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Sunbelt population growth could lead to possible Republican gains

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 21, 2010 - WASHINGTON - The U.S. Census numbers released Tuesday -- trumpeting a new national population estimate of 308,745,538 and documenting a persistent trend of population growth in the Southwest -- represent a crucial first step in reshaping the nation's political landscapes and redistributing federal funds.

As the nation's population continues its Sunbelt migration -- moving the nation's population center farther south and westward across Missouri, and possibly into northwest Arkansas -- that trend will give more congressional clout to what are now regarded as mostly "red states" in the South and West.

For the first time in American history, the West as a region has a higher population than the Midwest. That results from the West's increase of 13.8 percent over the past 10 years, overshadowing the Midwest's sluggish 3.9 percent growth as a region. The highest rate of growth was recorded in the South (14.3 percent) and the lowest growth was in the Northeast (3.2 percent.)

Missouri slipped down one position to become the 18th most populous state, even though its population increased by about 7 percent, to 5,988,927 residents as of April 1. When the state's additional 22,551 "overseas residents" -- mostly service members abroad -- are counted, it brings Missouri's total "apportionment population" (used to figure congressional seats) to 6,011,478.

Illinois grew at a slower rate, by about 3.3 percent, to an apportionment population of 12,864,380 -- which keeps the state as the nation's fifth most populous -- after California (37.3 million), Texas (25 million), New York (19.4 million) and Florida (18.8 million).

Missouri and Illinois each lost a congressional seat -- with their rates of population growth failing to keep pace with the national average of 9.7 percent growth over the decade -- while the faster-growing states of Texas (gaining 4 seats) and Florida (up by 2 seats) led the nation in apportionment growth, followed by six other states that picked up one seat: Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, Utah, South Carolina and Washington.

Losing the most congressional clout were New York and Ohio, which each drop by two seats. Eight states lost a single seat: In addition to Missouri and Illinois, the other states suffering losses were Iowa, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Experts said that Missouri came close to retaining all of its seats, but was eclipsed in state population growth by Minnesota, which grew by 7.8 percent.

Red, Blue or Purple?

That overall shift of 12 seats, affecting 18 states, will clearly increase the clout of the West and the South in Congress and might also give Republicans an advantage in upcoming congressional and presidential elections, starting in 2012. But the extent of any advantage will depend a great deal on the details of the census counts, which will be released starting in February until March. Most of the population gains in the Southwest were driven by Hispanics and other minorities, meaning that the new congressional districts are likely to be drawn in regions where they live -- giving a potential advantage to Democrats.

Congressional clout is only one impact of the new census. Its results also are used to distribute more than $400 billion in annual federal aid and will change each state's Electoral College votes, beginning with the 2012 presidential election.

Because of the continued Sunbelt shift, the U.S. center of population -- located for the past decade in Phelps County in east-central Missouri -- is shifting southward, perhaps even across the border into northern Arkansas.

"We've not yet computed the new center" of population, said Robert M. Groves, director of the U.S. Census Bureau, noting that it will require analysis of the basic census numbers. "We can't wait to see whether the center will remain somewhere in the state of Missouri or move south into Arkansas."

Groves said that "the value of tracking the nation's center of population over time is that is shows how our population has changed over time." The earliest census of 1790 put the nation's population center in Maryland.

The long-term political impact of the new census numbers was being debated Tuesday. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said, "I don't think [the new census numbers] will have a huge practical impact" on presidential politics.

"I don't see why there's any reason why in a number of these places both parties can't be equally competitive," Gibbs said at a White House briefing, noting that there are "Southwestern and Southeastern states that have been purple [neither solidly Republican nor Democratic] in many elections, and that means the people in them make up their individual decisions based on who the candidates are and what the election is."

William Frey, a Brookings Institution demographic expert in Washington, said that even though Sunbelt states are growing faster than other regions, "the populations themselves may change voting patterns." Demographers say many Democratic or independent voters have moved to the Sunbelt states that experienced the highest growth.

Census data that include information on race or ethnicity will not be released until February, officials said, but earlier statistical analysis has indicated that Hispanics and other minority populations are changing the overall makeup of the population.

In the House

* The number of House seats in each state is determined by an "equal proportion" method that is described by this Census Bureau's video explaining the method.

* After the 2000 census, Missouri's House had representation remained unchanged at nine, but Illinois lost a seat to its current 19. (Click here to read about apportionment through the years.)

* Since the first national census was conducted in 1790, district lines have been redrawn every 10 years based on the latest figures. The number of Americans included in each U.S. House district has steadily increased over the years, from 34,000 residents in the first census to about 647,000 based on figures from 2000. For 2010, the average population of each House district grew to 710,767.

* The last time the number of members of the House was changed was in 1913, when Congress set the membership at its current 435. Read the Census Bureau's detailed guide to 2010 redistricting data.

Rob Koenig is an award-winning journalist and author. He worked at the STL Beacon until 2013.

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