Migration of Diverse Populations to South Creates Shift in Political Stronghold

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The 2010 Census will underscore the shift in political power as Americans migrate from the Northeast and Midwest

Bobbi Bowman
December 8, 2008

The Democrats crossed the Mason-Dixon Line just in time. Just in time for the 2010 Census.

On Election Day, the Democratic presidential ticket won three Southern states: Virginia, North Carolina and Florida.

In the previous two elections, 2000 and 2004, the Democrats had failed to carry a single Southern state. And they had won only one Western state.

That meant that the Republicans captured the two sections of the country swelling in population. More population equals more political power. The Democrats prevailed in the Northeast and the Midwest - regions that are oozing population and, therefore, shedding seats in the House of Representatives and electoral votes. The only bright spot for the Democrats is their lock on the West Coast: Washington, Oregon and California, which they have won since 1992. These are growth states, especially California.

The U.S. Census has always been about power. In 1790, the Founding Fathers established a 10-year Census so they would know how to apportion power in the House of Representatives, where seats are awarded based on state population.

This year, Democrats and Republicans battled over Pennsylvania and Ohio, Florida and Virginia. The Democrats won all four. Just look at the differences in power and potential:

  • Pennsylvania. In 1960, the Keystone State had 24 seats in the House. Then the population started to erode in this Rust Belt state. In 2008, it has 18 seats. Since 2000, the U.S. population has grown by 7 percent. Pennsylvania's population has barely inched over 1 percent. The future: The Keystone State will probably lose another seat based on redistricting after the 2010 Census.
  • Ohio. Another Rust Belt state. 1960: 24 seats. 2000: 18 seats. Growth rate: 1 percent. The future: Goodbye to another member of Congress.
  • Florida. 1960: 12 seats. 2000: 25 seats. The Sunshine State has more than tripled in population in the past 40 years and, therefore, has more than doubled its congressional team. Growth rate: 14 percent, double the national average. The future: Hello to another congressional seat.
  • Virginia. 1960: 10 seats. 2000: 11 seats. Growth rate: nearly 9 percent. Obama not only won Virginia, but Democrats also defeated two incumbent Republicans in the House and captured another seat vacated by a retiring Republican. Democrats are now a majority in the Virginia delegation.

The Mason-Dixon Line between North and South has come to have a new meaning: the demarcation between stagnant America and surging America. Every state from Maine to the Mississippi River, the heart of the Democratic electorate, has a growth rate less than the national average. This is the Old America that is losing population and political power.

Practically every southern state from Virginia to Texas enjoys double-digit growth and welcomes new House seats with each Census. This is the New America.

Since 2000, the South has added 3.2 million more people. That's about the same number that the Northeast and Midwest have lost. In 2000, states in the South and the West gained 12 additional House seats. The Northeast and Midwest lost 10.

These trends will intensify. The oldest Baby Boomers turn 66, retirement age, in 2012, likely accelerating the departures from Michigan, New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania to retirement communities and golf courses in North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee. This population shift will probably mean that Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia will replace Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan as presidential battleground states.

The Civil War made white Southerners Democrats for 100 years. The 1965 Voting Rights Act enraged a majority of white Southerners, converting them from Democrats to Republicans. But that law has finally fulfilled the promise of the 15th Amendment, which gave black men the right to vote. In 2008, Northern migrants to the South joined with young voters, black voters and Latino voters to put Virginia, North Carolina and Florida back in the Democratic column.

The South is rising again. It's the Next South.

Last word: John McCain's defeat means that the "Silent Generation" - Americans born between 1926 and 1945 - is the only 20th-century generation that has failed to produce a U.S. president. Its predecessor, the World War II Generation (1905-1925), produced six presidents, from John F. Kennedy to George H. W. Bush. Its successor, the Baby Boomers (1946-1964), has produced three presidents so far: Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Besides McCain, the Silent Generation includes former presidential candidates Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, and Jesse Jackson.

Bobbi Bowman, a longtime newspaper reporter and editor, is diversity director for the American Society of Newspaper Editors.





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