(CNN)The battleground states across the industrial Midwest have functioned as the decisive tipping point of American politics for at least 30 years, especially in presidential elections. But the latest Census Bureau findings on both overall population growth and voter turnout in 2020 signal that the Sun Belt will increasingly rival, and potentially replace, the Rust Belt as the central battlefield in US elections.
Continuing a decades-long trend, the latest census numbers on total growth show a shift in population, and with it Electoral College votes and seats in the House of Representatives, away from Rust Belt states in the Northeast and upper Midwest — such as Ohio and Pennsylvania — toward Sun Belt states across the South and West — like North Carolina, Texas and Colorado.
Simultaneously, the new census results on voting show that compared with the Rust Belt, the electorate in the Sun Belt is evolving more rapidly in a direction that benefits Democrats, with a growing share of non-White voters and a shrinking share of blue-collar Whites. That means the Sun Belt states, most of which leaned solidly Republican until recently, are likely to grow more competitive, even as their clout in the House and Electoral College steadily increases.
While the Rust Belt states are likely to remain closely contested in presidential elections as well, the continued dominance there of blue-collar Whites, who have emerged as the undisputed cornerstone of the GOP coalition in the Donald Trump era, could make those places more difficult over time for Democrats to hold, particularly if the party transitions to a more racially diverse cast of national leaders after President Joe Biden.
As the Rust Belt states become more challenging and the Sun Belt states more influential, the Democrats’ ability to compete for the White House and control of Congress through the 2020s may increasingly turn on whether the party can continue the advance across the region that brought breakthroughs first in Colorado, Virginia and Nevada and more recently in Arizona and Georgia.
“Demographically it’s just going to be harder and harder to win those Rust Belt states,” says Andrew Baumann, a Democratic pollster based in Denver. “What’s going to happen after Biden? You are going to need someone who is going to be able to expand the map and win some of those other [Sun Belt] states.”
The big new census reports on population trends and voter turnout in 2020 each show the continuation of core underlying trends reshaping the electoral battlefield.
In terms of overall population, the key trend is the ongoing shift of American population toward states in the South and West. Though the years from 2010 to 2020 produced a slower level of total population growth than any other decade in American history except the Depression years of the 1930s, the increase that did occur tilted heavily toward the states in the Sun Belt.
In his recent analysis of the census results, William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program, found that only 13 states experienced double-digit increases in their populations over the past decade. Of those 13, all but North Dakota and Delaware are in the South and the West; the others are (in order of their growth rates, starting with the fastest) Utah, Idaho, Texas, Nevada, Colorado, Florida, Washington, Arizona, South Carolina, Georgia and Oregon.
Biggest population gains in Sun Belt
Another revealing measure is the absolute number of people each state added. Again, the Sun Belt dominated on that metric. Of the 17 states that added the most new residents from 2010 to 2020 (at least 404,000 in each case), Frey found, 14 are located across the South and West. The Sun Belt provided all six of the states with the largest absolute gains (with Texas at 4 million and Florida at 2.7 million topping the list) and 11 of the top 12 (with only New York breaking the string). In the Rust Belt, the numbers were much more modest.
Apart from Massachusetts (at a relatively robust 482,000) none of the other New England states gained more than 61,000 new residents; apart from Minnesota (at just over 400,000), growth was also modest in the key states across the industrial heartland. West Virginia’s population declined by almost 60,000, the biggest loss of any state.
As Frey noted, this continues the long-term trend of population shifting from the Northeast and Midwest toward the South and West. In 1920, he calculates, the Northeast and Midwest accounted for fully 60% of the nation’s population, with the South and West a clear minority at 40%. By 1980, the South and West had edged past the Northeast and Midwest to become the majority, and the trend has continued unabated since: The latest results, Frey shows, essentially reverse the 1920 balance, with the South and West now accounting for 62% of the US population and the Northern regions just 38%.
“The South and West’s 2010s population growth of 10.2% and 9.2%, respectively, far outpaced the Midwest (3.1%) and Northeast (4.1%),” Frey wrote. “Moreover, several Sun Belt states improved their population size rankings over the decade: Florida overtook New York to become the third-largest state; Georgia and North Carolina overtook Michigan to become the eighth- and ninth-largest states; and Arizona overtook Massachusetts and Indiana to become the 14th-largest state.”
These population trends will immediately translate into a reallocation of political influence. All six of the states that will gain congressional seats (and thus also more Electoral College clout) are in the South and West, with Texas the only state gaining two. Of the seven states that will each lose a single seat, all but California are in the Northeast and Midwest.
Over the final decades of the 20th century and the first decade-plus of this one, analysts and political strategists would have termed that shift in regional influence an unequivocal benefit for Republicans. During that long stretch, most of the South and West reliably voted Republican in presidential elections, apart from the West Coast states of Washington, Oregon and California, which have voted uniformly Democratic since 1992. By contrast, over the second half of that long period, Democrats ran much more competitively across the big industrial states across the Rust Belt, carrying Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin in all six elections from 1992 through 2012, and Ohio four times during that span.
But on each side of the regional divide, the partisan equation is less straightforward now, and population trends in both places are a significant reason why.
Since the Barack Obama years, Democrats have established a beachhead in several previously Republican-leaning Sun Belt states. The biggest changes have come in Colorado and Virginia, which have evolved from ruby red to purple to blue, and North Carolina, where Democrats have recorded more intermittent gains. In each state, Democrats advanced behind the same formula: a growing minority population coupled with enough improvement among college-educated White voters to overcome big GOP margins among Whites without college degrees (that usually exceed their advantage with those voters in Northern states). Democrats have followed the same formula to gains in Arizona and Georgia.
Though Republicans retain at least a slight edge in many of the Sun Belt states, the growth in them is occurring primarily in places, and among groups, that lean Democratic. The Census Bureau hasn’t yet released its final 2020 data documenting where the growth occurred within the states, but all the findings from other data sources over recent years show that large metro areas will be the principal source of that increase, especially in the Sun Belt.
In a recent report, the LBJ Urban Lab at the University of Texas at Austin noted that census reports place the Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston and Austin metro areas among the 10
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