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Could Amazon's HQ2 Flip a State?

The Amazon Spheres in Seattle

The Amazon Spheres in Seattle Shutterstock

Democrats could gain politically if the company chooses a city in a battleground state for its second North American headquarters.

Could Amazon flip a state?

Amid all the public chatter over the company’s search for a second North American headquarters, there’s been strikingly little discussion about the potential political impact. But the choice’s electoral implications could be substantial.

Just as Democrats are becoming increasingly reliant on younger, better-educated, and urbanized voters, Amazon’s second headquarters could bring tens of thousands of such workers to a state. That wouldn’t affect national politics much if Amazon picked one of the finalists from an already solidly blue state, such as New York City or Los Angeles. But if it chose a city from an existing or emerging battleground—its list of 20 finalists includes Columbus, Pittsburgh, Atlanta, and Raleigh—the addition of so many younger workers could provide an important thumb on the scale for Democrats.

Amazon has signaled it intends to finalize its choice this year. Once it’s established, the number of workers connected to the new corporate hub is expected to grow significantly, with Amazon actively recruiting employees from around the country. Amazon projects that it will directly inject into the winning community up to 50,000 new jobs and $5 billion in investment. Based on the spin-off effects it has experienced in Seattle, the site of its first headquarters, Amazon forecasts that other companies will create roughly as many additional jobs. Add in the workers’ families, and Amazon’s choice city could attract well over 100,000 new residents.

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.”

In that way, Amazon’s own internal political needs could encourage it to pick one of the options beyond the established big-blue tech centers—precisely the kind of selection that could also trigger the broadest electoral impact. The competing consideration is that the company’s need to recruit large numbers of young workers could make it reluctant to pick even a blue-leaning city in a red state. Like other tech companies, it might fear that state-level politics—say, the potential passage of a “bathroom bill” or hardline immigration policies—would discourage those recruits.

The states on the finalist roster aren’t all equally susceptible to tipping. Even this big an infusion of blue-leaning tech workers might not have much impact in a state the size of Texas or Florida. And it would be unlikely to overcome the overall advantages Republicans have established in Indiana and Tennessee, and are solidifying in Ohio.

But the company’s selection could plausibly nudge the current swing states of Pennsylvania and North Carolina toward the Democrats—or accelerate Georgia’s transition into a genuinely competitive battleground. It might take years, but if Amazon founder Jeff Bezos picks one of those places, he could deliver a major political disruption right to the two parties’ doorsteps.

Ronald Brownstein is Atlantic Media's editorial director for strategic partnerships. The article was originally published by The Atlantic.

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