An Urban's Rural View

Americans on the Move, Elections in the Balance

Urban C Lehner
By  Urban C Lehner , Editor Emeritus
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In a nation that's increasingly polarized between urban and rural, liberal and conservative, demography has long been thought to favor the Democrats. In the long run, it probably still does. In the shorter run, judging from new U.S. Census Bureau statistics, who benefits from population changes is less clear.

The reason demographers have given Democrats the nod is the increase in the population of "communities of color" -- Hispanics, blacks, Asians and others. These communities are already a big enough force that if their voter turnout rate in 2016 had been the same as whites', Hillary Clinton would likely be president(…).

One big factor helping Donald Trump and the Republicans was votes from older, non-college-educated whites. That's a boost they're likely to get again in 2020, but it's from a population that will gradually fade away even as communities of color continue to grow. Assuming nonwhites continue in their current voting patterns, then, the long run demographic outlook seems to favor the Democrats.

In the short run, though, the trends are more complex, and not just because of the continuing prominence of non-college educated whites. For one thing, domestic migration -- Americans moving to new states in the south and west -- will give red states more members of Congress and blue states fewer. U.S. Census Bureau statistics for 2019 reinforce forecasts that when the 2020 census is complete later this year, 10 states -- seven of them blue -- will lose a seat in Congress. Seven states -- five traditionally red -- will take over those 10 seats. (…)

The biggest winners will be Texas, which will pick up three seats, and Florida, which will gain two. In recent decades they have been reliable Republican-voting states, as have North Carolina, Montana, and, for the most part, Arizona, each of which will get one additional seat. The two other states gaining a seat are Oregon (traditionally blue) and Colorado (increasingly purple).

Four of the seat-losing states are true blue -- California, New York, Illinois and Rhode Island. One, Minnesota, is sort of blue. Also losing seats are Michigan, a traditionally blue state that voted for Donald Trump in 2016, and Pennsylvania, which voted for Democratic presidents from 1990 to 2012 but went for Trump in 2016. The other three seat losers are Alabama (true red), Ohio (leaning red lately but historically oscillates between the parties) and West Virginia (increasingly red).

On balance this sounds good for the Republicans, but whether it really is depends on the migrants' profile. How will they vote in their new states? Are they mainly Republicans escaping the blue states' high taxes or mainly Democrats fleeing to the red states for weather or lifestyle reasons? Both low taxes and weather have clearly been a big draw for Texas and Florida; lifestyle migration probably contributes to Colorado's purple cast.

The migrants could also be independents who lean one way or the other, or -- perhaps most likely -- some mix of all these possibilities. Which mix clearly matters. It's even possible the migrants could change colors under the influence of their new neighbors, at least on some issues. Democrats who hail from New Jersey might, as new Floridians, support lower taxes yet continue to favor gun control.

Domestic migration wouldn't change anything if the majority always ruled in U.S. elections. It doesn't. Every state has two senators, which means, a Washington Post columnist calculates, that the 20 least populated states have 40% of the senators but only 10% of the nation's people (…).

Moreover, as we've seen twice in recent decades, including in 2016, a president can be elected with a minority of the popular vote. Some analysts think Republican presidential candidates could continue to win the next couple of presidential elections that way -- with a minority of the popular vote but a majority in the electoral college.

Census Bureau statistics indicate that the "natural increase" in our country's population caused by births outnumbering deaths is declining. In 2019 for the first time in decades the natural increase fell below one million (…). Also declining as a factor in the population is net international migration, and with an anti-immigration administration in Washington that trend is likely to continue.

Domestic migration, then, could become an ever more important factor in electoral outcomes. States' populations determine their representation in the lower house of Congress hinges and their voting power in the electoral college. While the nation as a whole may be getting bluer, it's possible -- though not certain -- that domestic migration could give the red states a continuing edge.

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