America's population center is edging away from the Midwest, pulled by Hispanic growth in the Southwest, according to the latest census figures. The historic shift is changing the nation's politics and even the traditional notion of the country's heartland — long the symbol of mainstream American beliefs and culture.
The West is now home to the four fastest-growing states — Nevada, Arizona, Utah and Idaho — and has surpassed the Midwest in population, according to 2010 figures. California and Texas added to the southwestern population tilt, making up more than one-fourth of the nation's total gains since 2000.
When the Census Bureau announces a new mean center of population next month, geographers think it will be placed in or around Texas County, Mo., southwest of the current location in Missouri's Phelps County. That would put the center at the outer edge of the Midwest, on a path to leave the region by midcentury.
"The geography is clearly shifting, with the West beginning to emerge as America's new heartland," said Robert Lang, a sociology professor at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, who regularly crunches data to determine the nation's center. "It's a pace-setting region that is dominant in population growth, but also as a swing point in American politics."
The last time the U.S. center fell outside the Midwest was 1850, in the eastern territory now known as West Virginia. Its later move to the Midwest bolstered the region as the nation's cultural heartland in the 20th century, central to U.S. farming and Rust Belt manufacturing sites.
In the 1960s, "Will it play in Peoria?" was a common phrase that coincided with the U.S. center's location in Illinois. It was a measure of whether a politician or consumer product could appeal to mainstream Americans with traits associated with Midwesterners, such as stability and caution.
But over the last decade, the Phoenix suburb of Peoria, Ariz., soared past its namesake Peoria, Ill., in population size. Democrat Barack Obama in 2008 successfully made the Republican-leaning Mountain West a key component to winning election, with Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico now considered swing states.
The Census Bureau calculates the mean U.S. center every 10 years based on its national head count. The center represents the middle point of the nation's population distribution — the geographic point at which the country would balance if each of its 308.7 million residents weighed the same.
The latest 2010 figures show a loss of House seats for states including Missouri and those east of it, primarily in the Midwest's declining Rust Belt. Eight of the 12 pickups in House seats occur in states west of Missouri, with Florida, Georgia and South Carolina in the southeastern Sun Belt being the exceptions.
The fastest U.S. growth is occurring in the Mountain West, which includes Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming. As California's growth slows, many of the Mountain West arrivals are Hispanic immigrants seeking jobs and affordable family living. Hispanics tend to lean Democratic when voting.
California, which failed to add a House seat in the 2010 census for the first time in its history, would have lost population if it weren't for growth among Hispanics and other minorities, estimates show. The state, the nation's largest in terms of population with 37.3 million, continues to grow primarily from immigration and births.
"Instead of serving as the migration magnet of the West, California has become the anchor for an expanding Western region," said William Frey, a demographer at Brookings Institution. "The old phrase, 'Go West, young man' has now turned to 'Eastward, ho' for California's young residents, recent immigrants and retirees as they spill into neighboring states. It may never again gain another congressional seat."