Into the Blue

The new census data may favor Republicans, but long-term demographic trends favor Democrats.

A census form

When the United States Census Bureau released its new 2010 population data on Tuesday, the biggest headline—other than our arrival at the crucial benchmark of 308,400,408 people in America—was that the numbers favor Republicans in 2012. That’s true on its face: Several red states got more House representatives, while blue states lost some. But that ignores the shifting demographics of the country, which in the long run favor Democrats.

The census data released yesterday counted people, but it didn’t say anything about who they are. The figures show that the populations of traditionally Republican states like Texas, Georgia, Arizona, and Utah are growing, while those of Democratic states like New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey grew less. *  The faster-growing states therefore get more congressional districts—Texas gains four seats in the House, for example—while the slower-growing states lose them.

What the data doesn’t tell you—yet—is the demographic makeup of these shifting populations: their race, ethnicity, age, education level, and income. The Census Bureau will roll out that data in February and March, according to a spokesman. Until then, we won’t know whether the United States is becoming more Democratic or more Republican.

But trends over the last decade or so suggest the country is becoming bluer. When we talk about population growth in the United States, we’re almost invariably talking about a group that votes Democratic. Political scientist Ruy Teixeira, who co-authored The Emerging Democratic Majority back in 2006, points out that minority voters have grown by 11 percent over the last 20 years while relatively conservative white working-class voters have decreased by 15 points. Emory University’s Alan Abramowitz projects that nonwhite voters will constitute one-third of the electorate in 2020. (By 2042, the entire U.S. population will be more than half minority.) College-educated women, 65 percent of whom supported Obama in 2008, went from 8 percent of the over-25 female population to 28 percent over the last 40 years. Young voters, who went for Obama 66-32, add 4 million new members to their ranks every year. Professionals, 68 percent of whom voted for Obama, are the “fastest-growing occupational group,” according to Teixeira. And, adding insult to injury, the fastest-growing religious population is “unaffiliated” voters, three-quarters of whom voted for Obama.

Does that mean the country will become permanently Democratic? Of course not. Both parties will adjust to accommodate the shifting demographics. But Republicans will be playing catchup. The GOP will inevitably become more amenable to immigration reform, gay marriage, and separation of church and state, as their constituencies become more Hispanic, educated, and godless, respectively. Hispanics may not support Democrats forever—in 2004, about 40 percent voted for Bush—and some young Democrats will become old Republicans, but the blue team will have a lead.

Even the Republicans’ short-term gains aren’t all good news. Democrats point out that much of the population growth tracked by the 2010 census is in blue regions of red states. For example, Nevada leans Republican but its population boom is largely in Democratic Clark County. Same with Texas, where the boom is attributable mainly to an influx of Latinos and African-Americans. “Latinos have a significant presence in the states that gained congressional seats and less of a presence in states that lost seats,” says Paul Taylor of the Pew Research Center.

Gerrymandering can blunt the impact of Democratic population growth. That’s why the Republicans’ domination of state legislatures is a big deal: Even if a state’s Hispanic population is booming, redistricting makes it easy to squeeze them into the smallest number of districts. Gerrymandering can backfire if a party gets overzealous, but the shakeout will likely favor the GOP. That said, political winds don’t really matter when the ground is shifting underneath.

Like Slate on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.Correction, Dec. 30, 2010: This article originally stated that New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey shrank in population. The census shows that those states grew in population, but not as much as other states. (Return to the corrected sentence.)