DENVER | Americans continued to heed Horace Greeley’s advice and go West, as states in the Rocky Mountain and Southwest regions emerged as the big gainers in the 2010 U.S. Census report.
The first results of the national head count, released Tuesday, confirmed a profound shift in the country’s center of gravity, a shift that will have far-reaching political, social, economic and cultural ramifications.
The five states with the largest per-capita growth since 2000 were Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Idaho and Texas. Six of the 10 fastest growing states hailed from the West, while the state making the biggest numerical leap was Texas, which gained 4.3 million residents.
For the first time in the nation’s history, the West as a region will hold more seats in the House of Representatives than the Midwest - 102 to 94. Only the South holds more House seats now than do the 13 Western states.
Nevada led all the states in the rate of population growth at a whopping 35.1 percent between 2000 and 2010. Only one Western state - Montana - failed to grow by at least 10 percent in the once-a-decade population tally, and Big Sky country came close, notching a healthy 9.7 percent increase.
Even California, which failed to gain a congressional seat for the first time since it joined the Union in 1850, managed to record a respectable 10 percent jump. Still, the numbers made it clear that Americans heading West are peeling off before they reach California and that the dynamism of the region is moving from its traditional center in the country’s biggest state.
“California has lost its golden shine,” said Douglas Johnson, a fellow at the Rose Institute in Claremont, Calif., and a researcher on redistricting and census analysis. “Some of it is the dot-com collapse, followed by the housing collapse. Some of it is the state’s out-of-control spending. Some of it is that state regulations aren’t meant to encourage job growth.”
The two states with the biggest growth, Nevada and Arizona, took population hits starting three years ago with the housing crunch.
“The housing market hit Arizona and Nevada hard, but they had such massive growth for the first seven years that they still posted gains,” said Mr. Johnson. “It’s hard to imagine how much they would have grown without the housing crisis.”
The result is that the West will loom much larger in presidential and congressional politics in the next decade. Eight of the 12 newly created congressional districts in the wake of the 2010 census will land in the West, with Arizona, Nevada, Utah and Washington each gaining a seat, and Texas gaining four.
The South, which had a smaller per-capita population shift but a greater numerical increase than the West, won the other four congressional seats, with Florida gaining two and Georgia and South Carolina each taking one.
Those seats came at the expense of states in the Midwest and Northeast, a trend that began after World War II as Americans began to seek more hospitable climates and air conditioning took the edge off the heat in states such as Arizona and Florida.
“People have gotten tired of snowstorms and have moved to the West or the South to avoid the weather,” said Kimball Brace, president of the Virginia-based Election Data Services, which analyzes census data for legislative redistricting. “This loss of seats in the Upper Midwest and Northeast is something that’s just been continual.”
The shift to the West is likely to intensify the political battle in the region being waged between Republicans, who have long held the upper hand, and Democrats, who made gains in the last election cycle in states such as Nevada and Colorado.
Initially, however, the Republicans appear to have the advantage. John McCain of Arizona, the Republican presidential nominee in 2008, won six of the eight states slated to gain congressional seats.
Only Washington and Nevada went for Barack Obama, and while Washington is dependably Democratic, Republican candidates have traditionally run well in Nevada. George W. Bush took Nevada in 2000 and 2004.
What’s more, Republicans bolstered their numbers in Western state legislative races in November, adding clout just as the redistricting process kicks into gear.
“A political party definitely prefers to be in control and growing than not in control and not growing,” said Mr. Johnson. “The question is, will [Republicans] draw the new seats in their favor or protect the ones they barely won in November? Either way, it’s a good problem to have.”
On the other hand, the Western states that gained seats have also undergone growth in their immigrant and Hispanic populations, which could favor Democrats in the long run.
In the short term, however, analysts say the combination of a successful 2010 election year and a friendly census map means good news for Republicans.
“These new Republicans will be drawing lines for new districts as well as redrawing lines for existing seats,” said Mr. Brace. “It’s always good to have your hand on the mouse during redistricting.”