Even at the center of the Beltway’s echo chamber, the preoccupation with a presidential election almost two years away is starting to sound a bit crazy. So maybe the best antidote is to start talking about an important political occasion more than five years in the future.
It’s the next census, on April Fools’ Day 2020. Just a handful of the numbers will have a significant effect on the congressional power structure , most importantly whether Democrats gain a better shot in the next decade at controlling the House. And unlike the race for the White House, a fundamentally human drama with the potential to take more unpredictable turns than any previous such contest, the census story is all about mathematics and the basic plotline already is pretty easy to predict.
The main reason for a nationwide headcount at the beginning of every decade, the Constitution says, is so seats in the House can be allocated among the states. This reapportionment is a vital prerequisite to redistricting, the “R” word that gets so much more attention. That’s because the political cartographers can’t draw new congressional district lines until they know how many districts they’re allowed to draw.
We’ve reached the midpoint between the last census and the next one, and three more Election Days will pass before the next national House map is in place. But population trends paint a clear big picture of the coming changes: More seats will be stripped from the colder parts of the country and assigned to the warmer regions. And states that are either politically competitive or reliably Democratic, and where the Hispanic population is already important and growing, dominate the list of likely winners.
Using population estimates the Census Bureau released at the end of the year, the first reapportionment forecasts are out from Election Data Services, a nonpartisan consulting firm specializing in political demographics with a strong track record for such predictions. EDS now expects Texas, which is growing at the rate of half a million people annually, will be awarded three more seats. California, Colorado, Florida and North Carolina can each look forward to adding a district. Arizona, Oregon and Virginia are still in the hunt for an additional seat if their population growth is on the high end of estimates.
The states on course to lose a seat, because they’re not growing as fast as the nation, are Alabama, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and West Virginia. New York is on the bubble.
The projections are cause for some optimism from the Democrats. Moving seats mainly to solid “blue” or “purple” states gives the party at least a shot at decent gains in 2022, though that’s far from certain given the myriad variables in redistricting — which include control of state legislatures, the makeup of the federal courts and the views of the Justice Department. (It’s way too early to predict, for example, how many new Texas districts will be drawn to elect a Hispanic Democrat from around San Antonio or Houston instead of a conservative Republican from the Dallas-Fort Worth area.)
There’s also a chance reapportionment would slightly strengthen the 2024 and 2028 Democratic presidential nominees’ hands a bit in the Electoral College, where a state’s strength equals the size of its total congressional delegation. (Keep in mind by the time reapportionment is announced in December 2020, America will have had two presidential elections.)
The reason reapportionment is a zero-sum game has nothing to do with the Constitution. The current size of the House was fixed in a law enacted in 1909. Every state is guaranteed at least one seat, and the remaining 385 are parceled out using a formula requiring advanced knowledge in statistics to explain. (It goes by the benign name “method of equal proportions.”)
If fewer than 10 seats shift next time, as seems likely, it will be the smallest reapportionment since before World War II, suggesting the enormous demographic shift of the last half-century is slowing down.
After all, over the last few decades as air-conditioning ducts filled the new homes and office buildings of the South and West and assembly lines shut down across the Midwest and Northeast, millions of people picked up stakes in the Rust Belt and put down new roots in the Sun Belt. And the political clout of the states has moved accordingly.
When John F. Kennedy was elected in 1960, just 12 percent of House members were from either California or Texas. In the next decade, that share looks to crest at 21 percent. If Arizona gets a 10th seat, its House strength will have quintupled since the 1950s. Florida’s delegation has more than tripled thanks to the previous five reapportionments. Getting a 28th seat next time would cement its status as the third most populous state ahead of New York, which has seen its House strength shrink steadily from its peak of 45 seats in the 1940s to 27 today.
If Pennsylvania loses its 19th seat, its delegation will be exactly half what it was at the height of the industrial age a century ago. If the predictions hold true, Ohio’s 15 seats (17 pivotal electoral votes) will be only three more than those for Virginia, another swing state. When Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980, Ohio had twice as many electoral votes.
The only state looking to lose population during this decade is West Virginia, so it’s sure to shrink from three House districts to two. And Rhode Island, which has been assigned a pair of seats for all but 20 years since the 1790s, is on the cusp of becoming the eighth state represented by an at-large member. That would be an all-time high.
All this will come true, of course, only if population trends hold steady and the Census Bureau’s count reflects the gains and losses accurately. And here’s where this year’s legislative politics come in. Already, demographers are fretting about reduced appropriations leading to serious census corner-cutting.
“It would be ironic,” said EDS President Kimball Brace, if “Republican-led efforts in the new Congress to cut government spending could cause Republican-leaning states like Texas to lose out in apportionment.”
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