Monday, July 11, 2005

Migration from liberal bastions in the Northeast and Midwest to the Sun Belt states will boost Republican electoral strength in the coming decade, making it tougher than ever for Democrats to win the presidency without carrying states in the South or Southwest.

The Census Bureau’s latest projection of population shifts, the first in eight years, shows a dramatic movement from the North to Southern and Western states over the next 30 years. The study points to a political movement as well.

Heavily Democratic states such as New York, New Jersey, Illinois and Michigan will go on losing congressional seats and thus electoral strength in presidential elections, political analysts say. At the same time, they say, Republican states such as Florida, Texas, Arizona, Georgia and Nevada likely will gain congressional and electoral clout.

“The net beneficiary of this will continue to be the Republican Party because the population shift is moving into an environment that is heavily dominated by the Republicans,” says Merle Black, a professor of politics and government at Emory University and author of books on political shifts in the South.

“In the 2002 and 2004 exit polls, we saw for the first time a majority of Southern white voters identifying themselves as Republicans and Democratic identification falling to a low 20 [percent] to 25 percent,” Mr. Black says.

This doesn’t mean that Democrats cannot win, but population shifts give the GOP “a long-term structural advantage,” he says, “and assuming they nominate credible candidates, they start with a strong base.”

He adds: “The Republicans will continue to be the dominant party in the South for the foreseeable future.”

Census Bureau projections show significant population shifts over the next three decades. The share of Americans living in the Northeast and Midwest will fall from 42 percent to 35 percent of the population, while the South and West will rise from 58 percent to 65 percent.

Among the 10 most populated states, Democrat-leaning Michigan and New Jersey will be supplanted by heavily Republican and fast-growing Arizona and North Carolina.

Ohio, a pivotal swing state in presidential races, will drop from seventh to ninth place in population, while Republican-rich Georgia will move up from 10th to eighth.

Over a shorter term, Florida is expected to pass New York and move into third place by 2011, with California and Texas remaining in first and second, respectively. California, Florida and Texas are expected to grow by more than 12 million in population and will account for 46 percent of the growth between 2000 and 2030.

Overall, the South’s population is projected to grow by 42.9 percent and the West by 45.8 percent, at the expense of the Midwest (9.5 percent) and the Northeast (7.6 percent).

Some analysts of political demographics question whether the shift to the South and West necessarily will mean long-term gains for Republicans.

“The people moving to the Carolinas are from the blue [Democratic] states to a large degree,” says William H. Frey, a population analyst at the Brookings Institution. “They are coming from the Midwest, from New Jersey and New York, and they are going to bring with them certainly Southern fiscal values but also maybe Northern social values.”

Florida, where population growth increasingly hails from heavily Democratic states in the North, will turn into a more fierce political battleground as it becomes more socially diverse, Mr. Frey suggests.

“They are getting younger, more mainstream suburbanites from the Northeast in Orlando and Tampa, but also more diverse, minority immigrant populations, all of which are different from the Florida we’ve seen in the past,” he says.

But Mr. Black thinks this increased diversity may not be enough to change the long-term political makeup of the South, which, if anything, has become even more Republican.

“If you look at younger white voters in the South, they are even more Republican than the older white voters,” he says. “As these younger white voters age, they are going to be even more cohesively Republican than their predecessors.

“So you could have more Democrats moving in from outside, but if the native population in the South becomes even more Republican, that may not lead to the diminishment of the GOP in the South.”

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