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Census numbers reveal a loss of political clout for Midwest

Regional population growth 2000-2010
Source: U.S. Census Bureau
Regional population growth 2000-2010

The Midwest is not exactly a lonelier place to live than it was 10 years ago. Every state in the region gained population during the past decade — except for beleaguered Michigan which suffered a massive job loss in the Great Recession.

Still, the new census numbers released on Tuesday do show Minnesota occupying a region that has lost considerable national political clout over the decades and stands to lose more in the 10 years to come.

Five of the 10 states that will lose congressional seats during the next decade — Iowa, Illinois, Michigan, Missouri and Ohio — are in the Midwest. The other five are in the Northeast.

Looking back
It wasn’t always that way. A century ago, the Midwest was the nation’s most populous region, home to roughly one in every three Americans. The South came close behind, followed by the Northeast. The West, by contrast, was a sparsely populated outpost where just 7 million people — about 13 percent of the population lived.

Then came a host of developments including air conditioning, the California dream, a massive crossing of Mexicans into the country, a parallel migration of retirees to the Sun Belt.

The sum of the trends was a huge boom making the South, by far, the nation’s most populous region. As of April this year, nearly 115 million Americans lived in the South, compared with 67 million in the Midwest and just 55 million in the Northeast. As for the West, it now claims 72 million residents for a ten-fold growth over the century.

Now the latest Census figures, announced on Tuesday, show that the South and the West continued their growth spurts during the past decade with each claiming close to 14 percent growth compared with 3.9 percent in the Midwest and 3.2 percent for the Northeast.

You can’t blame the Midwest’s tepid pace on Minnesota, which grew by a healthy 7.8 percent during the decade. Still, that was lower than the overall national rate of 9.7 percent.

Changes over the decades came in tandem with a political shift. The South largely abandoned the Democratic Party and turned more politically conservative by several measures.

Looking forward
It’s too soon to predict that the latest Census figures presage an even sharper shift to the right for the nation, says analysis by the New York Times.

A good share of the latest growth in the South and West came in Hispanic populations which tend to favor Democrats.

Meanwhile, “some Republican-leaning rural districts in Farm Belt states like Iowa are losing population,” the Times said.

“Further, in the urban areas that are losing population, like Cleveland and New Orleans, the voters are so overwhelmingly Democratic that modest changes in boundaries will not harm Democrats much,” it said.

Population change is the rate of change in population between decennial census years.
Source: U.S. Census Bureau
Population change is the rate of change in population between decennial census years.

But the trends should benefit Republicans over all, almost no matter how the new boundary lines are drawn, it concluded.

The Census Bureau won’t release the breakdown of population counts within each state’s congressional district until early next year. But it’s a safe bet that Minnesota’s fastest growth came in suburban and exurban areas that favor Republicans.

Gains and losses
Meanwhile, here are some tidbits from the numbers that were unveiled this week:

  • Minnesota is the 21th state by population, coming just behind Wisconsin and just ahead of Colorado.
  • California, of course, is the nation’s most populous state with 37 million people, about the size of the combined population of Norway, Sweden, Ireland, Greece and Austria.
  • Texas came in second largest with 25 million, but it posted the largest person-by-person gain during the past decade, up some 4 million people. Immigrants probably accounted for most of that growth, but I wonder if a bit of it came from Upper Midwestern snow birds.
  • Nevada, another home for many Minnesota natives, grew the most as a percentage, up 35 percent since 2000.

As for the five-state Upper Midwestern region, Wisconsin still claims the most residents with about 400,000 more than second-place Minnesota. Wisconsin grew by 6 percent during the decade compared with 7.8 percent in Minnesota. Here is the growth rate for the others: South Dakota, 7.9 percent; North Dakota, 4.7 percent; Iowa, 4.1 percent.

Despite respectable growth during the decade, North and South Dakota remain among the nation’s five least populated states, along with Wyoming, Vermont and Alaska.

You can tease out more of the data for yourself at the U.S. Census Bureau’s interactive map.

Don’t waste time looking for the latest numbers on your county or city, though. They won’t be released until early next year. Then begins the fireworks of redistricting every state.

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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 12/22/2010 - 12:36 pm.

    Might there be a mass return-migration from the desert Southwest as they get closer and closer to running out of potable water? Which also would mean that their golf courses would dry out, removing one of the reasons northerners moved there.

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 12/22/2010 - 06:33 pm.

    Bernice’s question is a good one. People I know in Colorado who are knowledgeable about water issues suggest that the whole region, not just Arizona, will see some “interesting” times in the next couple decades as water quality and quantity become increasingly important issues. It’s not just golf courses (Not many will move cross country just to play golf more often), but agriculture that may well suffer, along with urban areas like Las Vegas and Phoenix. Beyond that, much of southern California’s water comes from the Colorado River, which already has more claims on its water than it has water, and California’s agricultural industry is central to the American food supply. Should we return to the degree of drought that was the norm for a while a decade ago, there will be water-related troubles throughout the region.

    Similar issues, by the way, are beginning to crop up in the South, as well. Atlanta, in particular, and Georgia more broadly, have water quantity and quality issues. Should those concerns continue to worsen, it will be difficult for either the West or the South to maintain the double-digit growth rates they’ve demonstrated in the past decade. For the West, especially, John Wesley Powell was correct when he wrote his report nearly 150 years ago – it’s arid to semi-arid, and a shortage of water is likely to be a fact of life there whether the human occupants like it or not. Water, or the lack of it, may well be the ultimate barrier to further development, especially in the more arid states of the Southwest.

  3. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 12/22/2010 - 08:20 pm.

    No matter which way you slice it, it’s always good news for Republicans.

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