One of the most important differences between the U.S. and Europe is that Americans move around. A lot. Even leaving aside outlier states like Florida, where 70 percent of the residents were born out of state – many of them retirees from the chillier north – the mobility of Americans is staggering.
In Virginia, for example, 49 percent of the population was born in another state. True, that percentage is boosted by the continuous expansion of government in next-door Washington DC, but it is still remarkable that Virginia, central to the Confederacy in the Civil War and the locus of “massive resistance” to desegregation in the 1950s, is today home to millions of Americans born outside the state. Even in Louisiana, misgoverned for decades and recently afflicted by Hurricane Katrina and the Gulf oil spill, one in five residents was born elsewhere in America. Across the U.S. as a whole, 11.6 percent of the population changed addresses between 2010 and 2011, and only 59 percent of Americans live in the state of their birth.
The contrast with Europe is striking. A 2009 Eurostat survey found that only Luxembourg (with the highest mobility) has a larger share of Europeans born elsewhere than Louisiana (with the lowest mobility) does of Americans born in another state. Across the EU-27 as a whole, the average share of national population born elsewhere is 2.4 percent, 17 times smaller than the American share of 41 percent. Europeans, and regrettably some Americans, are inclined to scoff at the idea of American exceptionalism, but the facts on the ground suggest that there is indeed something about America that does not conform to the European pattern.
The patterns of mobility in the U.S. and Europe undoubtedly have economic causes and effects. The Euro works less well than the dollar, for example, partly because Americans move around so readily, and the American labor market is more flexible and adaptable than the European ones as a result. On the other hand, the fact that American mobility has slowly declined over the last twenty five years – the 2010 rate was the lowest recorded, and about half the rate of 1985 – implies that America is becoming less flexible and less economically vital.
But mobility also has political causes and effects. One of the most striking will be on display in America in 2012. After each census, conducted as required by the Constitution every decade, states gain or lose both representation in the House of Representatives and electoral votes, which ultimately decide the outcome of the presidential election. In 2012, eight states will gain House seats and electoral votes, and 10 will lose.
Of the winners, five (Arizona, Georgia, South Carolina, Texas, and Utah) are solidly Republican, two (Nevada and Florida) are toss-ups, and one is solidly Democratic (the state of Washington). Of the losers, six have until recently been firmly Democratic (Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania), two are Republican (Louisiana and Missouri), and two are toss-ups (Iowa and Ohio).
The pattern, broadly speaking, is no surprise – the population continues to shift from New England and the manufacturing states around the Great Lakes to the south and the west. Still, the speed of the northeast’s collapse is remarkable: in 1960, when Kennedy beat Nixon, New York was the single biggest electoral prize, with 45 electoral votes. In 2012, New York will be down to 29 votes, and will sit uneasily in the second tier – smaller than California or Texas, about as important as rising Florida, but having more in common with similarly-sized but declining Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Ohio.
The political effects of this shift are equally stark: in 2012, the Republicans will gain a net total of six electoral votes, if the states vote as they did in 2008. Of course it is unlikely that the state votes will remain unchanged, but the fact remains that President Obama will have to run harder in 2012 just to stay in place. The long-run trends of American geographical mobility are telling, slowly, against him.
Dr. Ted R. Bromund is the Margaret Thatcher Senior Research Fellow in the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom in the Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC. He joined Heritage in 2008 after a decade as the Associate Director of International Security Studies at Yale University, a research and teaching center dedicated to diplomatic, military and strategic history, and grand strategy.