Reading between the Census Leaves

Posted by By at 24 December, at 15 : 31 PM Print

Scott Paterno

This past Tuesday was a kind of holiday for political junkies like myself.  The release of the decennial census – and the reapportionment of seats – is literally a twice in a generation phenomena.  Its importance on the political landscape is evident, from the apportionment of congressional seats to the distribution of federal funds (roughly $16Billion of the annual PA budget is census related) – and there is no better example than our own fair Pennsylvania.

In the early days of the Republic the census showed the increasing relative strength of our Commonwealth – we gained seats generally, peaking 110 years ago when we had 32 seats out of a possible 386 – nearly 9% of the room.  10 years later we would hold 36 of 435 – a smidge lower than the percentage before – a high water mark that we would hold for 20 years.

Since then it has been a steady shedding of seats for Penn’s Woods.  In 1930 we lost 2, followed by drops of 1, 3, 3, 2, 2, 2, and 2 in 2000.  This year we lost one seat – a comparative victory given the trend – but it is a loss that means in 100 years we have lost 50% of our influence in congress.

The reapportionment of seats is just part of the census process, as there are literally 50 different ways (OK, only 43 – 7 states have only one seat) to decide the shape and nature of districts.  And while a lot of the focus is on who gained and lost seats – and who holds the levers of power in those states – the WHERE in each state is as important as the total number.  Again, right here in PA, we can expect all kinds of maneuvering on BOTH the Federal and the state house seat level as the GOP tries to mitigate the effect of population concentration in the more generally democratic southeast and the loss of population in the trending GOP west.

There is a lot at stake, and, as usual, there will be winners and losers.  This is by no means a comprehensive list – and I have avoided any discussion of the current President, as that will be over analyzed for weeks to come.


1.  The 2012 GOP field. Of the 8 states that gained the 12 new seats, 7 and 11, respectively, look like either GOP locks or leaners come 2012.  The news is even better than at first blush: in the 8 states with gains the GOP controls the process in 5 (9 seats), has a split in one, and faces commissions in the other 2.  Figure the odds are the GOP nets at minimum 8 Electoral College votes, with a real shot at 10.

2.  Texas, Texas, Texas. As if things weren’t good enough, the Texans netted 4 seats, reflecting a whopping 20% increase in population.  The fact is Texas has recovered from the housing bubble, its economy is growing, it has a business friendly climate and is making a mint off energy production again.  Things are good in the Lone Star State, and the increasing power of the state reflects that.  If the population trend lines stay at this rate, Texas will be the most populous state in the Union before the turn of the next century.  Or they will secede.

3.  Rhode Island. The strange little state is apparently riding the wave of its “Original 13” cred to keep two seats.  In spite of almost no growth (.4% since 2000, and that is trending into negative numbers now), Rhode Island, and its mere 63,152 more people than Montana (who still has just 1 seat, the most populous CD), will continue to have the smallest congressional districts anywhere.  Contrast that with Idaho, which also has 2 CDs, robust 21% growth, and 500,000 more people.  Rhode Island must know somebody…


1.  The Rust Belt/New England. A look at who lost seats tells the tale – the Northeast’s declining influence is obvious.  The losses in New York, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts in a way mirror what the Northeast and its rust belt appendages have become – the Western Europe of the North American Continent.

The social nets, the declining tax base, the crumbling, 100 year old infrastructure and the decaying workforce sure looks like Western Europe.  And the legacy costs in these states – higher property taxes and housing costs in part because of their established bases as “old ground” in this new Republic – makes the south and west more and more attractive.  Plus for anyone currently contemplating walking a dog this fine day, where would you rather be?  Scotsdale, AZ?  Or Harrisburg, PA?

2.  Montana. Yeah, I know this is a hang up of mine, but think about it.  Rhode Island, at its current rate of growth will have two congressional districts in 2020 with a population of 1,085,000.  Montana will have 1,186,000 – and one Congressional District.  Maybe, when the reapportionment committee looks at this in the future, the trend lines of population growth could be factored in?  Or are we hoping that a Kennedy will come and run for the R.I. 2nd CD someday?

3.  Louisiana. Census numbers are hard numbers, but the population rate in Louisiana is reflective of a huge loss from Katrina that is still slowly coming back.  As it stands, Louisiana will have 6 CDs with roughly 750,000 people each, larger than the national average of 710,00 – and a quarter million per district more than Rhode Island’s 2 districts.  Had New Orleans kept another 150,000 people Louisiana would still have 7 CDs.  Maybe, in light of the cause for the population loss, we could have acknowledged that Rhode Island is trending smaller and given that seat to Louisiana.  Maybe.

4.  California. A couple years ago I saw an ad for California.  It was populated with beautiful people, spectacular views, and the Gover-nator inviting me to move there.  I said to my wife “you would think that place sells itself.”  Well, it doesn’t.  High taxes, slow growth, and just this side of crazy politics have conspired to make the Golden State a little less, well, Golden.  For the first time since the completion of the Las Angeles aqueduct, California is not gaining a single seat.  The growth rate – trending down the last half of the decade – barely generated enough to feed all 53 districts.  That is really good news for the GOP, as this past election makes it clear that California’s voting for the Dems – for a while.

5.  Michigan. It is no secret that I am some disposed against the Rodent State (what?  Aren’t wolverines rodents?), but this is one that just jumps out at you.  Michigan was the only state to lose real population numbers – even Louisiana with its Katrina losses managed to grow at a 1.4% rate.   Want to know how bad it is in Michigan?  For every one family that moves to Michigan, two families move out.

Those are just the tip of the iceberg.  The reality is the census drives so much of our politics and our policies that it is a little disconcerting that it receives so little public notice.  But, like so many of the things that really shape our political options and choices, it is neither sexy or exciting – like local elections and school board meetings

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This post was written by:
- who has written 77 posts for Rock The Capital
Scott Paterno is an accomplished policy analyst and political consultant based in Hershey, PA. Mr. Paterno, never one to sit still, has practiced law, run for a house seat, and worked as lobbyist in Harrisburg and Washington. Paterno is Vice Chairman of the Sustainable Energy Fund and is currently pursuing a master’s degree in Political Science. He is happily married with three children. - Email scottp

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