The Politics of the Nation’s Fastest-Growing Counties – Sabato’s Crystal Ball


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— The Editors

KEY POINTS FROM THIS ARTICLE

— The U.S. Census Bureau recently reported changes in population from 2020 to 2021.

— While the headline findings mainly dealt with population declines, a number of places (particularly in the Sun Belt) are still experiencing substantial growth.

— A little more than 5 dozen counties with at least 100,000 residents grew by 3% or more from April 2020 to July 2021. These counties are spread across 20 states.

— Almost all of these counties vote Republican for president, although GOP presidential performance has eroded in many of them.

— Nearly half of these counties are in Florida and Texas, and the differing presidential trends in these fast-growing counties help illustrate the changing political trajectory of each state.

Political trends in fast-growing counties

Last week, the United States Census Bureau released its latest population estimates, tracking changes from 2020 to 2021. The headline finding, as summed up by the New York Times, was that “2021 was the slowest year of population growth in U.S. history.” The pandemic is a major reason why; so too are longer-term factors, such as declining birth rates.

A major highlight of the report was the population declines in several counties covering the nation’s largest cities. The top 10 counties in numeric population decline included 4 of New York City’s 5 boroughs (all of them except what is by far the smallest borough, Staten Island); Chicago’s Cook County; Los Angeles County; several counties in Northern California’s Bay Area; and Miami-Dade in Florida. Pandemic-related migration — meaning people moving out of these expensive counties to cheaper places — likely explains at least some of this decline.

Map 1, provided by the Census Bureau, shows the 2020-2021 population trends by county.

Map 1: Population changes, 2020-2021

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

As Map 1 illustrates, there are still lots of places that are growing, particularly in the Sun Belt and out west. The 10 counties that added the most people included a number of mainly exurban counties in Florida, California, Utah, and Texas as well as the biggest overall gainer, Phoenix’s Maricopa County.

In terms of biggest percentage gains, we identified about 5 dozen counties from across the country that 1. Have at least 100,000 residents and 2. Grew by at least 3% or more from the April 2020 census to the July 1, 2021 census estimates that the Census Bureau reported last week.

Table 1 shows the counties that satisfied these 2 criteria. They are divided by state, and listed within states in order of their percentage growth in population from biggest to smallest. We also included how these states voted for president in both the 2012 and 2020 presidential elections. The voting habits in many places changed from the 2012 to the 2016 election and then endured, to a large extent, in the 2020 election, so that’s why we picked 2012 and 2020 for this table.

Table 1: Fastest-growing counties with at least 100,000+ residents


Note: Alaska is excluded because it does not have counties/county equivalents.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau; Dave Leip’s Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections

Many but not all of these counties could be described as exurban. We know that a lot of exurban places are historically very Republican, which is clear from the table: 61 of these 63 counties voted for Mitt Romney in 2012. Collectively, the group was still strongly Republican in 2020, as Donald Trump still carried 56 of the 63. Close to 2/3rds of the counties (40 of 63) saw their Republican presidential margin decline from 2012 to 2020. However, that still means that more than a third of these fast-growing places (23 of 63) saw Trump run ahead of Romney in 2020.

Let’s go state by state and explain where these various counties are.

Alabama: Limestone is part of the Huntsville area, a growing region in the northern part of the state with an abundance of high-tech jobs thanks to the presence of the federal government’s Redstone Arsenal; Baldwin is along the Gulf Coast in the Mobile area.

Arizona: Pinal contains some creeping exurbs of both Phoenix and Tucson.

Arkansas: Benton is in the state’s northwest corner and is home to Walmart’s headquarters.

Colorado: Located on the northern border with Wyoming but also extending down to the orbit of Denver, Weld made news recently for attempting to secede from Democratic-trending Colorado and join deep red Wyoming. Douglas is also in Denver’s orbit (a bit closer in) and is one of the most Democratic-trending areas among these counties on this list.

Delaware: Sussex is the southernmost of the First State’s 3 counties, and it contains both agricultural and beach areas. The First Family’s beach home near Rehoboth Beach is in Sussex.

Florida: The fast-growing Sunshine State has 14 of the 63 counties on this list. St. Johns and Flagler run along the Atlantic Coast south of Jacksonville. Sumter, in Central Florida, contains The Villages, the sprawling retirement enclave (Sumter has the highest percentage of residents 65 and older of any county in the country). Pasco, Polk, Hernando, Charlotte, Lee, Sarasota, and Manatee are all on or are closer to the Gulf Coast side of Florida and many have markedly high percentages of residents 65 and over. Lake and Osceola are in the Orlando area; Santa Rosa is in the panhandle in the Pensacola area; and St. Lucie is on the Atlantic Coast, a bit up from Palm Beach.

Georgia: Forsyth, Paulding, and Cherokee are all exurbs in Atlanta’s orbit.

Idaho: Ada contains Boise, Idaho’s biggest city. Canyon is just west of Ada. Kootenai, in the northern Idaho panhandle, contains Coeur d’Alene and is relatively close to Spokane on the other side of the state border with Washington. Bonneville is in eastern Idaho. These 4 are not only Idaho’s fastest-growing counties; they also are the fast-growing state’s 4 most populous counties, period.

Iowa: Dallas contains some western Des Moines suburbs.

Maryland: Frederick contains a city of the same name and could be considered something of an exurb of both Baltimore and Washington, D.C.

Montana: Flathead in northwest Montana and Gallatin, which contains the city of Bozeman, in southwest Montana.

North Carolina: Brunswick is a retiree-heavy county in southern North Carolina; Johnston is in Raleigh’s orbit, while Moore is between Raleigh and Charlotte.

Ohio: Delaware contains some of Columbus’s northern suburbs/exurbs.

Oklahoma: Canadian covers some western Oklahoma City suburbs/exurbs.

Oregon: Central Oregon’s Deschutes has the city of Bend, a growing tech hub that is home to some Silicon Valley telecommuters.

South Carolina: The beach town of Myrtle Beach lies in Horry, on the North Carolina border along the Atlantic Coast. Lancaster contains some areas in the orbit of Charlotte, which is just across the North Carolina border, while Berkeley holds some of greater Charleston.

Tennessee: Williamson and Rutherford are both adjacent to Nashville’s Davidson County. Montgomery and Maury are also somewhat close to Nashville, but each is separated from Davidson by another county.

Texas: Like Florida, the Lone Star State is well-represented on this list: It also has 14 of these 63 counties. But unlike Florida’s fast-growing counties, many of which are not really suburbs or exurbs of large cities, these Texas counties better fit that definition. Half of these counties are adjacent to either Dallas or Tarrant (Ft. Worth) counties: Kaufman, Rockwall, Parker, Ellis, Collin, Johnson, and Denton. An 8th, Hunt, is adjacent to some of these other DFW satellites to the Metroplex’s east. Hays, Williamson, and Bastrop border Austin’s Travis County. Comal is between Austin and San Antonio, and Montgomery and Fort Bend border Houston’s Harris County.

Utah: Utah County borders Salt Lake County and contains Provo, home to Brigham Young University. The state’s other 2 counties on this list are further from Salt Lake City: Cache on the state’s northern border and Washington in its southwest corner.

West Virginia: Berkeley in the eastern panhandle, which is in some ways becoming a distant exurb of Washington, D.C.

As these brief descriptions hopefully make clear, this is a more complicated list than just “exurbs.” The exurban moniker does a good job of describing these places in some states, specifically Texas, but not Florida. Interspersed in this list are a lot of retiree-heavy communities, many of which are also coastal (that describes many of the Florida locales). A handful of these counties contain booming but still not very large cities, like Bentonville, AR and Bend, OR.

Politically-speaking, there are some notable observations:

Nearly all of the Texas counties listed saw their Republican performance erode from 2012 to 2020. To the extent that Texas is becoming competitive and/or will become competitive in the future, Democrats will need these trends to continue, particularly as they potentially lose ground in traditionally Democratic South Texas.

— Meanwhile, Trump’s margins were better than Romney’s in nearly all of the Florida counties included here: The only exceptions were Santa Rosa in the panhandle and St. Johns, an exurban county of Jacksonville (and he handily carried both anyway). The army of retirees moving to Florida paired with Democratic weaknesses among Latino voters in places like Osceola — the only county on this list carried by both Barack Obama in 2012 and Biden in 2020, albeit by a reduced margin for the latter — has helped push the state rightward relative to the nation.

— In 2012, Texas voted about 17 points more Republican than Florida. By 2020, the gap between the 2 states was just a bit over 2 points. The differing trends in the 2 states’ respective fast-growing, substantially populated counties are a big reason for the tightening of that gap in recent years, and it seems possible that Texas could eventually become more competitive than Florida (the last time Florida voted more Republican for president than Texas was 1988).

Iowa and Ohio are 2 Midwestern states that have zoomed rightward in recent years. That’s because pro-Democratic shifts in their 2 big suburban counties listed here, Dallas in Iowa and Delaware in Ohio, have not been nearly enough to counteract huge Republican shifts in many other counties in their states, many of which are losing population (as Map 1 shows) but still collectively have more than enough people to counteract any pro-Democratic shifts elsewhere. And, as it is, Trump carried both Dallas and Delaware in 2020 anyway.

Part of Georgia’s growing competitiveness is that Republican performance has weakened so much in the Atlanta suburbs and exurbs. Just look at what happened in booming Atlanta satellites Cherokee, Forsyth, and Paulding, where Trump’s still-large margins were way smaller than Romney’s.

— Meanwhile, one of the major reasons why North Carolina has remained persistently right of center is that it has substantial, growing counties that are deeply Republican and have remained so: Notice that the 3 Tar Heel State counties listed here did not change much from 2012 to 2020.

The political developments in the nation’s fastest-growing, substantially populous counties do not tell the whole story of their respective state’s politics; indeed, in some places, like the growing Iowa and Ohio counties, their trends are completely opposite of what we see statewide. But the trends in these growing places do help illuminate the kinds of places that have been growing lately, what that growth might be doing (or not doing) to these counties’ politics, and how the changes in these counties have contributed to broader state-level trends.





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