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Blue Voyagers

from the magazine

Blue Voyagers

Residents of Democratic states seek escape from the tax man. Spring 2016
Economy, finance, and budgets

What is it about blue states that makes people so eager to leave them? That’s a question worth pondering after seeing the results of Gallup’s latest State of the State poll, which, for the first time in eight years, found that more states lean Republican than Democratic. Only 14 states, the survey determined, are either solidly Democratic or trending that way, while in 20 states, the majority of residents are either solidly Republican or leaning right. Gallup deemed the rest toss-ups, with no clear advantage for either party.

The poll revealed other trends. Blue-state residents were far more likely to report that they wished to relocate. Seven of the eight states that residents are keenest to flee are solidly blue—led by Connecticut, where 46 percent of people want to follow the state’s leading employer, GE, to the exits. Also near the top of the list: New Jersey, Illinois, Rhode Island, Maryland, Delaware, and New York. The only state in the Top Eight not predominantly Democratic is Ohio, which Gallup considers “competitive” (neither Republican nor Democratic). Rounding out the Top Ten are Republican-leaning Indiana and Nevada.

The flip side of those results—that is, the list of states that people are least anxious to leave—is also suggestive. Of the 11 states leading in this category (two tied for tenth place), just three are Democratic, led by blue-leaning Oregon and Washington. Six are Republican, led by Montana and including Texas and North Dakota. The others are toss-up states.

What accounts for the sharp differences in resident satisfaction? Politicians in Democratic states like New York and Connecticut typically attribute out-migration to factors beyond their political control, often focusing, for instance, on cold weather. And migration patterns show that a warm-weather state, Florida, gets lots of newcomers from the Northeast. But Montana, South Dakota, and New Hampshire are cold-weather states, too, and their residents are staying put. In fact, only one state where climate might be considered a lure—Hawaii—figured on the list of states where residents are most likely to stay. Neither California’s idyllic weather nor the warm temperatures of Florida and Arizona proved attractive enough to stem the desire to leave.

Though demographers offer many reasons for why people move, Gallup focuses on just one: taxes. “Even after controlling for various demographic characteristics including age, gender, race and ethnicity, and education, there is still a strong relationship between total state tax burden and desire to leave one’s current state of residence,” noted Gallup. The polling organization divided the states into five broad categories—or quintiles—of taxation, ranking them from lowest to highest. Six of the ten states where residents were most eager to leave are among the country’s highest-taxed, including New York and New Jersey. A seventh, Illinois, ranks in the second-highest quintile. By contrast, eight states that residents were least interested in leaving were ranked in either the lowest or second-lowest tax quintile. The Gallup survey’s most pointed message for blue states might come from Oregon, one of only two Democratic-leaning jurisdictions that rank with America’s lowest-taxed states—and the Democratic state that residents are least interested in leaving.

The high taxes are symptomatic of a larger problem: a proclivity toward big government that expresses itself in excessive regulation and intrusion into the affairs of businesses and individuals. This narrowing of freedom—for entrepreneurs, families, and individuals—may also be reflected in the Gallup poll. According to George Mason University’s Mercatus Center, six of the ten states whose residents most want to move out also rank among the Top Ten “least free” states, led by the least free of them all: New York. By contrast, the two states where residents enjoy the most freedom—South Dakota and North Dakota—enjoy some of the best resident-satisfaction rates. New Hampshire, Idaho, Montana, and Texas also rank high on the freedom index and low on the out-migration list.

The Obama years have produced a political revolution at the local level, with Republicans gaining or solidifying political control in numerous states. (See “The State GOP Wave,” Summer 2015.) One result has been stark differences in blue- and red-state policies on spending, taxation, and regulation. The Gallup poll suggests that Americans are noting these differences—and voting with their feet.

Photo by XiXinXing/iStock

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