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Census Points to Continued Republican Strength

2:10 PM, Dec 20, 2010 • By JAY COST
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Tomorrow's Census Bureau report on House district apportionment is set to be good news for the Republican Party:

The 2010 census report coming out Tuesday will include a boatload of good political news for Republicans and grim data for Democrats hoping to re-elect President Barack Obama and rebound from last month's devastating elections.

The population continues to shift from Democratic-leaning Rust Belt states to Republican-leaning Sun Belt states, a trend the Census Bureau will detail in its once-a-decade report to the president. Political clout shifts, too, because the nation must reapportion the 435 House districts to make them roughly equal in population, based on the latest census figures.

The biggest gainer will be Texas, a GOP-dominated state expected to gain up to four new House seats, for a total of 36. The chief losers — New York and Ohio, each projected by nongovernment analysts to lose two seats — were carried by Obama in 2008 and are typical of states in the Northeast and Midwest that are declining in political influence.

The most recent report I have seen on Census estimates suggests that the Sun Belt looks to gain a net of 9 House districts, with losses coming mostly from the Northeast and industrial Midwest. 

This kind of growth is nothing new for the Sun Belt states, as the following chart suggests.

As the AP report indicates, a growing Sunbelt means a growing GOP coalition. How these House seats will actually divide between the parties remains to be seen, but if you re-run the 2004 presidential election -- which George W. Bush won with 286 electoral votes to John Kerry's 251 -- with the estimates, Bush would take 292 electoral votes to John Kerry's 245. Barack Obama won 365 electoral votes to John McCain's 173, but if you re-run the 2008 presidential election with the new apportionment estimates, Obama would have won 359 electors to McCain's 179. In other words, demographic shifts alone should net the GOP about as many presidential electoral votes as there are in Kansas.

How the Republican Party came to be the beneficiary of these demographic shifts is an interesting story that every conservative should know. Fifty-years-ago, Republicans surveyed the wreckage that was the Grand Old Party with despair. Richard Nixon had lost to John F. Kennedy that year, and it seemed to many that the party's only hope of victory was to run somebody with the credibility of Dwight Eisenhower. The Republican problem was one of simple electoral math. The party's historic heartland, the Northeast, had shifted decisively to the Democratic Party, forcing the party's old-line conservative establishment to move to the center, as the only way to win was to convince Northeastern Democrats to vote Republican. Lacking a candidate with the crossover appeal of Eisenhower, this seemed to be an impossible task. You can see the implications in the 1960 results. JFK's popular vote victory was narrow, but his Electoral College win was much broader. Nixon would have had to flip at least three states to carry the White House. Easier said than done!

This points to the original logic of the Barry Goldwater candidacy. The Kennedy coalition of Southern and Northeastern states was an unwieldy one -- these two regions have been set against one another since the earliest Federalist-Jeffersonian split -- and it seemed like the Republican Party could, in theory, take advantage. The thinking was that JFK would run for reelection in 1964, and the best shot the GOP had was a candidate who could appeal to Southern and Western voters over the Northeastern JFK.  

Kennedy's assassination, the subsequent LBJ candidacy, and Goldwater's terrible performance on the stump meant that this strategy was a total flop in 1964, but it pointed the way toward a more conservative Republican Party that was indeed built on an alliance of the South and the West.  The GOP sweeps of the 1980s along with the Clintonian "New Democrat" pitch meant that this South-West GOP coalition did not fully manifest itself on a presidential level for some time after Goldwater, but George W. Bush's coalition of Southern and Western states nevertheless has its roots in the party's move out of the Northeast in the 1960s.

This is also, I hasten to add, why the Republican Party of today is a conservative one -- why it is a "choice, not an echo." After the smashing political success of the New Deal, prominent Republicans like Nelson Rockefeller of New York and Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. of Massachusetts could only survive electorally by blurring the distinctions between themselves and the Democrats. This was, broadly speaking, the strategy of every presidential candidate the Republicans ran from 1936 and 1980 -- with the one exception of Goldwater in 1964. His candidacy was an electoral disaster, of course, and ironically it gave LBJ the kind of congressional majority needed to implement the very agenda Goldwater was running against. But in the long run it was the South and the West that gave the Republican Party the ability not only to win, but to win as a conservative political coalition and to offer something more than a "Dime Store New Deal."

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