live and work.
People and place matter
As ancient city dwellers settled in rural or suburban areas, they imported their urban views into new geographies. As Rodden notes, “Republicans…tend to live in more heterogeneous areas, leading to the creation of districts where Republicans win districts by narrower margins.”
Democrats moving to these less dense areas can have a significant impact on elections. The shift from suburban to rural areas would imply an influx of potentially different voting patterns. Meanwhile, the density of major cities makes their election results more resilient to these population shifts, as a moderate influx of new voters is unlikely to influence broader trends. In some smaller communities, a moderate influx may be enough to alter election results.
Geographically shifting populations force a re-examination of traditional assumptions about ‘red’ and ‘blue’ zones. When voters move to new communities, are they influenced more by their environment or are they influencing new geographic areas?
It seems the simple answer is maybe people choose to move because it’s affordable and they like the environment, not because it’s red or blue.
Sheila Lakshmi Steinberg, Ph.D., is a professor of geographic information system, social and environmental sciences at the University of Massachusetts Global.
The opinions expressed in Fortune.com comments are solely the opinions of their authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of Fortune.