Most Americans who vow to leave over an election never do. Will this year be different? (2024)

Deirdre Roney wanted an escape plan – a place to go if her darkest fears about America’s democracy came to pass.

The Los Angeles attorney and activist for immigrant and voting rights has worried about a rise of authoritarianism ever since Donald Trump won the presidency in 2016. As this fall’s election drew closer, that anxiety only grew.

Trump has vowed “retribution” if he wins and a “bloodbath” if he loses. Though she says she’s not a high-profile activist, Roney fears political persecution could become a reality. “I would challenge you to find somebody who's as depressed and dark and scared as I am,” she said.

So, this summer, she secured her escape hatch. She and her husband obtained dual citizenship in the Caribbean nation of Antigua and Barbuda in exchange for a development fund investment of about $100,000, she said – a barrier-free overseas refuge to use if she feels unsafe.

“I wanted us to have a place to go,” she said. “I wanted a Plan B.”

The idea of moving to another country to protest a presidential administration or political policy isn’t new – think the Vietnam War or even vows to move following the re-election of President George W. Bush. Even Trump once joked he might leave if Biden was elected.

Typically, relatively few who vow to leave actually make the move, said Amanda Klekowski von Koppenfels, a University of Kent migration scholar and expert on Americans abroad.

But this year, as voter anxiety hits the red zone ahead of a divisive election contest between Trump and President Joe Biden, there are signs that Americans from a cross-section of society are taking a more serious look at the exits.

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The percentage of U.S. citizens who would settle abroad if they were able reached 34% in a March 26 poll by Monmouth University, up from 12% since 1995. Monmouth polling officials said they believe the political rancor of recent years likely helped fuel the rise.

For some current and former members of U.S. law enforcement and intelligence community, threats to jail political opponents are driving them to weigh whether they may have to leave to avoid being illegally detained, according to a former FBI director.

A recent survey by the publisher International Living found that 65% of more than 2,700 readers said that concerns about the political climate prompted them to accelerate plans to relocate overseas.

Henley & Partners, a large global residence and citizenship advisory firm, reported this year that wealthy Americans are pursuing backup citizenship or residence abroad at record levels. Motivations for its clients include political risk along with tax or business reasons.

Several other firms that help Americans live or work abroad told USA TODAY that political uncertainty is driving a spike not just in inquiries and but in concrete efforts to secure visas, homes, dual citizenship or foreign work permits – whether to move or to set up a contingency plan.

David Lesperance, a Canadian tax and immigration advisor whose firm helps people secure dual citizenships or residency abroad, said most of his U.S. clients now cite concerns including political polarization and deadlock, antisemitism, gun violence, threats to LGBTQ rights, fear of rule by “the other party” and retribution by a Trump administration.

And for some, such moves are also easier in the era of remote work.

“What’s different today is people are acting on it,” Lesperance said, adding that the Supreme Court ruling relating to presidential immunity has further ratcheted up concerns. “They sense the danger is real.”

Whether significant numbers of Americans actually pull up stakes is far from certain. Moving abroad brings the challenges of obtaining a visa and leaving behind family obligations. And some view such sentiments as an overreaction at home when other countries also face new political turmoil.

But it’s an idea that is a growing topic of conversation, especially after a presidential debate that raised new questions about Biden’s suitability and Trump’s repeated falsehoods. Even before that, some said, the urge to escape has spurred calls for advice to friends living overseas.

Justin Knepper, 48, moved from California to Portugal in 2020. Now, he said, “I would say at least 50% of our friends are considering moving” with politics at least a factor for most.

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Moving to South Africa: ‘We’ve got to get out of here’

Ted Baumann’s move last year came after he grew alienated from both political parties.

The 63-year-old worked in nonprofit housing and financial publishing while living in Decatur, Georgia, near Atlanta, with his wife, a pre-Kindergarten teacher, and their daughter.

Most Americans who vow to leave over an election never do. Will this year be different? (2)

He watched with concern as reactionary politics gathered steam amid President Barack Obama’s tenure. He was stunned when Senate Republicans violated a norm by blocking Obama from filling a Supreme Court seat. He said it seemed like “Third-World style politics.”

He worried about how easily some could rationalize such moves. Then Trump won. All around him, he thought political debate had become increasingly vitriolic.

“I remember waking up the next week and thinking, ‘We’ve got to get out of here,’” he said.

It wouldn’t be a difficult move. Baumann’s wife is originally from South Africa. And he’d previously lived for a time and already had dual citizenship.

But they were settled into their own Georgia community. They both had good jobs and their daughter was headed to high school. And then the pandemic hit.

While voters had narrowly elected Biden in 2020, it rattled him that nearly half of America supported Trump’s ideas including stolen-election conspiracies that fueled the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

But Baumann – who said he doesn’t identify with either party but leans left – wasn’t thrilled with Democrats either.

He thought liberals were overly focused on “identity politics, gender, race and sexual orientation – which are all important,” he said, and gave too little attention to pressing economic and other issues.

Over time, he lost faith that elected bodies could tackle everyday issues.

“It doesn't really matter which side you're from. It’s the inability to govern and to legislate and to address issues,” he said. “Because eventually, these unsolved issues are going to come back to bite you. You're going to run out of Social Security, you're going run out of healthcare for the elderly.”

By 2022, he and his wife decided, “This is not where we want to raise our daughter, this is not where we want to be,” he said, putting plans in motion to move to South Africa.

There were economic considerations involved in their move, too: The cost of living, as well as health care, would be lower. Last year, they left behind their life in the Atlanta area for Cape Town. His daughter entered high school there and “couldn’t be happier,” he said. Baumann now works remotely.

To be sure, South Africa has its share of political struggles and problems, he said. But it felt like a place moving in a positive direction. America, by contrast, seemed to be moving backward.

Moving to Spain: Complicated reasons for going abroad

Marsha Scarbrough arrived in Spain in early 2017.

Not long before that, she had given an interview to a Spanish reporter back home in the U.S., and found herself on the front page of a Spanish newspaper – dubbed “La Primera Exiliada,” the first exile, following Trump’s election.

Though she opposed Trump, Scarbrough moved at age 70 for a mix of reasons including affordable retirement, less expensive health care and a desire to live abroad, she said. She also wanted to be away from gun violence and other problems in the U.S., she said.

Most Americans who vow to leave over an election never do. Will this year be different? (3)

That’s true for most U.S. residents who migrate overseas for multiple reasons such as jobs, spouses or to study, said Klekowski von Koppenfels, the University of Kent expert. But she said politics can play into it.

“Back when George Bush's handling of the Iraq War was a big political issue in the United States, I spoke with a number of people who had always meant to move to Europe and had always thought of studying in Europe. And then, as the Iraq War rolled around, they were increasingly unhappy with the politics around that. They thought, OK, now's the time for me to go ahead and move,’” she said.

A similar dynamic is in play for some currently considering a move.

Marco Permunian, founder of Italian Citizenship Assistance, has seen inquiries triple this year reaching as many as 250 a day, most U.S. residents looking to relocate, get dual citizenship based on lineage or obtain visas to work, study or retire in Italy or elsewhere in Europe.

He said a “general feeling of instability throughout the country, both politically and socially” is what’s driving many of his clients to seek to move to Europe now. A minority of them are ready to go immediately, he said, while others “want to have the option to relocate if they have to.”

In France, Adrian Leeds, whose company helps Americans find real estate, said her business has doubled each year since the pandemic. While some Americans are worried about far-right gains in France, she said that pales to clients citing the “fear of Donald Trump and the disaster in the U.S. when it comes to healthcare, gun control, women's rights, etc.,” she said.

Jennifer Stevens, editor at the move-abroad publication International Living, which conducted the survey showing rising political concerns among readers, has seen it too.

“People who already had an idea in the back of their minds that they might like to go abroad sometime,” she said, “They're crafting a Plan B because they feel like they just might need it if things go sideways in November and beyond.”

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But will they adopt Plan B? Klekowski von Koppenfels said a survey she helped to commission didn’t show a significant increase in emigration aspirations between 2014 and 2019 despite an increase in public statements about it.

Gallup found that during the start of the Trump Administration in 2017 and 2018, a record 16% of Americans said they would like to permanently move to another country if they could. That was higher than the average levels during the Bush (11%) or Obama administration (10%).

Gallup said that while it didn’t ask respondents about political leanings, the surge in Americans' desire to migrate in those years came among groups that typically leaned Democratic and had disapproved of Trump: women, young Americans and people in lower-income groups.

The percentage of respondents in later Gallup polls who said they'dthey’ve like to move abroad permanently dipped to 13% in 2020 and rose to 17% in 2023, according to data provided by Gallup.

In March of 2024, the Monmouth poll found that of the 34% who said they would settle in another country if free to do so. It asked about political leanings of those who said they would leave: 41% of independents, 35% of Democrats and 22% of Republicans.

If wanting or vowing to leave is most often a political statement, it’s also a source of political fodder.

When Barbara Streisand said she would leave the country if Trump won, the conservative outlet BlazeTV declared that, “For the second time in recent history, the trash is promising to take itself out.” In 2020, one Ohio sheriff mocked celebrities who said they’d leave four years ago but didn't by offering a one-way ticket out of the country.

And some who want to leave get criticism for leaving the U.S. instead of fighting for change.

After Scarborough moved to Spain, a man from another European country told her, “ ‘Well, you're just an opportunist. You’re taking advantage of other countries where people have done the work.” But she’d spent years advocating for causes back home, she said.

“I'm choosing to spend my final years having fun in a place that has solved many of these problems and created a better quality of life,” she said. “At my age, I’ve done everything I can do. Do I need to keep fighting?”

Moving to Europe: Surprising, similar political issues

Lauren Ell, 36, said people often underestimate the costs and challenges of moving.

Ell, a Trump-supporting Republican Southern California native who moved to Sweden in 2016 to be with her partner, founded an online group called Nordic Republicans to connect conservatives, who she said are difficult to find in an area where Democrats tend to dominate expat forums.

“When I hear people say, ‘I'm gonna move out of the country, because of the politics there.’ I think it's a bit silly, because it's really difficult if you just want to get up and move,” she said.

Most Americans who vow to leave over an election never do. Will this year be different? (4)

Some countries have strict residency policies for immigrants. And obtaining visas, work permits and citizenship often takes time and is costly.

“And then there’s the politics,” Ell said, noting that Sweden, despite its liberal reputation, didn’t close businesses or mandate certain health measure during COVID, in contrast to U.S. policies she opposed. “They might be surprised that there's actually similar right-leaning politics in many European countries.”

Indeed, support for right-leaning politicians has been rising in some European countries. In France, a far-right party made historic gains in the first round of hastily called legislative elections, raising the specter of the far-right coming into power for the first time since Nazi occupation in World War II. In early July, the Netherlands installed a new right-wing government, Reuters reported.

Alessandra Bloom, 33, who moved from Boston where she worked in restaurant management to Rovigo, Italy in 2021 to seek dual citizenship based on lineage, now works for Italian Citizenship Assistance – and understands why some Americans back home are looking abroad.

“It feels heavy in America. The divide is so strong,” she said. But living in Italy has also shown her that “there are problems everywhere in the world, and no matter where you go, everyone has political troubles.” She added, “I mean, they have just as much conservative politics and immigrant policy that they're debating.”

David Morse, 72, who once worked as a staffer to Congressional Republicans, said he left the U.S. because of Trump. He moved in 2019 to Norway, where his wife was born. But he’s found it harder than he'd hoped to leave Trump’s political noise behind: “It’s hard to avoid Donald Trump.”

On TV, he said, is a regular TV show chronicling Trump news. He’s everywhere on the internet. And Morse still reads U.S. political news often.

“And I guess that's partly my fault, too, because I suppose I could just not read stuff and turn it off, but I don’t,” he said. Trump, he said, “sort of buries himself into your brain.”

He still plans to vote from abroad, a desire that has helped grow the group Democrats Abroad, an official group with state-level recognition by the Democratic National Committee, whose membership has tripled since 2015, according to a spokeswoman who declined to provide an exact figure.

But Morse is happy living abroad. In part because he doesn’t see things changing anytime soon. While people moved to Canada to protest the Vietnam War, he said, “it wasn't systematic or fundamental to the American system.” This time, he said, it feels different.

He said he worries about a more violent or widespread version of Jan. 6 if Trump loses, and that democracy’s guardrails will fail to hold up.

“There's nothing that says that American democracy is permanent and immutable,” he said. “And I fear it's coming apart.”

Most Americans who vow to leave over an election never do. Will this year be different? (2024)
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