New census data should be a boost to Democrats — but GOP is likely to win anyway

White, rural populations have shrunk over the last decade, but GOP still expected to gerrymander its way to victory

By Igor Derysh

Managing Editor

Published August 13, 2021 6:30AM (EDT)

House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

The United States saw unprecedented growth in diversity over the past decade as the white population declined for the first time in history, new census data showed on Thursday. But despite population growth among nonwhite and urban voters, which have been key Democratic voting blocs, Republicans are still expected to hold a decisive edge in the congressional redistricting process.

The Census Bureau released data used by states to redraw congressional and legislative districts, showing that while the white non-Hispanic population declined by more than 8% amid the slowest national population growth the country has seen since the 1930s, the Hispanic, Black and Asian-American populations continued to grow. For the first time in U.S. history, the white population has fallen to below 60% of the total.

"These changes reveal that the U.S. population is much more multiracial, and more racially and ethnically diverse, than what we measured in the past," Nicholas Jones, the director of race, ethnicity, research and outreach for the Census Bureau's Population Division, said during a news conference. He cautioned, however, that some of the changes may be the result of improvements the bureau has made to the survey.

The population also continued to become more urbanized. A majority of counties in the U.S. (52%) saw population declines, particularly among rural counties with fewer than 10,000 people. The population growth over the past decade was "almost entirely" in metropolitan areas, said Marc Perry, senior demographer at the Census Bureau's Population Division.

Metro areas grew by 8.7% while micro areas grew by just 0.8% and the population in rural areas declined by 2.8%. All 10 of the biggest cities in the United States, led by New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, saw population growth.

Perry highlighted the case of Texas, where the Hispanic population is now roughly equal to the number of non-Hispanic whites in the state, as a perfect example of the trend.

"Parts of the Houston, San Antonio, Austin, Dallas-Fort Worth, Midland and Odessa metro areas had population growth, whereas many of the state's other counties had population declines," he said.

The Asian-American population grew the fastest over the last 10 years, rising by 35%. The Hispanic population increased by 23% and the Black population grew by 5.6%. Nearly half of all children in the country are nonwhite. The number of people reporting two or more races or "other race" also significantly increased, suggesting that some of the trends may be the result of changes to how respondents self-identify.

It will take several weeks for states to sort through the data, which they will later use to draw new district maps. That process has frequently been described as politicians picking their own voters, rather than the other way around.

It would be reasonable to conclude that a more diverse population that is increasingly concentrated in urban centers would give Democrats an edge over Republicans, whose base of voters has grown increasingly white and rural in recent election cycles. In theory, that would still be the case even as red states like Texas and Florida are set to gain congressional seats, while blue states like New York and California will lose seats, given that the population increases in Texas and Florida are largely in those states' large metropolitan areas.

But that's not likely to be how it plays out in reality. Republicans have aggressively (and sometimes illegally) gerrymandered congressional districts in previous cycles, and hold total control over the redistricting process in 20 states, representing 187 congressional districts. Democrats have control of the process in 11 states, including just 84districts. Other states have split governments or independent redistricting commissions, which offer some protection against partisan gerrymanders.

Although the 2010 census showed similar trends to those seen in the new data, Republican gerrymanders allowed the party to hold decade-long majorities in many congressional delegations and state legislatures, even as Democrats began to consistently win larger shares of the vote. That has resulted in massive partisan gains for the GOP, according to a recent Associated Press analysis. Ohio Republicans have won 75% of the state's congressional seats, for instance despite never winning more than 58% of the vote. "The Republican advantage in Michigan's state House districts was so large after the GOP drew the maps that it could have played a role in determining control of the chamber in every election this past decade," the AP reported.

This cycle could be even more perilous for Democrats. Republicans aggressively sought to counter their presidential and Senate losses in 2020 by rolling out hundreds of bills to restrict voting access, especially in states where voters of color drove record-high turnout last year. Some Republican-led state legislatures are already looking to "crack" cities, where Democrats have typically won seats, by dividing them into multiple districts that also include far-flung suburban or rural areas, in hopes of guaranteeing further victories. 

Democrats have seen some success in lawsuits over overtly partisan gerrymanders, the Supreme Court in 2019 delivered a critical blow to that process, effectively barring federal courts from ruling on partisan gerrymanders.

With Democrats holding just a five-seat majority in the House right now, it's entirely possible Republicans could win control of the chamber in 2022 through gerrymandering alone. A recent study found that Republicans could gain up to 13 seats through gerrymandered districts in just four states: Florida, Texas, North Carolina and Georgia. That analysis did not include potential Democratic gains, such as in New York, where Democrats are likely to eliminate or flip a Republican seat for example. But opportunities for such Democratic pickups appear limited.

Instead, Democrats have increasingly pushed to implement independent redistricting commissions to create fair maps, or, as in the case of Oregon, have cut deals with Republicans, offering an equal number of congressional seats in exchange for an end to relentless GOP obstruction in the state legislature.

As a result, Democrats may have shot themselves in the foot: Republicans are ready and eager to redraw legislative maps aggressively, while their opponents seek to model good governance, perhaps at the expense of their own political fortunes. In fact, population trends showing migration flows from rural areas to urban centers, where Democrats typically predominate, could actually work against them in states like Michigan with independent redistricting panels, because Republican voters are more geographically dispersed.

"Even if you're not trying to gerrymander on behalf of Republicans," Matt Grossmann, director of the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research at Michigan State University, told the AP, "the fact that Democrats are concentrated in cities and in the inner-ring suburbs means that it is easier to accidentally gerrymander on behalf of Republicans."

By Igor Derysh

Igor Derysh is Salon's managing editor. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald and Baltimore Sun.

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