MADISON, Wisconsin — Spring elections in Wisconsin are typically low turnout affairs, but in April, with the nation watching the state’s bitterly contested Supreme Court race, voters turned out in record-breaking numbers.
No place was more energized to vote than Dane County, the state’s second-most populous county after Milwaukee. It’s long been a progressive stronghold thanks to the double influence of Madison, the state capital, and the University of Wisconsin, but this was something else. Turnout in Dane was higher than anywhere else in the state. And the Democratic margin of victory that delivered control of the nonpartisan court to liberals was even more lopsided than usual — and bigger than in any of the state’s other 71 counties.
The margin was so big it that it changed the state’s electoral formula. Under the state’s traditional political math, Milwaukee and Dane — Wisconsin’s two Democratic strongholds — are counterbalanced by the populous Republican suburbs surrounding Milwaukee. The rest of the state typically delivers the decisive margin in statewide races. The Supreme Court results blew up that model. Dane County alone is now so dominant that it overwhelms the Milwaukee suburbs (which have begun trending leftward anyway). In effect, Dane has become a Republican-killing Death Star.
“This is a really big deal,” said Mark Graul, a Republican strategist who ran George W. Bush’s 2004 reelection campaign in Wisconsin. “What Democrats are doing in Dane County is truly making it impossible for Republicans to win a statewide race.”
In isolation, it’s a worrisome development for Republicans. Unfortunately for the larger GOP, it’s not happening in isolation.
In state after state, fast-growing, traditionally liberal college counties like Dane are flexing their muscles, generating higher turnout and ever greater Democratic margins. They’ve already played a pivotal role in turning several red states blue — and they could play an equally decisive role in key swing states next year.
One of those states is Michigan. Twenty years ago, the University of Michigan’s Washtenaw County gave Democrat Al Gore what seemed to be a massive victory — a 60-36 percent win over Republican George W. Bush, marked by a margin of victory of roughly 34,000 votes. Yet that was peanuts compared to what happened in 2020. Biden won Washtenaw by close to 50 percentage points, with a winning margin of about 101,000 votes. If Washtenaw had produced the same vote margin four years earlier, Hillary Clinton would have won Michigan, a state that played a prominent role in putting Donald Trump in the White House.
Name the flagship university — Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Ohio, Texas, Virginia, among others — and the story tends to be the same. If the surrounding county was a reliable source of Democratic votes in the past, it’s a landslide county now. There are exceptions to the rule, particularly in the states with the most conservative voting habits. But even in reliably red places like South Carolina, Montana and Texas, you’ll find at least one college-oriented county producing ever larger Democratic margins.
The American Communities Project, which has developed a typology of counties, designates 171 independent cities and counties as “college towns.” In a combined social science/journalism effort based at the Michigan State University School of Journalism, the ACP uses three dozen different demographic and economic variables in its analysis such as population density, employment, bachelor’s degrees, household income, percent enrolled in college, rate of religious adherence and racial and ethnic composition.
Of those 171 places, 38 have flipped from red to blue since the 2000 presidential election. Just seven flipped the other way, from blue to red, and typically by smaller margins. Democrats grew their percentage point margins in 117 counties, while 54 counties grew redder. By raw votes, the difference was just as stark: The counties that grew bluer increased their margins by an average of 16,253, while Republicans increased their margins by an average of 4,063.
Back in 2000, the places identified as college towns by ACP voted 48 percent to 47 percent in favor of Al Gore. In the last presidential election, the 25 million who live in those places voted for Joe Biden, 54 percent to 44 percent.
Many populous urban counties that are home to large universities don’t even make the ACP’s “college towns” list because their economic and demographic profiles differentiate them from more traditional college counties. Among the missing are places like the University of Texas’ Travis County, where the Democratic margin of victory grew by 290,000 votes since 2000, and the University of New Mexico’s Bernalillo County, where the margin grew by 73,000 votes. The University of Minnesota’s Hennepin County has become bluer by 245,000 votes.
North Carolina offers a revealing snapshot of a state whose college towns have altered its electoral landscape. Five of the state’s nine counties that contain so-called college towns have gone blue since voting for George W. Bush in 2000. Back then, the nine counties together netted roughly 12,000 votes for Bush, who carried the state by nearly 13 percent. Twenty years later, those numbers had broken dramatically in the opposite direction — Biden netted 222,000 votes from those counties. He still lost the state, but the margin was barely more than 1 percent.
There’s no single factor driving the college town trend. In some places, it’s an influx of left-leaning, highly educated newcomers, drawn to growing, cutting-edge industries advanced by university research or the vibrant quality of life. In others, it’s rising levels of student engagement on growing campuses. Often, it’s a combination of both.
What’s clear is that these places are altering the political calculus across the national map. Combine university counties with heavily Democratic big cities and increasingly blue suburbs, and pretty soon you have a state that’s out of the Republican Party’s reach.
None of this has gone unnoticed by the GOP, which is responding in ways that reach beyond traditional tensions between conservative lawmakers and liberal universities — such as targeting students’ voting rights, creating additional barriers to voter access or redrawing maps to dilute or limit the power of college communities. But there are limits to what those efforts can accomplish. They aren’t geared toward growing the GOP vote, merely toward suppressing Democratic totals. And they aren’t addressing the structural problems created by the rising tide of college-town votes — students are only part of the overall phenomenon.
“The data sure seem to suggest younger voters are leaning much more Democratic in recent years and, perhaps more concerning for the Republicans, the GOP seems to be struggling more broadly with college-educated voters. In the longer term, that may mean these voters may stay Democratic — or at least stay Democratic longer than they might otherwise,” says Dante Chinni, director of the ACP. “In addition, polls show Republicans are increasingly distrustful of higher education institutions. That probably doesn’t help in the longer term either.”
‘The Ecosystem is Churning and Churning Right Now’
For much of the 20th century, the area surrounding Fort Collins, home to Colorado State University, was a Republican stronghold. Larimer County, with its farming and ranching heritage, was the kind of place that voted Democratic only under extreme circumstances — like during the landslide elections of 1936 and 1964, or in 1992, when the presidential vote was splintered three ways. Today, however, after Biden won Larimer in a 15-point blowout in 2020, the real question: Just how deep is the county’s shade of blue?
Larimer’s political evolution is in large part a story of how the economic, cultural and political forces radiating out of university communities can alter the political complexion of a red county — and ultimately a state.
Since 2000, Colorado State has experienced an extended growth spurt that has seen enrollment expand by more than 7,300 students. The number of tenured faculty has grown, the number of university employees has grown and the campus itself has seen $1.6 billion in capital investment in everything from residence halls to research centers to a new campus stadium.
More college students and more faculty tend to be a recipe for more Democratic votes. But there are also larger forces at work. Larimer County grew by 19 percent in the 2000s, and then by another 20 percent in the most recent census, with over 100,000 new residents arriving over the past two decades. That surge of newcomers flocked to the area for its high quality of life and dynamic economy — and CSU plays a role in sustaining both. Aside from providing Fort Collins with big-city amenities, it partners and collaborates with nearby industries and the major federal laboratories and research centers that are clustered in Colorado.
The school — with its expertise in vector-borne infectious disease, veterinary medicine, atmospheric science, clean energy technologies and environmental science — aggressively commercializes its research. A private, not-for-profit corporation, legally separate from the university, exists solely to spin technology out of the university and into the private sector. As a result, more than 60 startups based on CSU intellectual property have launched over the past two decades.
“As the university grows and we bring in superstar faculty and researchers as our research portfolio and whatnot continues to grow,” says Amy Parsons, president of Colorado State, “then they’re expanding and creating new technologies, new spinoff companies out into the community that’s bringing in more jobs and people and diversity, and so that’s the ecosystem that is churning and churning right now.”
While the newcomers — many of whom have relocated to the Fort Collins-Loveland metro area from elsewhere in Colorado, but also disproportionately from states like California, Arizona and Texas, according to Census data — have helped Democrats achieve parity with Republicans in terms of voter registration, the bigger story in Larimer County is the explosive growth in the number of unaffiliated voters. Between 2011 and 2023, the number of unaffiliated voters grew by close to 200 percent. Today, it is the most dominant voting bloc in the county — close to half of all voters in the county are now registered as unaffiliated — and they are casting votes for Democratic candidates.
“Colorado, like the West, [has an] independent streak, a lot of unaffiliated voters,” says John Kefalas, a CSU graduate who also served as an adjunct faculty member and in 2018 became the first Democratic county commissioner since 2004. “But those unaffiliated voters, based on our experience, tend to lean toward Democratic or tend to lean toward more moderate or progressive.”
The national realignment of politics along cultural and educational lines is also playing a role. Larimer ranks as one of the most educated counties in Colorado, which itself ranks among the most educated states in the nation. Even if newcomers aren’t registering as Democrats, many possess the traits associated with a Democratic voter profile — environmentally conscious, closely attuned to climate change issues, white and college-educated. As Larimer and the other high-population areas along the state’s urbanized Front Range corridor have drifted leftward, so has the state: Democrats now hold all the levers of power in Colorado, including the governor’s office and the legislature.
The state’s two biggest college counties have led the way. Back in 2000, Colorado was a red state that had voted for Republican nominees in eight of the preceding nine presidential elections. But since 2008, when Larimer first flipped from red to blue, the state has firmly been in the Democratic column. Between the 2000 and 2020 presidential elections, in Larimer and Boulder County, home to the University of Colorado, the Democratic vote grew by 169,000 votes. The Republican vote, by comparison, grew by just 21,000 votes.
Virginia has followed a similar path. The American Communities Project lists 18 counties and independent cities as college towns there; nine of them have flipped from red to blue over the past 20 years. Just one, the city of Norton in the southwest corner near to UVA’s College at Wise, has flipped the other way — by less than 1,000 votes. Virginia’s governor is Republican, but like Colorado, the state voted Democratic in 2008’s presidential race and hasn’t looked back.
‘A Place Where People Tend to Find Like-Minded People’
With their reputation for livability, college towns exert a magnetic pull that draws new residents from other states. Often, these new residents are fleeing more conservative locations, and their arrival has the effect of intensifying the liberal bent of the surrounding area.
Though considerably smaller than some of the other college towns in the state, Asheville’s Buncombe County has added just over 66,000 residents since 2000 and grown a robust 12 percent in just the last decade. Over that period, those new residents have played a key role in Buncombe’s evolution from a red county that gave George W. Bush a comfortable 54-45 victory to a blue stronghold Biden won by a 21-point margin.
Though it’s listed as a college town by the ACP — it’s home to roughly 3,000 University of North Carolina Asheville students — few here think of it that way. Asheville is a popular tourist town, a hub for arts and music and a counterculture haven in the scenic Blue Ridge mountains, and it’s the new permanent residents who are having the impact on the county’s political complexion.
“Asheville is known as a bring-your-own-job city,” explains Nick Hinton, a local real estate agent who’s originally from Los Angeles and moved to Asheville a decade ago. “We’re not known to have a plethora of career-type jobs available. Those types who either have a job or can telecommute or feel like opening up a business, that’s who seems to be drawn to this area.”
Many are millennials — the baby boomers who come here to retire, Hinton notes, tend to be less politically motivated. A healthy portion move here from elsewhere in the state but Florida, Illinois and the Northeast are also sending a steady stream.
Jeff Rose, the county’s Democratic Party chair, notes that many of the newcomers are “climate refugees” highly attuned to environmental and sustainability issues. “I’ve met numerous people who moved here from California to try and get away from constant forest fires and things like that,” he says. “If you’re ideologically interested in the issues that arise from climate change, there’s a lot of people here that are doing that kind of work, whether it’s groups that do river clean-ups, groups that are focusing around the Collider, which is an innovation center for sustainability — there’s a number of solar companies and things like that in the area. …This is a place where people tend to find like-minded people.”
Buncombe’s intensifying leftward shift has a strong self-sorting element to it and it’s not alone nationally.
“We’ve seen this pattern in the last 10 years across the country,” says Democratic state Rep. Lindsey Prather, a UNCA graduate who represents an Asheville-area district. “People are increasingly looking at the partisan leaning of a community when they’re deciding where to move. It used to be, well, I got a job there or my family’s there.”
Just as in Colorado’s Larimer County, the newcomers are registering as unaffiliated but largely voting Democratic. Today, a plurality of Buncombe County voters are registered as unaffiliated — and there are nearly twice as many unaffiliated as there are registered Republicans. Yet the effect has been to amplify Asheville’s traditionally liberal politics and push the surrounding county leftward. In 2020, Asheville elected a progressive, all-female city council. Last year, the Buncombe County commission ousted its lone remaining Republican.
So far, the growing Democratic margins in Buncombe, the Research Triangle — which is home to three major research universities — and other college counties haven’t been enough to turn the state blue, though many Democrats continue to view North Carolina as close to a tipping point. Biden came close in 2020, losing by just over a percentage point, but Democrats haven’t won a Senate race in North Carolina since 2008 and have won a presidential race just once here since the 1970s.
“Everything the Republicans are doing now in this legislative session will come back to haunt them in places like Buncombe County,” says Democratic state Sen. Julie Mayfield, referring to a slew of contentious measures including a 12-week abortion ban and education policies that would make it easier to prosecute librarians and school employees for displaying materials deemed harmful to minors, pursued by the GOP majority in Raleigh, “just like what happened in Wisconsin.”
The college town phenomenon is so strong it has Democrats daring to wonder if they might one day flip a solidly red state such as Montana. It seems implausible given the shellacking that Democrats endured in 2020 when the party suffered a devastating across-the-board defeat, leaving just one statewide Democratic official in office, Sen. Jon Tester.
But the state has a long history of ticket-splitting — Democrats held the governorship from 2005 through 2021; in 2008, Barack Obama came within 12,000 votes of winning here. And if you look at the growth in Montana’s two big college counties, Missoula, which is home to the University of Montana, and Gallatin, which is home to Montana State University, you see what gives Democrats hope.
Gallatin, which serves as a gateway to Yellowstone National Park, has nearly doubled in population since 2000, fueled by rising enrollment at the university, out-of-state migrants and the emergence of Bozeman as a technology hub. And over that period, it’s gone from a 59-31 Bush county to a 52-45 Biden county. Between Gallatin’s boom and Missoula’s more modest growth, the two Democratic beachheads now account for roughly a quarter of the statewide vote — up from about 20 percent in 2000. Many of the new migrants to Bozeman are Californians. But they are also moving in from the Denver suburbs and from big cities across the West — Seattle’s King County, Phoenix’s..