No, polarization isn’t causing us to change where we live

June 20, 2014

The Pew Research Center recently published a fascinating study about polarization that, among other things, suggested that partisan Republicans and Democrats not only have sharply divergent political views, they also prefer to live in different places and with like-minded people.

The reality may be something different.

When the Pew survey was published, Clayton Nall, an assistant professor of political science at Stanford University, drew our attention to a study that he and a graduate student colleague, Jonathan Mummolo, had conducted into this. What they concluded is that partisans may say they want to sort themselves out geographically, but they’re not doing it all that much.

Their research matched what the Pew survey had found, which is that the preference to live among “people like us” is real. Democrats are more likely than Republicans to say they want to live in cities, for example. Democrats are more likely to favor cities like New York or San Francisco; Republicans say they prefer places like Dallas or Phoenix.

Democrats also are more likely “to identify racial diversity as an important consideration” in where they live, Nall and Mummolo write. They found that 40 percent of Republicans but only 28 percent of Democrats said that “the share of the community that is white” was a significant factor in deciding where to move. Partisans also indicated less desire to move to a community “dominated by the opposite party while giving a bonus to communities dominated by their own party.”

But do those attitudes actually affect where people chose to live when they decide to move? Nall and Mummolo say no. Studying precinct data and zip codes, they say that Democrats and Republicans “are only modestly geographically sorted.”

The reasons, the authors conclude, is because other factors influence decisions about where to live, from good schools to safe neighborhoods to availability of housing. All those apparently trump political considerations. “Preferences are mitigated by reality,” the authors say.

“Partisans appear not to be separating as much as their attitudes would suggest,” they add. “Even as the strength of partisan identity…has grown over time, it appears not to be providing an impetus for additional residential sorting.”

Dan Balz is Chief Correspondent at The Washington Post. He has served as the paper’s National Editor, Political Editor, White House correspondent and Southwest correspondent.
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