The Dirt Gap: The
Fundamental Cause of Red vs. Blue States
by Steve Sailer
The American Conservative, February 14, 2005
The eventual fates of the Republican and Democratic Parties rest upon whether the United States will become more like California or Texas, our two most populous states.
Now that California is a bastion of liberalism, having given the Democratic Presidential candidates victory margins of 10 to 13 points in each of the last four elections, it's easy to forget that Republican hopefuls carried the state nine times out of ten from 1952 up through 1988. Indeed California's GOP paladins, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, were on the national ticket seven times in this stretch, winning all but once.
In contrast, Texas, while not utterly loyal to the old Democratic Solid South (Dwight Eisenhower won the state in 1952 and 1956), voted Democratic in four out of five elections as recently as 1960 through 1976. Yet, it has gone Republican the last seven times, with the Bushes of Texas on the GOP slate on six occasions, losing only once.
Texas and California epitomize America's red-blue divisions, which, since the election, have elicited more name-calling and chest-beating than hard thinking about why such apparently stable regional differences have emerged in this decade.
In reality, the Electoral College divide grows out of discordances over the fundamentals of social life: marriage and children. In 2004, Bush carried the 19 states with the highest expected lifetime fertility among non-Hispanic white women (with Texas at 1.93 babies to California's 1.65). Even more strikingly, he won the 25 states where white women are married the most number of years on average between 18 and 44 (15.2 years in Texas to 12.5 years in California),
Why the correlations? Consider how differently one well-known issue can seem depending on your family structure: Should the government let the Boy Scouts ban gay men from becoming scoutmasters? To voters who are single, or married but childless, or have only daughters, this often appears as a purely abstract question of justice: of course, everybody should be guaranteed equal opportunity to be a scoutmaster. Yet, to citizens with sons, a ban may seem like a common sense precaution against temptation: of course, homosexuals shouldn't be allowed to lead their boys into the woods overnight.
Both the marriage and fertility factors are likely tied to another statistic that correlates remarkably well with the 2004 voting: Bush won the 26 states with the least inflation in housing prices between 1980 and 2004. While the arrow of causality no doubt points in multiple directions, it's plausible that the price of a house with a yard can sometimes make the difference between whether or not young adults start down the road to marriage, children, and voting Republican.
In turn, the sizable gap between home prices in expensive blue and affordable red America appears rooted in their dissimilar landscapes, as vividly illustrated by coastal California and expansive Texas.
Understanding why California and Texas have become so politically polarized is crucial for making sense of intra-Republican disputes as well. For example, the insouciant obsession of the Texans George W. Bush and Karl Rove with opening the borders to an unlimited number of guest workers strikes many of the surviving California Republicans as politically suicidal. Not only are the immigrants and their children much less likely to vote Republican than are natives (according to the corrected Texas exit poll, Bush's margin among Hispanics was 50 points worse than among whites; in California, he ran 35 points worse), but heavy immigration raises the cost of homes and makes public schools less attractive, which makes the Republicanizing processes of marriage and childrearing less feasible.
Yet, the lessons of recent political history look much different from the Bush Ranch in Crawford, Texas. Just like California, Texas was 32 percent Latino in the 2000 Census, but that hasn't hurt the Bush family fortunes.
Partly, that's due to the lower rate of immigration into Texas: in the last Census, only 14 percent of residents of the Lone Star State were foreign-born, compared to 26 percent of the Golden State. Many Texas Hispanics are from families that have lived in the Rio Grande Valley since the Alamo. Others, especially in San Antonio, are the scions of conservative middle-class Mexican families that fled the radical Mexican Revolution four score years ago. Finally, many of the more recent immigrants are from the relatively prosperous Monterey region in northeast Mexico, the homeland of Vicente Fox's business-oriented PAN. In contrast, California's Latinos tend to trace their roots back to the poorer central and southern Mexico, where the PRI machine and the leftist PRD are strongest.
Still, the most politically vital differences between Texas and California are in the impact of immigration on non-Hispanic white voters..
The red-blue distinction is often described in shorthand as rural-urban, but the 2000 Census revealed that 79 percent of all Americans live in urban areas (broadly defined), so there is relatively little variation by state. California is the most urbanized state at 94 percent, but Texas is also above average at 83 percent urban. Overall, the urban-blue correlation is spotty at best: for example, Utah, the reddest state, is 88 percent urban, while Vermont, the third bluest, is the least urban at only 38 percent.
There's a far better fit between Bush's share of the vote and lack of real estate inflation. In Texas, where Republicans have grown in strength over the decades, housing prices are up only 89 percent since 1980, the second lowest growth rate in the country (only Oklahoma has had less housing inflation). In California, however, home prices are up 315 percent since 1980. (First is John Kerry's Massachusetts at 516 percent.)
Home inflation in Texas over the last two dozen years is especially low because 1980 was near the peak of the oil boom, but, then, real estate prices were high in California in 1980 too.
This restrained land price growth for Texas reflects a bedrock geographic reality about the metropolises of Texas, and of red states as a whole. Red state cities simply have more land available for suburban and exurban expansion because most of them are inland and thus not hemmed in by water, unlike the typical blue state city, which is on an ocean or a Great Lake.
Let's look at the 50 most populous metropolitan areas in the country. Of the ones in blue states, 73 percent of their population lives in cities, such as New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, where physical growth is restricted by unbridgeable water, compared to only 19 percent of the population of the biggest red state metropolises, such as Dallas, Atlanta, and Phoenix.
The Law of Supply and Demand controls housing prices. The greater supply of available land for suburban expansion in red metropolises keeps house prices down.
Contrast the Dallas-Fort Worth conurbation, the largest in red America, to San Francisco, culturally the bluest spot on the entire map.
Exurban Dallas-Fort Worth can expand outward around 360 degrees of flat, adequately watered land, easily bulldozed into lots and streets. In sharp divergence, San Francisco sits on a peninsula, with the Pacific Ocean to the west, the San Francisco Bay to the east, and mountain ranges to the north and south. This makes for superb scenery, but also for vastly expensive homes within an hour's commute of downtown San Francisco.
(Amusingly, there's even a correlation between the quality of the views in a city and the local enthusiasm for environmentalist Democratic candidates. Scenic views create liberal views. On average, the denizens of hilly San Francisco can see farther from their backyards than the residents of flat Dallas, so they are more inclined toward not-in-my-back-yard opposition to unsightly developments.)
San Francisco therefore fills up with two kinds of people who don't need as much space per paycheck -- singles, most famously gays, and immigrants from countries where families don't expect American-style square footage. Neither is likely to vote Republican. The Chinese in San Francisco might have conservative social views, but, as journalist Arthur Hu has perceptively pointed out, they tend to take their voting cues from their native neighbors, who are more often than not quite liberal.
White heterosexual couples who meet in San Francisco know that if they want to marry and have several children, they are likely to have to leave this adult Disneyland of scenic beauty and superb restaurants and move inland, perhaps as far as the hot, smoggy, and dull Central Valley. The ones who do make this sacrifice to have children are more likely to become Republicans, but the ones who stay will likely vote Democratic.
Overall, I don't see much point in living in California unless you reside in the mellow coastal climate zone that runs from the beach to the first range of tall mountains. The Central Valley is dreary and California's deserts strangely unattractive compared to inland states without the hassles of California's budget disaster. This makes competition for the relatively small amount of level land along the ocean ferocious, which is one reason that Californians' reactions to the enormous influx of illegal aliens in recent decades has been more negative than Texans'.
If immigration into the Los Angeles basin means that, if you want a spouse and kids, you'll have to leave the wonderful Mediterranean-climate zone of L.A. and move over the 10,000' tall San Gabriel Mountains into the searing hot winds of the Palmdale exurb, well, you might feel bitter too.
In comparison to California, the immense eastern half of Texas is all about equally mediocre. Unlike the western half of Texas, it has enough water and the climate is survivable with air conditioning, but that's about all you can say for it (other than there is some pleasant hill country around Austin, which, not surprisingly, is the scenic blue dot in the middle of the broad red plains of Texas.)
If too many illegal aliens drive you from a suburb of Dallas or Houston to an exurb, well, no big loss. The terrain is all flat and hot.
As recently as 1990, non-Hispanic white women in California had higher fertility than in Texas, averaging 1.93 babies compared to Texas' 1.85. Over the next dozen years, though, California's white fertility rate dropped 14.4 percent to 1.65 babies. Not surprisingly, the continuing affordability of a house with a yard in Texas helped the fertility rate there grow 4.3 percent to 1.93 in 2002.
All this suggests the GOP should search out new pro-marriage and pro-babies strategies for growing more Republican voters. For example:
-- Deep-six Bush's Open Borders plan. Driving land prices up and wages down by flooding the country with foreigners would mean that more potential Republican voters couldn't afford to get married and start families.
-- Appeal to Hispanics as family values voters, not as an aggrieved ethnic bloc to be bought off with more immigration and more quotas.
-- Oppose the Democrats' NIMBY environmentalism with a Teddy Roosevelt-descended pro-family conservationism that makes it more attractive for Americans to get out and camp in our great outdoors. (Having a family can seem more affordable when people expect to vacation in tents as well as hotels.)
-- Figure out faster ways for young people to get educated so they can marry and start families sooner. Most jobs don't take endless academic dithering. My wife, for example, became a computer programmer after a seven month course.
-- Find out how to make the ultra-Republican Great Basin and Great Plains more habitable. They may need water piped in, at vast public expense, from the Canadian Rockies. Or how about a 120 mph speed limit so their residents can conveniently speed off to a sinful big blue city for a fun weekend now and then?
-- Finally, because Democrats win when Americans don't marry and don't have children, publicly label them as what they are: the party that thrives on loneliness.