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How Hip Cities Hurt The Democrats

There was a lot of chatter last week about an eye-opening New York Times piece by Sabrina Tavernise about the growing gap between the haves and have-nots when it comes to where the country’s young college graduates are choosing to live. In 1970, nearly all of the country’s metro areas were within 5 percentage points of the average level of residents with college degrees; today, just half of metro areas were that close to the average, with a far greater span between cities like Washington, Boston, San Francisco, and Raleigh, where more than 40 percent of residents have degrees, and cities like Tampa, Dayton, Las Vegas and Memphis, where fewer than 30 percent of residents do. The numbers speak to something I’ve been writing about for a few years now, the growth of regional inequality in our country alongside the better-known trend of income inequality. But they also come with some overlooked political ramifications. Simply put, is it a problem for the Democrats that so many members of one of their strongest demographics—young college graduates— are clustering in a few cities, many of which are in states that were already solidly blue?

Just look at the map that goes along with the Times piece and see how many of the big cities with above-average concentrations of college grads are in states that are safely in the Democratic column this November, where the arrival of yet another Obama-admiring Gen-Y’er is, from an electoral standpoint, utterly superfluous—Massachusetts, New York, Illinois, California, the District of Columbia. There are exceptions, of course—the spillover of young college grads into Northern Virginia is a boon to the Democrats, as is the draw of Denver in purple Colorado and Raleigh-Durham in possibly purple North Carolina. But those states do not have as much weight in the Electoral College as the big swing states where the absence of college grads is most striking—Ohio and Florida. Ohio, remarkably, has actually seen an increase since 2008 in its proportion of white, non-college graduates, the demographic group that is generally declining across the country and that Obama has had such trouble with. From this vantage, it’s no surprise, perhaps, that the latest polls show Obama slipping in Florida and Ohio while holding onto leads in Virginia and Colorado. Demography is destiny, and every 22-year-old who leaves Dayton for D.C. is further tipping the scales. The Obama campaign just has to hope that that young Daytonian ends up looking for cheaper rents out in the new towers of Clarendon and Ballston in northern Virginia, rather than squeezing into overpriced Dupont or Columbia Heights. On such seemingly small choices elections will be decided. In fact, a conspiracy-minded conservative (is that a redundancy in terms?) might even suspect that the ridiculous D.C. height limits that force new arrivals across the Potomac are part of a grand Democratic plot.

follow me on Twitter @AlecMacGillis