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Many Americans Say They Want To Relocate For Political Reasons. Few Actually Do.

Crossing the northern border suddenly looked a lot more tempting on June 24. When the Supreme Court released its ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization at 10:10 that morning — invalidating its landmark 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade — Google searches for “how to move to Canada from U.S.” spiked 850 percent in the hour afterward, according to Simon Rogers’s Google Trends newsletter. And queries on “how to become a Canadian citizen” jumped 550 percent.

Amidst the chaos and emotion of the Dobbs decision, this trend marked the reemergence of a common American sentiment: the threat to pack up and head to Canada when political events don’t turn out one’s way. In 2016, Democrats famously vowed to leave if Donald Trump won the presidency, and the pattern goes back further, during George W. Bush’s time in office, for example. Meanwhile, conservatives eyed the nation to the north after Barack Obama was elected president. 

Indeed, nearly 2 in 5 American citizens (38 percent) say they’ve considered leaving the U.S. for good at least at some point in their lives, according to a YouGov survey conducted in January. That share rises to 45 percent among Americans under 45 and to 59 percent among self-identified liberals. 

While the fall of Roe may have spurred interest in Canada, it ultimately turned abortion into a state-by-state issue, meaning Americans don’t have to leave the country to live somewhere with better access to reproductive health care. Instead, media coverage has suggested that the issue could affect movement between states, with stories speculating how the decision might determine where young Americans settle down, large corporations establish their offices and college students attend school. But recent history has shown that politically driven mass migration in the U.S. is more a conversation topic than an actual trend.


 

Data suggests that most past pledges to move to Canada didn’t pan out. For example, after Trump’s election in 2016, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, which tracks immigration into the country, found that only 655 more Americans gained permanent residence in Canada in 2017 than in 2016 — that’s just 9,140 people versus 8,485. And while 2018 numbers ticked up slightly to 10,900, they generally plateaued in 2019.


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To be fair, moving can be expensive — on the order of thousands of dollars, even for a local relocation, according to industry experts — making this an unfeasible option for many Americans. Uprooting your everyday life to potentially gain access to a specific kind of health care isn’t an investment a lot of people can make. And those who can afford to do so are also more likely to be able to travel across state lines in a health care emergency, making the case to move in light of stricter abortion laws less urgent.

Even when Americans do move, they don’t go far. In fact, an overwhelming number don’t live that far from their hometown. That includes young people, one of the most likely demographic groups to say they want to move and perhaps among the most flexible in being able to lay down new roots. A Center for Economic Studies research paper released in July, for example, found that 80 percent of young Americans live within 100 miles of where they grew up, and 58 percent live within just 10 miles.1

But that data implies that local moving patterns, especially around increasingly progressive cities situated in more conservative states, may be worth a closer look. The level of political diversity within states has become easy to spot on electoral maps — clusters of blue in major metropolitan areas like Atlanta, Nashville and Austin, for example, amidst redder spreads throughout the states of Georgia, Tennessee and Texas. Comparing these cities with their states may reveal more than comparing, say, all of California to all of Texas.

“This idea of ‘red state versus blue state’ misses a great deal of heterogeneity within states, as well as clusters and spatial patterns that occur within states,” said Ryan Strickler, a political scientist at Colorado State University, Pueblo. “Instead, we’re seeing more of a micro level of political sorting.” 

And while there has been a lot of buzz about New Yorkers or San Franciscans flocking to smaller Southern cities, especially during the pandemic, that trend doesn’t represent the norm for most Americans, as a majority continue to stay tethered close to where they grew up. Even most college students stay in-state

Instead, experts say the more significant phenomenon is people moving within the same state where they can find others who are politically like-minded. These migrations aren’t about specific political outcomes like the Dobbs decision. Instead, they’re linked to social polarization. “There’s a lot of local reshuffling,” said Alexander Bendeck, a Ph.D. student in the Georgia Institute of Technology’s School of Interactive Computing. 

In one of his current projects, Bendeck explores U.S. relocation patterns in the 2010s, using population migration data from the IRS to track the number of migrants between counties nationwide. Bendeck recognized the shift in migration from the coasts to the South or Midwest but also emphasized the effects of moving within metropolitan areas. Many natives of major Southern cities have moved out to the suburbs or to smaller cities. And the locals of those suburbs or cities move to more rural areas or even smaller cities.

But there’s a huge caveat to any migration data: It is impossible to attribute all instances of relocation, even within the same state, to politics. In fact, politics has not been a major factor why most Americans have moved in recent history, Strickler said. Instead, migration is more financially driven, whether people are seeking out a lower cost of living, better job prospects or proximity to family. 

But that trend may be shifting. “People could be choosing places to move that are correlated with partisanship, even if it’s not explicitly all because of partisanship,” Strickler said. Assessing how abortion in particular affects geographic polarization will take years, and there will likely be compounding factors swaying Americans seeking a life somewhere more in line with their partisanship. Any effort to monitor this phenomenon, though, will need to venture beyond just red state versus blue state.

Footnotes

  1. Using de-identified administrative and survey data from the U.S. Census Bureau as well as tax data, researchers limited their analysis to children born in the U.S. from 1978 to 1992 and found that at age 26, 69 percent lived in the commuting zone where they grew up, 58 percent lived within 10 miles, 80 percent lived within 100 miles, and 90 percent lived within 500 miles.

Zoha Qamar is an ABC News fellow.

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