Jeffrey Lyons is an assistant professor of political science in the School of Public Service at Boise State University. His research focuses on American politics, specifically public opinion, political behavior, political psychology, and state politics. He earned his Ph.D. and M.A. at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and his B.S. at the University of Idaho.
A bumper sticker occasionally seen in the state of Idaho reads “Don’t California My Idaho” – a reference to the influx of new residents to the state, many of whom hail from California. These Californians (and other out of state arrivals) have drawn the ire of some Idaho natives, who worry that they will change the state and make it more like California. This anti-Californian sentiment is nothing new, dating back at least as far as the 1970s, and has even drawn attention back in California. Some Californians are even worried about the effects of Californian migration on Idaho.
The possibility that migration to Idaho could change the state’s composition may be well founded. The state of Idaho had the third-fastest population growth rate in the nation from 2015-2016, and the significant growth is forecast to continue for the next 10 years. These increases point to a shifting population base, and a state in flux. Idaho is seeing most of its population growth in urban areas, with the highest number of movers coming from Washington and California. Rapid population growth from these traditionally liberal states reinforces ideas that we may witness an evolution of Idaho’s conservative political climate.
This pattern appears to have played out in other parts of the country. Some argue that as large numbers of citizens have left California in recent decades, it has led to Democratic gains in places like Nevada and Colorado. For example, prior to 2008 the state of Colorado was reliably Republican in national elections, but in the past 10 years has trended much more Democratic. These observations might lead us to believe that a similar process could play out in Idaho, where large numbers of movers from more liberal states may turn a reliably red state into a blue (or at least purple) one. On the other hand, we have suggestions that the people who are moving to Idaho from Democratic states like California are different from those moving to other states in the west like Colorado. Although California is a decidedly liberal state, the people who are moving to Idaho may not reflect those liberal tendencies. In fact, they may be fleeing them. Keeping in mind that even in Democratic strongholds there are still a large number of Republicans (almost 4.5 million Californians voted for Donald Trump in 2016), it may be these individuals who comprise the bulk of movers to Idaho.
These observations lead us to conflicting expectations. Large numbers of citizens moving to Idaho from places like Washington and California could result in a larger number of Democrats in the state, and could threaten the traditionally Republican nature of Idaho state politics. Alternatively, the people moving to Idaho may not be representative of their home state, and could be seeking a more conservative political climate. If this is the case, then the movers to Idaho may not be all that different than native Idahoans, and rapid population increases will reinforce Idaho’s Republican politics, rather than challenge it. Thus, the core question becomes whether the people who are moving to Idaho have different (or similar) political beliefs than those who have lived here all of their lives.
Taking a look at the data
Simply knowing that we have large numbers of people moving from certain states does not tell us what they think about politics. Instead, to answer this question and explore the nature of opinion differences, we need to look at survey data. For this, we turn to the 2017 Idaho Public Policy Survey, which was conducted by the School of Public Service at Boise State University. For this survey, a representative sample of 1,000 Idahoans was contacted in early December of 2016. The individuals were asked a host of questions about their political beliefs and affiliations, as well as a series of questions about whether they were an Idaho native or had moved to Idaho, where they had moved from, and how long ago they moved. With this information in hand, we are able to compare the political beliefs of those who have lived in Idaho their whole lives to those who recently arrived from another state. 51% of the respondents reported moving to Idaho from another state, with 49% being born in Idaho and living in the state currently.
First, we can look to the most important political attitude that people hold – their party affiliation. The picture that emerges is one of general similarity between those who were born in Idaho and those who were born elsewhere and have moved here. The graphs below shows the percentage of movers and native Idahoans who identify as different kinds of partisans.
Of the Idaho natives, 26% identify as Democrats, and 54% identify as Republicans. Of those born outside of Idaho who have moved here, 29% identify as Democrats, and 50% identify as Republicans. While we see slightly more Democrats/fewer Republicans amongst the movers, these differences are not large enough for us to have confidence about them. What we can say with confidence is that there are not striking differences in the partisan composition of movers compared to native Idahoans, and both groups are decidedly Republican.
Next, we can look to differences in ideology between movers and native Idahoans. Again, a picture of (relative) similarity emerges between the two groups.
Amongst those who were born outside of Idaho and moved here, 25% identify as liberal compared to 22% amongst native Idahoans. Conversely, we see that 50% of those who have moved to Idaho identify as conservative, as do 50% of native Idahoans. As with party identification, the raw numbers suggest that movers may be slightly more liberal than those who have lived here their entire lives, but not by much. Further, the difference is small enough that we cannot be sure about whether it is meaningful or not. Perhaps most importantly, both groups are overwhelmingly conservative.
What about the Californians?
So far, across two of the most important political orientations that people hold – their party identification and ideology – we have not seen significant differences emerge between those who have moved to Idaho and those who have lived here their entire lives. However, the numbers presented group all of those moving to Idaho together, and treat them the same. It may still be possible that certain sub-groups who are moving to Idaho have distinct sets of political preferences. Perhaps the group that many Idahoans would identify as being the most different are Californians. Next, we can look to see how the political orientations of Californians align with those of native Idahoans.
Before looking at these numbers, a qualification is in order. When we take a representative sample of the state (1,000 respondents) and then begin to look at smaller subgroups within the overall sample, we can find ourselves dealing with relatively few individuals. This can make it hard to have confidence about the degree to which the numbers from the survey reflect what the actual group thinks. This problem applies here, where we are first looking just to those who have moved to Idaho (506 respondents), and then looking only to the ones from California (95 respondents). Some caution is warranted in interpreting these numbers as being representative of the beliefs of all Californians in Idaho. However, 95 individuals is still a reasonable number, and can be instructive for getting a general feel for the kinds of attitudes that those who have moved here from California have.
The table below shows the partisanship of the Californians in the survey who have moved to Idaho, compared to native Idahoans. Again, there are not notable differences between the two groups, and there is certainly no evidence that the Californians are more Democratic than native Idahoans. If anything, they appear to be more Republican. Of the Californians in the sample, 60% reported being Republican, compared to 54% of the native Idahoans. Again, the differences between the two groups are small, so we are not able to say with confidence that they are meaningful distinctions.
Finally, turning to ideology, we see a very similar pattern. The Californians who have moved to Idaho are not especially liberal as a group (22% identify as liberal), with a narrow majority identifying as conservative (54%). If anything, Californians coming to Idaho are more conservative than native Idahoans.
In sum, we do not see any strong evidence that the people who have moved to Idaho hold different political orientations than those who were born and still live here. Observers of Idaho politics who are expecting changes in the state’s partisan composition to come as a result of the people moving to Idaho may be waiting for a very long time. Rather than challenging the dominant political identity in the state, movers to Idaho appear to be reinforcing it, and those hailing from California are no exception. At least with respect to political attitudes, it appears that these concerns about the beliefs of new arrivals and the changes that they bring are not well founded.
With these findings in mind, two qualifications warrant mention. First, finding that movers to Idaho are generally similar to native Idahoans does not mean that the state will remain unchanged politically. There are other means by which political change can take place, such as generational changes that occur when younger citizens hold different attitudes than older ones. Whether this occurs or not remains to be seen, but it is another avenue through which state politics could be altered. Second, it is possible that as Idaho’s economy grows and transforms, migrants to the state will start to come here more for career reasons than personal, cultural, or lifestyle ones. If this takes place, then we might see the composition of those moving to the state change. However, until we have evidence that either of these phenomena are taking place, it appears that we should expect our state political culture to persist.