How bad is the census news for Democrats?

Mike Bebernes
·Senior Editor
·6 min read

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

The first numbers from the nation’s decennial census were published this week. On top of providing top-level figures about the U.S. population — which grew to 331,449,281 last year — census data is used to determine how many seats in the House of Representatives and how many Electoral College votes each state gets.

The total number of House seats is capped at 435, meaning for one state to gain a seat, another state must lose one. Texas added 4 million new residents in the past 10 years and is the only state to gain two additional congressional seats. Colorado, Florida, North Carolina, Montana and Oregon each get one more seat. California, New York, Ohio, Michigan, Illinois and West Virginia each lost one seat as well. The Census Bureau said New York would have kept its seat if just 89 more people in the state had been counted.

Attempting to count everyone in the U.S. is an extremely difficult task under the best of circumstances, but 2020 presented unprecedented challenges. The coronavirus pandemic made the in-person interviews that typically make up the backbone of the census unsafe to conduct. The count was also thrown into uncertainty by a back-and-forth over the Trump administration’s failed attempts to add a citizenship question to the survey — a move seen by critics as an attempt to deter immigrants from participating.

Why there’s debate

The reallocation of congressional seats is widely considered to be a win for Republicans as they seek to reclaim the House in 2022. Five of the new seats are being granted to states that voted for Donald Trump both times he was on the ballot. Four of the states losing those seats voted for Biden in 2020. The new map could give the GOP a slight boost in the next presidential election. Had the new Electoral College apportionment been in place last year, President Biden’s margin of victory over Donald Trump would have shrunk by three votes. That wouldn’t have changed the outcome, but three Electoral College votes could be critical if the 2024 or 2028 races are more competitive.

The census is also followed every 10 years by redistricting, the process in which states redraw House districts based on new population data. Experts say redistricting is where the GOP has an even bigger advantage, since Republican-led state legislatures have more power than their blue-state counterparts to create maps that give them the best chance of winning the highest number of seats — a process called gerrymandering.

There is a sense among some Democrats, however, that the news could have been much worse for them. Many census experts had expected the shift of House seats from blue to red states to be even bigger than it was. Some estimates predicted Texas and Florida to each receive one more seat than they did. Both states have large Latino populations, which could indicate that the battle over the citizenship question stunted Republican gains in these states.

Democrats may also be able to take advantage of redistricting to improve their odds of holding the House. It’s possible, for example, that New York’s lost seat could currently be located in one of the state’s Republican districts. Congressional Democrats are also pushing for the passage of a sweeping voting rights bill that, among its many reforms, would establish independent redistricting commissions to prevent gerrymandering.

What’s next

Redistricting can’t begin in earnest until more detailed census data is released sometime later this year. That process is expected to be fiercely contentious as the two parties jockey to draw congressional maps that give them the best chance of holding power in Washington.

Perspectives

The GOP's odds of taking back the House in 2022 are stronger

“The current lineup in the House is 218 Democrats to 212 Republicans. Population shifts nationwide...are one of the two big reasons Republicans are seen as having a good chance to win control of the House of Representatives in the 2024 elections. (In addition, the president’s party typically loses seats.)” — Anthony Man, South Florida Sun Sentinel

Republicans got a boost, but it's small

“Changes in how many congressional representatives each state gets for 2022 and beyond appear to benefit Republicans — but only a little.” — Emily Brooks, Washington Examiner

Big, Republican-leaning states have become even more important

“Reapportionment will advantage Republicans because votes are shifting to states that lean towards the GOP. Places like Florida and Texas will be big winners, and Republican presidential candidates do very well there.” — Elections expert Darrell West to Washington Examiner

The GOP is in a strong position to take advantage of redistricting

“The detailed data needed to draw official district lines won't be released until the fall. But Republicans, who only need to pick up five seats to win back the House, enter the upcoming mapping wars with a clear advantage.” — David Wasserman, Cook Political Report

The citizenship question fight may have backfired on Republicans

“We do not know how many Hispanics were frightened by this ploy (thereby potentially depressing the count), but it is a reminder that simply because Republicans engage in antidemocratic tactics designed to preserve white supremacy does not mean they know what they are doing. They are entirely capable of self-sabotage.” — Jennifer Rubin, Washington Post

Democrats’ path to winning the Electoral College becomes more difficult

“One example of how it gets slightly tougher for Dems: it is no longer true that whoever wins three of PA/MI/AZ/WI/GA wins the presidency, as was true in 2020, provided other states vote as they did. Now, Dems can't win with three smaller states — MI/WI/AZ or GA/WI/AZ — alone.” — Nate Cohn, New York Times

Population trends are bad news for the GOP in the long term

“In the long term, it’s not clear the migration is good news for Republicans. Many of the fastest-growing states are increasingly competitive political battlegrounds where the new arrivals — including many young people and people of color — could at some point give Democrats an edge.” — Mike Schneider and Nicholas Riccardi, Associated Press

The fact that we have a reasonably accurate census at all is good for everyone

“Winner: American democracy. There were real fears that the Census numbers would come in too late to be practically applied to draw new district lines in the House, which could have set off all manner of trouble. Fortunately, while the time frame is a bit more compressed than usual, there should be ample time for states to draw new maps.” — Dan McLaughlin, National Review

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