That migration could have a long fuse before it changes a state’s balance of power. But there’s precedent for it: Many analysts consider the technology boom that flourished in Northern Virginia after Steve Case relocated the AOL headquarters there in the 1990s to be one of the factors that tipped the state toward the Democrats two decades later.
Those familiar with the process who I spoke with all say that in assessing the 19 finalists located in the United States, Amazon is not considering whether its choice will change a state’s partisan balance. (One of the finalists, Toronto, is located in Canada.) The criteria the company has listed emphasize such economic factors as a highly skilled workforce and reliable access to transportation. And yet an economic decision this large inexorably carries big political ramifications.
As a group, Amazon’s U.S. finalists are strongly Democratic-leaning. Echelon Insights, a Republican consulting firm that specializes in demographic change, recently calculated that in the media markets that include the finalists, Hillary Clinton crushed President Trump by 57 percent to 38 percent in 2016. That result reflects the underlying demography of these communities: Compared with the other largest media markets that have no Amazon finalists, they have slightly more white college graduates and many more minority residents—with considerably fewer of the blue-collar whites that provided Trump’s core support.
But there are political gradations among the finalists. While Clinton probably won the downtown neighborhoods in all 19 communities, Trump carried the wider media market in five of them, noted Patrick Ruffini, Echelon’s co-founder: Dallas, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, Columbus, and Nashville. The finalists represent economic gradations, too, with several of them offering much more developed technology ecosystems than the others.
“Is this going to be a choice that reinforces and further concentrates the winners in the new economy—some place on the coasts, or some place that is already very [highly] college-educated?” Ruffini asked. “Or are we going to see a major tech hub sprout potentially in a red state that may have political implications for how that state goes in the future?”
Ruffini’s questions underscore the intertwined nature of Amazon’s economic and political choices. Almost all of the finalists from the solidly blue states are places already thriving in the digital economy, such as New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, Northern Virginia, and Denver. In choosing any of those, Amazon would be reinforcing economic and political dynamics that are already under way.
But many of the potential locations from swing states are smaller or more nascent technology centers. That list includes Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Indianapolis, Columbus, Nashville, and Raleigh. In these places, Amazon could unambiguously function as a catalyst for economic transformation—a potentially attractive prospect. Even locating in one of the larger Sunbelt cities with a well-established tech scene—Austin, Dallas, and Atlanta are the strongest—might allow the company to argue it is more equitably distributing opportunity. That could assuage growing concerns that the digital economy is excessively benefiting only a handful of “superstar cities.”