Preliminary numbers released by the Census Bureau yesterday are a modest dose of good news for Republicans eager to hold onto gains made in Congress during the 1990s.
The figures, which will be used to apportion the distribution of members in the House of Representatives, show that key Southern states Georgia, Texas, and Florida will pick up two seats each, while important Northern states New York and Pennsylvania will each lose two seats.
“Clearly, what that portends is more influence for the more conservative areas of the country,” Georgia-based Republican strategist Whit Ayres said. “That has been the trend of the last 30 years or so.”
Republicans tend to dominate Southern and Western states, while Democrats tend to control Northern states and the Pacific Coast. Gains in the South and West, which voted solidly for President-elect George W. Bush, would likely solidify Republican control there.
Republican-leaning states in the West picked up seats as well, with Nevada up one and Arizona gaining two. Only a few Republican-leaning states lost seats: Indiana, Oklahoma, Mississippi and Ohio will each drop one.
Democrats were cheered by California’s gaining one seat, where the Republican Party has largely collapsed in recent years, but that was the only case in which an unequivocally Democratic state picked up a seat.
In addition to New York and Pennsylvania, four Democratic-leaning states lost seats: Connecticut, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin each lost one representative.
The number of House seats also determines the number of Electoral College votes that each state controls in presidential elections. Had the 2000 presidential election been conducted using the new numbers rather than the numbers based on the 1990 census, Texas Gov. George W. Bush would have defeated Vice President Al Gore by a more comfortable 278-260 margin rather than the wafer-thin margin of 271-267.
But while the numbers appear on the surface to favor Republicans, Democrats say they are not disheartened. The actual effect of the changes is impossible to measure until the state legislatures redraw the congressional district lines next year.
“There are a lot of different dominoes to fall and a lot of equations that are difficult to predict,” Democratic strategist Mark Mellman said.
Just because New York loses two seats, for example, does not mean that Democrats will automatically lose those seats. Republican incumbent Amo Houghton, who represents the 31st District, for example, has long been rumored to be considering retirement, so his district might be a choice target for elimination.
And although Georgia is generally friendly to Republicans, Democrats still control the General Assembly and governorship. That means they could draw the new lines in such a way as to pick up at least one of the two new seats for Democrats.
In addition to Georgia, a few of the Southern states that picked up seats still have significant Democratic constituencies. North Carolina voters, for example, chose Democratic Gov. James B. Hunt Jr. in 1996 and ousted a Republican incumbent senator in 1998 in favor of Democrat John Edwards.
Although Florida is nominally Republican, there are enough Democratic voters in the state to have caused a near tie in the 2000 presidential race, a demographic fact that led to the monthlong impasse over the results of the final vote.
“There is no ‘solid South,’ ” Mr. Mellman said. “The South is diverse.”
Another imponderable is the effect of racial politics on the redistricting process. The Census Bureau does not yet have the complete racial breakdown of the population and did not include that number in the data released yesterday.
It is not clear whether state legislatures will be able to tinker with congressional districts to boost minority representation in Congress. In 1990, many states used racial data to create majority-black districts, but the Supreme Court has subsequently declared that unconstitutional.
States are now allowed to consider race as one of many factors in drawing a district, but not the primary one.
If states do not create minority districts, Republicans stand to gain because the party draws the majority of white voters. Minority districts would favor Democrats because the party is strongly supported by a majority of black and Hispanic voters.
“You’ll know much more in a year” when the final redistricting maps have been drawn by state legislatures and tested by the courts, Mr. Ayres said.