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Good luck recruiting Californians for Arkansas, Sarah Sanders

Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders (R) speaks at the unveiling of an education bill at the Arkansas Capitol in Little Rock this week. (Al Drago/Bloomberg)
4 min

Sarah Huckabee Sanders’s recent employment has centered on pitching unpopular things.

First, there was her work as President Donald Trump’s press secretary, a job she approached the way a bomb-squad technician approaches an explosive device. Trump fostered a contentious relationship with the press, and Sanders was more than game. Her efforts to ensure Trump was presented in the way he wanted kept him happy, but it didn’t win him more support from the public.

In November, Sanders (R) was elected governor of Arkansas. In this new role, she is tasked with selling the state — a task almost as tricky as her effort to improve Trump’s own popularity. But, then, you play the hand you’re dealt.

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This week, Sanders was tapped by Republican leaders to give the party’s response to President Biden’s State of the Union address. The speech was a now-familiar excoriation of the state of the nation, with Sanders blaming the administration for a variety of challenges including crime. This spurred a rejoinder from California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D), who pointed out that Arkansas has one of the nation’s highest murder rates.

So Sanders fired back.

It is true that lots of people have moved out of California. It is also true that very few of them are moving to Arkansas. That’s not only true of people leaving California: Very few people are moving to Arkansas from any state.

The American Community Survey conducted by the federal government shows what migration looked like in 2021. The top destination state for people leaving their own states was Florida, followed by Texas and … California. The state people were least likely to move to was Delaware.

This correlates to total population, as you might expect. Places with more people attract more people. That doesn’t change the bottom line, though: A lot more people are interested in moving to California than to Arkansas.

We can explore the specific moves between states, as well. Below is a grid showing the likelihood of a person moving from a state (listed from left to right) to another state (top to bottom). You can see a row of large circles next to California, Colorado and Florida, for example — these are popular states to move to from any other state.

Arkansas is less popular, though people from the Midwest are relatively more likely to move there. (The circles in the Arkansas row are larger when you get to Iowa and Michigan, for example.)

If we zoom in on that upper left corner, you can see the comparison between movement from Arkansas to California (a fairly large red circle) and from California to Arkansas (a fairly small red circle). In other words, California is a more common destination for departing Arkansans than Arkansas is a target for moving Californians.

It is the case, though, that a large chunk of those who moved to Arkansas came from California (about 7 percent) while only a small percent of those who moved to California came from Arkansas (about 0.4 percent). Again: population disparity. From 2018 to 2019, the most recent year for which we have hard numbers, about 5,000 people moved from California to Arkansas — around 0.01 percent of California’s 2019 population. About 3,100 people moved from Arkansas to California, about 0.1 percent of Arkansas’s population that year.

All of this is before Sanders took office as governor, of course. So might things turn around?

Well, probably not. In polling conducted by YouGov in 2021, Arkansas was rated as the 47th best state, compared with California’s 12th-place finish. California was hurt by partisanship; among Republicans, it was ranked 50th. Even among Republicans, though, Arkansas only finished 26th. Among Democrats, it was dead last.

This is probably in part because Arkansas fares poorly on a number of quality-of-life metrics. It’s relatively affordable, coming in 11th on an evaluation presented by the state of Missouri (which came in sixth). But there’s obviously a link between the low cost of housing and the lack of demand for houses.

In WalletHub’s assessment of the best states in which to live, Arkansas comes in 47th, 20 slots behind California. Arkansas is fourth in affordability on this measure, compared to California’s last-place finish. But California wins on economy (15th vs. 34th), education and health (24th vs. 45th), quality of life (second vs. 46th) and … safety, where California’s 27th-place finish is well above Arkansas’s 47th place.

Look, every state has appealing elements. My sister went to college in Arkansas; she seemed to like it fine.

But then she moved back to Texas.