The Reddening of America

Anyone who wants to know where American politics is headed should look at the U.S. Census Bureau’s eye-popping population shift projections for the next three decades.

In a nutshell, it forecasts that Americans will continue moving out of the liberal bastions of the Northeast and Midwest and into the Sun Belt states in the South and West. That, in turn, will boost Republican congressional and electoral clout and further erode the Democrats’ strength in its political base.

Republicans have refastened their electoral lock on the South and the Western plains and mountain states, while Democrats have lost electoral strength in Northeastern and Midwestern states. The reason: many more Americans are moving to places like Florida, North Carolina, Georgia, Texas, Arizona and Nevada — conservative-leaning states the GOP has been carrying with increasing regularity over the last several decades.

The Census Bureau’s Interim Population Projections, its first in eight years, shows that this political migration is not only going to continue, it is going to accelerate over the next 30 years.

So much so that heavily Democratic Michigan and New Jersey will be replaced on the list of the 10 most populated states by heavily Republican and fast-growing Arizona and North Carolina. Ohio, a pivotal swing state in presidential races, will fall from seventh to 10th place in population, and Republican-rich Georgia will move from 10th to eighth.

A bigger seismic shift: heavily Republican Florida will become the third-largest state in population, surpassing Democratic New York, which will fall into fourth place perhaps as early as 2011.

"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, the Emory University professor of politics and government and co-author of seminal books on the South’s political realignment.

This doesn’t mean that Democrats cannot win states in the South with the right candidate — Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton proved that. But absent an appealing southern Democrat, the political rise of the Sun Belt gives the GOP "a long-term structural advantage and assuming they nominate credible candidates, they start with a strong base," Black says.

The census forecasts reinforce his belief that "the Republicans will continue to be the dominant party in the South for the foreseeable future."

The migration from the Snow Belt industrial north to the South and West has been going on for several decades now, but the political effects reached a new milestone in just the last three years.

"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," Black says.

It didn’t happen all at once, but the two driving forces for this change were Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. "Southern whites (who identified themselves as Republicans) began to be a plurality in the 1980s during the Reagan years," Black says. What we’re seeing now "is a Bush surge because Bush has been a very popular president in the South."

This political erosion has cut the Democrats’ once-mighty dominance in the South to the bone and it’s only going to get worse, the latest census forecasts suggest.

The share of Americans living in the Northeast and Midwest will plunge from 42 percent to 35 percent, while the percentage living in the South and West will rise from 58 percent to 65 percent.

There are some who doubt that this migration is going to strengthen the GOP electoral lock in the Sun Belt. Instead, they see this migration further diversifying the South and West, both socially and politically.

"The people moving to the Carolinas are from the blue (Democratic) states to a large degree," says William H. Frey, a political demographer 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," he told me.

Florida, a state of regional transplants, in particular will turn into much more socially diverse battleground, Frey says. "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 Black says this will not diminish the generational values of the South’s native population, which is more hardcore conservative than ever.

"If you look at younger white voters in the South, they are even more Republican than the older white voters. As these younger white voters age, they are going to be even more cohesively Republican than their predecessors," he says. That, he thinks, will block any political liberalization of the South in the foreseeable future.

In American politics, of course, hope springs eternal. But these Census forecasts suggest that the red states are only going to get redder.