WASHINGTON – This week the census released the 2020 decennial tally of the nation’s and 50 state’s population – and both parties have taken note. The tally that determines each state’s number of seats in the House of Representatives and votes for the electoral college was likely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, but still left a fairly familiar list of winners and losers.
In fact, looking at census counts over time, the numbers generally show a continuation of clear patterns in which the country’s population and political power have evolved over the past 50 years.
These changes are, without a doubt, significant, but as people go into the analysis it is shown that they can also mean less than what people believe in terms of the national political picture.
Let’s start with this year’s winners and losers.
Texas added two seats to bring its membership to 38 and its electoral vote to 40. And five states – Colorado, Florida, Montana, North Carolina and Oregon – recorded more gains. modest, each adding a seat each.
And what the census gives, it also takes away. On the other side of the ledger, seven states each lost a seat and an electoral vote.
For California, this census was an ignominious first: it was the first time the state had lost a seat in the House in a census. For the others on the lost list, however – Illinois, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia – the numbers are more a continuation of a much longer trend.
If you go back 50 years to the 1970 census and count the states that are the biggest winners and losers, you see familiar state names and big numbers.
There is a fairly clear trend in these numbers. The American population has moved south and west over the past 50 years. None of the biggest losing states are west of the Mississippi River or south of the Mason-Dixon Line.
And to be clear, this whole movement is relevant to the United States government.
Gross population growth has an impact on spending and programs. It is easier for states or regions to get money from Congress if they have a larger constituency. And the geographic change also adds wrinkles. The issues affecting border states are different from those affecting the Great Lakes region.
But national electoral impacts can be more difficult to judge.
There was a time when the transfer of political power to the Sun Belt was seen as a sign of the rise of the GOP. Population gains in the south, where the Republican Party was ascendant, seemed to paint a rosy picture for the party. And the declines in the northern states, many of which have large union populations, have looked bad for Democrats.
Flash before 2021, however, and the picture looks more muddled. Of the 10 states on this list, four (two in the Great Lakes and two in the Sun Belt) appeared more purple than blue or red in the last presidential elections.
In 2016, Arizona, Georgia, Michigan and Pennsylvania voted for Republican Donald Trump. But in 2020, they all went blue and went with Democrat Joe Biden. Meanwhile, California, Illinois and New York went blue in both years. And Florida, Ohio, and Texas have turned red twice.
But even this analysis ignores the intricacies of these “red” solar belt state votes. Florida, the eternal battlefield was near in both elections. Trump’s margin of victory was just over 1 point in 2016 and just over 3 points in 2020. And Texas, while still Republican, has been trending blue for the last election. Trump won it by less than 6 points in 2020.
The point here is that census figures and population changes, while important for governing, show another immutable truth of politics and life. Things change.
As places grow or shrink, their populations change. The issues that drive the national conversation are changing. And, as the past few years have clearly shown, the country’s two main political parties are constantly evolving.
This is an important point to keep in mind as we analyze the weeks to come. The clear political, cultural and economic trends that analysts are using to examine the new 2021 census figures could look very different in 2030.