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OPINION | MICHAEL BARONE: Notes on a Census

May 3, 2021 at 1:00 a.m.

The covid-delayed results of the 2020 census are finally in, with totals for the 50 states and the District of Columbia at nearly one-third of a billion--331,449,281--and with surprises having to do with the short run and what French historians call the "longue duree."

The short-term news revolves around the function for which the framers of the Constitution mandated the world's first regularly scheduled census: the reapportionment of seats of the House of Representatives among the states. That's done according to a 1941 statutory formula that the Census Bureau conveniently applies.

The results were underwhelming. Only seven seats out of 435 were switched from one state to the other. Texas gained two, and Colorado, Florida, Montana, North Carolina and Oregon gained one each. Losing one each were California (for the first time in history), Illinois, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

Readers who keep up with these things will recognize that population and representation continue to flow from the Northeast and Midwest to the South and West and, generally, from Democratic states to Republican states. But they will also recognize the changes are small, nothing like the censuses in which one state gained eight seats (California in 1960) or another lost five (New York in 1980).

The partisan effects are likely to be small as well, expert forecasters agree. Sean Trende of Real Clear Politics predicts a Republican net gain of four seats. The Cook Political Report's David Wasserman pegs it at 3.5 and Kyle Kondik of Sabato's Crystal Ball at two. Not quite enough to overturn the 222-213 majority Democrats won in November 2020.

All three emphasize that the redistricting processes within the states could produce a wide range of results. According to Wasserman, Republicans control redistricting in states with 187 districts, Democrats in states with 75 districts and theoretically bipartisan commissions in states with 121 districts. Control is split between parties in states with 46 districts, and six states have just one district each.

That's less of an advantage than Republicans had in the 2010 cycle and about the same as they had in the 2000 cycle; it's less than the advantages Democrats had in the 1960, 1970 and 1980 cycles. Democrats' advantages then derived from their majorities in northern metro areas and near monopolies in the South. Republicans' more recent advantages are due mainly to the clustering of Democratic voters in central cities, sympathetic suburbs and university towns, while Republican voters are more evenly spread around the country.

Population outflows were less than expected, especially in New York, New Jersey and Rhode Island. The latter two didn't lose seats as expected, and New York was only 89 people short of not losing a seat for the first time since 1940.

Speaking of which, the picture the census paints of the 2010-20 decade closely resembles that of the long-past decade of 1930-40. In those 10 years, dominated by the Great Depression of 1929-33 and its echo in the Roosevelt Recession of 1937-39, the nation's population increased by only 7.3 percent.

That's eerily similar to the 7.4 percent in the decade that just ended, dominated by the sluggish Obama recovery of 2009-16 and the downscale-driven, pre-covid Trump upturn of 2017-19. These two stand out as the lowest growth intervals in American history; in every other 10-year period, the nation's population has grown by double-digit (rounded off) percentages.

In each case, the previous decade was a poor guide for the one that followed, because the earlier one featured an abrupt decline, almost to zero, in immigration from abroad. That was the intended result of the 1924 Immigration Act. It was the unintended (and largely unnoticed) result of the housing price collapse in 2007, which struck first in markets with heavy Hispanic immigration. New York started gaining House seats after the 1892-1924 Ellis Island immigration ended; California stopped gaining them after the 1982-2007 inflow from Mexico stopped.

By 1940, Americans had settled into a period of partisan parity and gridlock: Democrats won the presidency in four of six elections, from 1940 to 1960, but a coalition of Republicans and conservative Democrats controlled Congress for almost all that time. Partisan parity and gridlock are certainly familiar now: Joe Biden's congressional majorities are almost identical to George W. Bush's 20 years ago.

But some things can change. The census conducted on April 1, 1940, came just weeks before the fall of France and the accession of Winston Churchill. Within months, Depression America became Wartime America, and then, a few years later, it became Postwar America: No more hunkering down. As America emerges from lockdown, are similar changes and challenges ahead?


Michael Barone is a senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner.

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