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Americans are fleeing to places where political views match their own

The Wootens recently moved from red Indiana to blue Austin, TX. Left to right: Nate Wooten, Tiffany, Mya, and Cole.
John Burnett/NPR
John Burnett/NPR
The Wootens recently moved from red Indiana to blue Austin, TX. Left to right: Nate Wooten, Tiffany, Mya, and Cole.

There's a private Facebook group with nearly 8,000 members called Conservatives Moving to Texas. Three of them are sitting at a dinner table — munching on barbecue weenies and brownies — in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex. None are vaxxed.

And they love it here.

"As soon as I drove into Texas, literally, as soon as I could get into the state and stop at my first truck stop for gas it was, like, 'This is wonderful,' " says Lynn Seeden, a 59-year-old portrait photographer from Orange County, Calif.

"People weren't wearing masks — nobody cared. It's kind of like heaven on earth."

She says when the state of California forced her to close her photography studio over COVID-19 restrictions, she and her husband, a retired newspaper editor, knew it was time to "escape."

America is growing more geographically polarized — red ZIP codes are getting redder and blue ZIP codes are becoming bluer. People appear to be sorting.

"We felt very out of place and very uncomfortable at times," says Tiffany Wooten, a 43-year-old stay-at-home mom whose family recently relocated from conservative Indiana to liberal Austin. "We were looking at blue cities because we wanted to be with our own people."

The trend seems to be quickening as conservatives flee places with strict COVID-19 rules.

Karen Bates, a 52-year-old mortgage executive, moved to the Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area with her family last year from Puerto Rico. She says the island's government was going to force her teenaged daughter, who has Type 1 diabetes, to get vaccinated against the coronavirus. She now attends a Christian school.

"She's not had to wear a mask," Bates says. "She doesn't have to get vaccinated. She's thriving on the tennis team, making straight A's. I love the freedom of [vaccine] choice in Texas."

In the modern era, Texas has fashioned itself into a sort-of breakaway red-meat republic — banning books and restricting abortion, blocking mask mandates, and building its own border fence. It retains this national image in spite of the fact that its five largest counties went for President Biden.

But more and more Trump followers are flocking to red Texas in search of the promised land.

"People are asking, 'Tell me about the most conservative towns. Where should I be moving?' " says Seeden, of the people who post comments on the Conservatives Moving to Texas page.

Americans have been 'sorting' politically for years

Conservative Southern Californians who moved to North Texas, left to right: Karen Bates, Bridget Melson, Lynn Seeden, Curt Seeden, and Shirley Husar
/ John Burnett/NPR
John Burnett/NPR
Conservatives from Southern California and elsewhere — (from left) Karen Bates, Bridget Melson, Lynn Seeden, Curt Seeden and Shirley Husar — found a more agreeable political environment when they moved to North Texas.

The national real estate brokerage, Redfin, predicted that in 2022, "people will vote with their feet, moving to places that align with their politics."

It's actually been happening for some time.

Residents have been fleeing states like California with high taxes, expensive real estate and school mask mandates and heading to conservative strongholds like Idaho, Tennessee and Texas.

More than one of every 10 people moving to Texas during the pandemic was from California, according to the Texas Real Estate Research Center at Texas A&M University. Most came from Southern California. Florida was the second biggest contributor of new Texans.

Family therapist and conservative activist Dr. Bridget Melson, 52, is a new Texan.

Six years ago, when Melson and her family decided to leave Riverside County, Calif., for the Lone Star State, they were methodical.

"We want our medical freedoms. We want our constitutional rights. We are definitely pro-life," says Melson, who created the Facebook group. "We looked where the red counties were. We knew Austin was going to be a lost cause, and so we knew we didn't want to be there. And we really wanted to have decent weather and the least amount of bugs, so we figured the Metroplex."

Melson asked some friends to join her for interviews with NPR in her fashionable home in a posh rural subdivision with its own equestrian center. She sits on the Bartonville Town Council and is running for mayor. She maintains that Republicans migrating from blue states are the most militant about stopping creeping liberalism.

"People used to come up to me and say, 'Don't California my Texas.' But we're the damn cavalry! We're here to save you. Because we know what's going to happen. And if we don't run for office, get involved in school boards, and pay attention and get out and vote, then you're gonna California Texas."

'The Big Sort' may be making Americans more politically extreme

While schools, crime, real estate prices and quality of life are still major considerations for folks who are moving, finding an area with shared political views is key.

Political scientist Larry Sabato posted an analysis on Thursday that shows how America's "super landslide" counties have grown over time.

Of the nation's total 3,143 counties, the number of super landslide counties — where a presidential candidate won at least 80% of the vote — has jumped from 6% in 2004 to 22% in 2020.

"Trump's blowouts were concentrated in white, rural counties in the Greater South, Interior West, and Great Plains," Sabato writes, "while Biden's were in a smattering of big cities, college towns, and smaller counties with large percentages of heavily Democratic nonwhite voters."

Put another way, Biden won 85% of counties with a Whole Foods and only 32% of counties with a Cracker Barrel.

What are the implications of people clustering in Sean Hannity's America, or Rachel Maddow's?

"Groups of like-minded people tend to become more extreme over time in the way that they're like-minded," says Bill Bishop, a journalist who wrote the influential book The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart in 2008.

Bishop's book explains how Americans sorted themselves by politics, geography, lifestyle and economics over the preceding three decades. Sitting in a Central Texas café, Bishop says that trend has only intensified in the 14 years since the book's publication.

"They are still sorting themselves in ways that end up that places are increasingly Republican or increasingly Democratic," he says. "Then you can see that playing out in Congress. There are fewer people in the middle. And so politics becomes less about solving our problems anymore. It's about cheering for our side. And so we're stuck."

Yet while social scientists and journalists may fret over this political segregation, for the people changing ZIP codes to be with their own tribe, it's a kind of deliverance.

Moving to areas with people you agree with has advantages

The Wooten family moved to Austin last spring from Greenfield, Ind. — a suburb of Indianapolis. They're renting an apartment in Central Austin with a view of Lady Bird Lake. They bought stand-up paddleboards for the lake and take hikes along the trails in and around the city .

"Indiana's a red state as it is, but Greenfield is also very red," says Tiffany Wooten. "We as Democrats felt very out of place. If people in public were talking about politics it was always a Trump view. We heard 'Those damn liberals' a lot."

She says during the Trump years, it seems like people became more antagonistic toward them for being Democrats. She even fell out with some of her own family of conservative Christians over their support for the former president. And her 18-year-old son, Cole, says his politics ran counter to the kids at his high school, who were MAGA fans like their parents.

"Some of 'em would even have Trump meetups," he says. "They would all bring their Trump flags and then just preach to each other about how great he was. It was just a really threatening atmosphere."

One afternoon, they discovered someone had put broken glass in their mailbox.

"Yeah, we were open to moving, but Texas is a really red state," Tiffany says. "Still, I was thinking in my mind, 'How much worse can it get? We're in Indiana.' "

Fortunately for them, husband Nate, a construction executive, landed a new job in Austin. The Texas state capital is known for its liberal politics — the blueberry, as they say, in the red cherry pie.

"We feel good here, we feel safe here," Tiffany says.

In fact, the COVID-19 protocols that drove some Californians to escape to North Texas are a plus for the Wootens in Austin.

"It does feel like people take (mask wearing) more seriously here than they did in Greenfield," says Nate Wooten. "Just being considerate of other people. Even if you're vaccinated and you go somewhere, still wear a mask."

What a difference a new city makes. Twelve-year-old Mya Wooten is taking a social justice class at her private school in downtown Austin, an opportunity they would not have found in Greenfield. Mya says a recent assignment was to pick an issue to protest.

"It was ocean pollution, women's rights, or LGBTQ rights," she says. "So my topic was women's rights, and I made a poster of an open woman's mouth and it said, 'I have the right to be heard.' "

By moving to Austin, the Wootens joined The Big Sort. They made Greenfield a tad less purple, and Austin a smidgeon bluer. Tiffany sometimes wonders if they've done the right thing.

"I'm not sure that it's super healthy for us to be completely putting ourselves in a box and saying, 'I'm gonna be with the blue people because they think exactly like me.' We need to be able to communicate with each other even if we do not fully agree with each other."

The Wootens miss having their ideas challenged and engaging with the other side. On the other hand, she says, "We feel among our people in Austin."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.