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Is demography destiny? Census data shows challenges ahead for Southern GOP

2020 figures show increases among voting groups that have been swinging to Democrats

By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

CFP Red Blue Circle(CFP) — Take a map showing population shifts across the South over the last 10 years and put it over a map of where Joe Biden performed best in 2020, and the connection will appear obvious.

The counties in the South that have gained population — large cities and surrounding suburbs — are the same places where Biden did well; the counties that shrank — rural areas and small towns — were places where Donald Trump rolled.

2020 population growth

New, detailed, local-level data released August 12 by the U.S. Census Bureau show that when Republicans across the South redraw lines for congressional and legislative districts to equalize population, maximizing their partisan advantage will be much trickier than it was a decade ago.

True, Republicans will still control the entire process in every Southern state except Louisiana and Virginia, which will give them ample opportunity to draw favorable maps. But this slicing and dicing will still have to account for the fact that the sheer number of hostile voters is growing at such a pace that gerrymandering will become ever more difficult.

The geographic partisan divide reflects another shift that has negative implications for the GOP — the Southern electorate is becoming less white.

In every Southern state except for South Carolina and Tennessee, the percentage of the population that self-classifies as white dropped — in some cases, dramatically. In Texas, it dropped 17.5%; in Florida, 12%. There are now five Southern states — Texas, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi and Louisiana — where the white population is less than 60%, giving Democrats a base on which to build.

While the black population nationwide has been relatively stable since 2010, it grew faster than the national average in every Southern state except Kentucky, West Virginia and Oklahoma, as the reverse migration of African Americans back to the region continues.

The most notable population change in the 2020 census was among Hispanic residents, who grew nationwide by 23% and now make up nearly 19% of the total population. But every Southern state except Texas saw the Hispanic population grow even faster than the national average, making them a much more visible presence in areas where they have previous had little political impact.

For decades, the bedrock of Republican strength in the South has been white voters in rural areas, small towns and suburbs, offsetting Democrat strength among African American voters and inner-city urban voters. Maps featuring suburban-rural districts have thus been used to maximum effect.

However, the population shifts in the new census numbers will dictate that rural districts with shrinking populations will have to expand to include more suburban territory, at the same time that Southern suburbs are becoming less reliably Republican.

In Georgia, for example, three counties in the Atlanta urban-suburban core — Fulton, Gwinnett and Cobb — added 376,000 people over the last decade. Joe Biden carried all three, and Democrats have flipped two U.S. House seats here and gained a dozen state legislative seats. So can new lines be drawn to account for both the population boost and the political shift?

In Texas, eight counties added more than 200,000 each during the decade, a total of 2.5 million people combined, and all were in major metro areas — Dallas-Ft. Worth, Houston, San Antonio and Austin. By contrast, 144 counties lost population. So when legislators draw two new U.S. House districts, they will almost certainly have to be rooted in metro areas where Democrats have made gains.

This is not to suggest, of course, that Republican hegemony in the South is threatened in the short-term by these population shifts. Hispanic voters remain a relatively small part of the electorate outside of Florida and Texas, white voters are more monolithically Republican than in much of the rest of the country, and the suburbs remain competitive.

But amid unprecedented scrutiny of the map-making process — with activist groups ready to pounce on maps they feel are unfair — drawing new political lines that maximize Republican gains will be a fraught process.

The legal fight over Texas’s 2010 maps didn’t end until 2018. We can expect the same this time around, and probably in more places.

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1 Comment

  1. […] Chicken Fried Politics: “Take a map showing population shifts across the South over the last 10 years and put it over a map of where Joe Biden performed best in 2020, and the connection will appear obvious. […]

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