The nation’s non-Hispanic White population shrank for the first time ever, to about 58% of the country, according to 2020 census statistics released Thursday, revealing what bureau officials called a much more multiracial and diverse population than previously thought.
The detailed numbers serve as the starting gun for the decennial process of redrawing congressional and legislative maps, with control of the U.S. House at stake.
Analysts say Republicans start with an edge on that account. They control the line-drawing process in more key states and can maximize the number of districts that will lean toward electing Republican representatives.
Republicans hope to net a half dozen or so seats in next year’s midterm elections to regain control of the House. Democrats, meanwhile, are eyeing their own opportunities.
“Today is the day Republicans start trying to take back the House,” said former Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., who served in the Clinton and Obama administrations and now runs the National Democratic Redistricting Committee.
The census data, which details the U.S. population by race, ethnicity and voting age, is the ammunition both parties will use as they engage in the line-drawing.
The data also fuels conversations about demographics and diversity, and the numbers show some striking shifts.
The population identifying as White alone was 57.8%, down from about 69% in 2010. The ratio of Whites has been declining steadily, but this is the first time a decennial census has shown the number fall.
Other races and ethnicities grew. Hispanics make up 18.7% of the country’s population, and those identifying as Black alone comprise 12.1%.
The biggest changes, though, were in the population identifying as multiracial. Those who said they were White in combination with some other race or ethnicity soared more than 300%.
Rural areas continued to struggle, and almost all of the growth was in cities. Census analysts said numbers dropped in 52% of all counties and communities throughout the heartland lost population.
The bureau earlier this year reported the total populations by state and what that meant for the apportionment of seats in the House. Those changes were smaller than anticipated. California, Illinois, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia each lost a seat. Oregon, North Carolina, Montana, Florida and Colorado each gained a seat, and Texas netted two.
The data released Thursday goes deeper into the numbers. It gives state officials the information they need to redraw their political maps, and Democrats are afraid of what might result.
Of the House’s 435 seats, Republicans control the map-drawing process for 187 of them and Democrats control more than 75, according to the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. The rest are in single-seat states and states with divided government, or will be drawn by nonpartisan or independent commissions.
On Capitol Hill, part of Democrats’ election overhaul bill would mandate the use of independent commissions to draw state maps, effectively neutering the Republicans’ advantage.
Drawing lines for legislative districts has been a political weapon since the early days of the country. Virginia lawmakers tried to block James Madison, known as the father of the Constitution, from winning a seat in the first Congress by drawing a district unfriendly to him. He prevailed anyway and helped shepherd the Bill of Rights through the first Congress.
In the centuries since, technology has made line-drawing a deadly art. Precise carvings pack members of one party into a few districts while spreading the other party’s voters over more space. That means the out-of-power party’s candidates win big in those few districts and the majority party’s candidates win with smaller margins across more districts.
Lines sometimes age poorly.
Republicans, who controlled the redistricting in Virginia a decade ago, drew lines that produced an 8-3 advantage for the party in the House delegation. Still, the state voted to reelect President Obama and had two Democratic senators.
By the end of the decade, though, Democrats had flipped the delegation. Democrats now hold seven seats, and Republicans have four.
The redistricting often achieves exactly what party leaders intend. In Maryland, the state was carved up specifically to eliminate the seat of a longtime Republican in a western part of the state.
Democrats in recent years have pushed for independent commissions to draw lines. They say it’s fairer than some of the crazy maps that have emerged through what is known as gerrymandering.
Both parties even took some of those extreme gerrymanders to court and asked judges to rule highly partisan line-drawing unconstitutional. The Supreme Court has declined to do so.
The 2020 census numbers also have been the subject of court challenges. President Trump tried to add a question to the census form asking about citizenship. The Supreme Court said the question was legal but the Trump administration cut too many corners while trying to shoehorn it into the count.
The count was prolonged because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the release of data was delayed. The numbers released Thursday were supposed to have been delivered in the spring. Some advocacy groups have questioned the accuracy of the numbers given the headwinds the Census Bureau faced.
Acting Census Bureau Director Ron Jarmin said the numbers will survive scrutiny.
“We are confident in the quality of today’s results,” he said.