The Sorting of America in the Obama Era

Benjamin Schultz, Ph.D. Geography

Historically, America has been divided along racial and income lines. In 2008, Bill Bishop’s “The Big Sort” forwarded the idea that America is also becoming increasingly segregated along political and cultural lines. Using a variety of datasets, he and his research assistant Robert Cushing demonstrated that liberals and conservatives are very likely to cluster together near like-minded people. The result is an even more divided country in which people of one political persuasion are less likely to encounter dissenting viewpoints in their immediate vicinity.

Since the publication of their study, there have been two presidential elections and millions of people who have moved to a new residence, leaving us plenty of ways to examine if Americans continue to cluster in areas with like-minded people. One way to conduct such an examination is to isolate politically partisan places that receive a high volume of movers, and then examine the political orientations of the movers’ previous counties. This allows us to see if people move from “Republican” areas to other Republican areas, and vice versa.

To accomplish this, I first identified “landslide” counties in which the margin of victory in the 2012 presidential election was greater than twenty points, excluding places with fewer than ten thousand votes cast. I then ordered landslide counties according to their net migration rates, which is the difference between in-migrants and out-migrants in a given time period (2000 to 2010 in this case), and selected the fastest-growing landslide counties on either side of the political divide.


The top five landslide Republican counties with the highest net migration rates are Cherokee, Forsyth and Jackson counties in the northern suburbs of Atlanta; Montgomery County, Texas, in Houston’s northern suburbs; and Washington County, Utah, which grew substantially throughout the 2000s. With respect to landslide Democrat counties, the counties with the highest net migration rates are Osceola, Broward and Miami-Dade counties in Florida; Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, which contains the city of Charlotte; and Hidalgo County, Texas, on the Mexican border.

After identifying these ten counties, I needed to get an idea of where people are moving from in order to know if they are coming from like-minded places. For that, I used geographic mobility data from the U.S. Census Bureau, which has detailed information on the number and geographic origins of movers to each county.

On average, 40 percent of the movers to the top five Republican counties came from counties that voted Democrat in 2012, while 60 percent came from counties that went Republican. One-third of the movers came from another landslide Republican county, while one-fifth came from a landslide Democrat county.


The trend is most pronounced in Washington County, Utah and Jackson County, Georgia, where 70 percent of the movers came from other Republican counties and nearly half came from landslide Republican counties. Montgomery County, Texas stands out as an anomaly, where only one-third of movers came from a Republican county. However, the majority of movers came from Harris County, of which Houston is the county seat, where Obama won by a mere 585 votes.

To some extent, these results are to be expected considering that most movers come from nearby counties in the same state and that Georgia, Texas and Utah are solidly Republican states. Indeed, nearly all the counties with the highest net migration rates are in traditionally Republican states. In that respect, trends in the landslide Democrat counties are perhaps more revealing.

The tendency to move to politically similar places is even more pronounced in the Democrat counties. More than two-thirds of the movers to the top five Democrat counties came from other Democrat counties, and more than one-third came from landslide Democrat counties. The latter point is all the more surprising considering that only nine percent of all the counties in the country were landslide Democrat counties.


Part of that trend is driven by the historical connection between Florida and northern snowbirds, many of who move from traditional Democratic strongholds in the Northeast and Midwest. While the majority of movers come from within Florida, movers from New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Illinois comprise a substantial share as well.

In recent years, North Carolina has also developed a strong connection with the more liberal Northeast and Midwest, which has political consequences. After Obama won this historically Republican state in 2008, he lost by only two percentage points in 2012. As recently as ten years ago, both of these outcomes seemed farfetched.

In the case of Mecklenburg County, there is a strong pull to Charlotte’s banking and financial industries from the Northeast, where the cost of living is much higher. While many of the movers come from within North Carolina, there are also substantial flows from New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts and the Washington, D.C. area, as well as from California and many Midwestern states.

Despite being one of the poorest counties in the country, Hidalgo County, Texas has been one of the fastest-growing places over the last few years. The biggest draws are to the county’s burgeoning textile and construction industries. Many of the movers come from nearby border counties, where the population is overwhelmingly Hispanic and traditionally votes Democrat. Others come from the deindustrializing Upper Midwest, many of whom are likely to be former factory workers seeking new employment opportunities.

In sum, the tendency to cluster in areas with like-minded people continues apace in the Obama era. While the data preclude neighborhood-level conclusions, we can observe the larger trends. For instance, migrants from the more liberal Northeast are willing to move to the more conservative Sunbelt, but they show a strong tendency to move to places with similar political leanings. While movers from Democratic strongholds do move to Republican-dominated places like suburban Atlanta, they are much more likely to go to other Democratic strongholds, especially in southern Florida. Despite hopes that the Obama presidency would help bridge the divide between “Red” America and “Blue” America, the geographic divisions to which we have become accustomed continue to be part of our lives.

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About Benjamin Schultz

Benjamin Schultz, Ph.D. Geography

Benjamin is currently an Assistant Professor of American Studies at International Balkan University in Skopje, Macedonia. He received a Ph.D. in Geography from the University of Tennessee, where he also taught courses on Urban Geography, Appalachia and World Geography. His main academic interests are urban and economic geography in Europe and North America.

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5 thoughts on “The Sorting of America in the Obama Era”

  1. Lets face it people move where the the jobs are and it has nothing to do along race lines . Now I just moved to be next to my son and grandkids . Obama care as I read and listen is making it impossible to have a business or to keep employees , we know its the price and now we have Doctors quitting . Another part of this is our politicians keep spending like we have money and making laws to stop companies from mining . The way I see it is government is the problem .

    1. “Obama care as I read and listen is making it impossible to have a business or to keep employees , we know its the price and now we have Doctors quitting ”

      As you “read” and “listened”? From who? Who told you that? What are your sources? Fox? Rush Limbaugh? Sean Hannity? Mark Levin? The Heritage Foundation? The RNC? Sounds like you’re promulgating tiresome right-wing Republican propaganda.

      You know all one has to do is google search for the unemployment rate to see if this is true or not..
      Take a look

      The unemployment rate has been stead at 5.0 and that last time it was that low was Jan of 2008.

      For those that want to make the predictable response to that, that doesn’t include people who have given up looking(well if you’re Republican, isn’t that not taking responsibility for your job situation? ) well considering that is called the U6 number but if you use that unemployment rates not only be higher during the Obama administration but for EVERY ADMINISTRATION. Its not only inconsistent but very partisan to essentially say that we only look at the unemployment rate using one method that will increase the unemployment rate for Obama but not use the same method for Republican administrations.

      Also the non-partisan factchecking site rated this statement from Obama
      “Business has created jobs every month since Obamacare became law, Obama said in State of the Union”

      ^^ rated as true

      So you’re wrong surprise surprise.

      The article above says
      “Of the 70 months since, Obama is correct that every single one has seen positive job growth. That’s a record for uninterrupted job growth, according to our friends at the Washington Post Fact Checker.”

      Washington Post fact checker also rated the following statement from Obama as true “Our businesses are in the longest uninterrupted stretch of job creation in our history.”


      Furthermore we have the politifact rating from Republican John Boehner and a FOX “news” talking head that obamacare will result in “destroying” 2.3 jobs but both of those claims were rated as mostly false

      and as far as this unsubstantiated claim “, we know its the price and now we have Doctors quitting . An”

      I see no proof of this. We do have this from politifact

      “83% of doctors have considered leaving the profession because of #Obamacare.”

      ^^ rated as false

      So this what its like in the Obama Era. Someone comes along to reply to an article to make a bunch unsubstantiated claims about Obamacare that is blatantly false and then hopefully there is someone like me who sees and wants to put the effort into fact checking it.

  2. Obama’s rhetoric may have talked about bringing people together, but he’s never been that sort of person his whole life — in Chicago or in the Senate either. So the result is interesting but not surprising.

    Can you extend the study to see whether America is expected to be more or less stratified than it was before Obama took office? Of course this would have a big error margin because people could switch their preferences over 8 years and the data would not contain any indication of it, but one could assume constant preference by people, or some small regression to the mean.

  3. “Obama’s rhetoric may have talked about bringing people together, but he’s never been that sort of person his whole life — in Chicago”

    What is this evidence that he didn’t bring people together in Chicago? Beyond that if someone had planned to bring people together but there was a sizable segment of people who were hell bent of not coming together whose fault is that? Did you know about the following for example?

    This did happen. Newt Gingrich admitted. Keep in mind that Obama’s inauguration day was during the most intense part of the worst recession since the depression. That is time the GOP chose to play that kind of super hardball politics.

  4. Is it possible for everyone to access the geographic mobility data from the U.S. Census Bureau, especially the data that includes different geographic orgins of the movers? And where exactly can one find this?

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