In the Future, a Southern Route to the White House

Posted August 30, 2012 at 12:31pm

TAMPA, Fla. – Republicans put Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin delegates front and center at the Tampa Bay Times Forum in a nod to the vital Midwest battleground states.

But those seating arrangements stand to change drastically in just a few cycles.

A burgeoning Hispanic population, plus the migration of black voters to the South, will start to alter battleground states by 2020. The result will be dramatic changes to the electoral map in just a couple of decades.

“A decade from now, I think you’ll see Arizona, Texas, Georgia for sure,” said William Frey, a demographics expert at the Brookings Institution. “You have got to look at the South and West – those are the fast-growing parts of the country – and that’s where the minorities are dominating the growth.”

Georgia has been a reliable Republican state for most of the past three decades. All the while, the Peach State’s population increased, and now Georgia has 16 electoral votes.

Most of the recent growth has been in minority communities around Atlanta – a reliable Democratic base in the state. In 1996, white voters cast 78 percent of the ballots in the general election. That number dropped to 66 percent by 2010. If that trend continues, as demographers expect, the state will be competitive in the next couple of decades.

“Georgia will be starting to get competitive in 10 years,” said Bryan Tyson, a Georgia attorney and Republican redistricting expert. “In 20 years, it will definitely be competitive.”

Republicans anticipated these changes on the Congressional level. In their recent redraw of the state’s Congressional map, GOP officials moved two suburban Atlanta counties with growing minority populations, Rockdale and Gwinnett, into Rep. Hank Johnson’s (D-Ga.) district instead of nearby Republican districts.

Texas – a political behemoth with 38 electoral votes – presents a similar situation. A Democratic presidential candidate has not carried Texas since 1976, but a competitive Lone Star State would drastically alter the electoral map.

The state is changing quickly because of explosive Hispanic growth. Over the last decade, the Hispanic community grew 65 percent, while the black community grew 22 percent.

Texas Hispanics voted in favor of the president with 63 percent in 2008, according to exit poll data from the Pew Hispanic Center. That’s an increase from the mere 50 percent the Democratic nominee garnered from those voters four years earlier.

This fluctuation, Republicans argue, signals an opening for the GOP to compete for Hispanic voters.

“Everyone has an assumption that increased diversity in Texas means a better shot for Democrats,” said Guy Harrison, the executive director of the National Republican Congressional Committee and a seasoned Texas operative. “I would just say the Hispanic vote is a lot more up for grabs than the African-American vote. But how much you can get the Hispanic vote is a lot more dependent on candidate, atmosphere and a lot of other things.”

Like Georgia and Texas, Democrats are not competitive in Arizona this cycle on the presidential level, despite Democratic talk that the state might find its way onto the final playing field this fall. That will likely change in the next decade. Again, the growing Hispanic population is slowly changing the state’s politics.

But unlike another Southwestern state, Texas, Republicans have made fewer public overtures to woo Hispanic voters in Arizona. Recent state legislation aimed at illegal immigration, such as S.B. 1070, polls terribly among Arizona Hispanics.

“It might be closer to red than blue right now, but it’s moving in a good direction for Democrats,” said Rodd McLeod, a Democratic consultant in Arizona. “It’s really difficult to succeed in a Republican primary these days unless you beat up on Latinos.”

Experts expected to know the political results of the Hispanic voter boom much sooner. But the recession grounded a lot of population movement since 2008.

“Anybody looking at projecting forward, it’s real iffy now,” said Kimball Brace with Election Data Services, a Democratic redistricting firm. “The real question is not where they’re moving, it’s whether they’re moving.”

These demographic projections – and economic realities – played out here in Florida. Over the last decade, the Sunshine State picked up population at a steady clip. But the crashing housing market halted further growth at the end of the decade.

Nonetheless, the state’s Hispanic communities continue to expand and diversify, and the state is on track to become more competitive in future cycles, if recent trends continue. Republican presidential candidates won the state for most of the past three decades with a couple of exceptions, such as 2008. But a rising Hispanic population has made the state more competitive recently.

Since 2006, the number of white registered voters increased 3 percent in Florida, according to data from the secretary of state and tabulated by Roll Call. During the same time, black registered voters increased 18 percent, and Hispanic registered voters grew 28 percent.

Traditionally, Florida has housed a strong contingent of conservative Hispanic voters, mostly of Cuban descent. But the state’s Hispanic population has become more diverse. Over the past six years, the number of registered Democratic voters classified as Hispanic grew 38 percent. Republican voter registrations among Hispanics increased only 11 percent.

The trend sets even higher stakes for Republicans to win over or compete in the Hispanic community.

“This is probably the last time we can get away with a [presidential] win without making significant strides in the Hispanic vote – and that’s thanks to a weak incumbent,” said Al Cardenas, chairman of the American Conservative Union and a former Florida Republican Party chairman. “We need to wake up and we need to make a massive investment and effort.”

Meanwhile, as the Sun Belt’s political importance rises, the most populous Midwestern states have flat-lined. Ohio barely picked up any population in the last decade, forcing the state to drop two House seats in the latest round of reapportionment.

“We’re stagnant – flat at 11 million for 30 years,” said Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, a former Senator, on Monday morning.

It’s possible that Ohio and its fellow Rust Belt battlegrounds like Pennsylvania and Michigan will still be competitive in a couple decades. But if population decline continues, they will lose electoral votes – and also political power.

Of course, all of this projected data is just that – educated guesswork. Typically, the U.S. Census does not dare to forecast population projections for reapportionment until halfway through the decade. Local economies, or even natural events, can alter the course of population growth.

Just a few years ago, experts predicted Louisiana would soon pick up a House seat to account for population growth. Then Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005.

“It’s still early in the decade,” Brace said last week. “Anybody wanting to project forward is probably at their peril because we know you could have a ‘Katrina’ yesterday – it could happen next week in a place called ‘Tampa.'”