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More diverse Pennsylvania and Florida districts might shape 2020 politics

Both states have grown in population, and many of their congressional districts have become more racially and ethnically diverse.

Protesters hold signs at a rally in front of the U.S. Supreme Court after a June 27 ruling ruling on the census. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Protesters hold signs at a rally in front of the U.S. Supreme Court after a June 27 ruling ruling on the census. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Pennsylvania and Florida, two swing states President Donald Trump narrowly won in 2016, may look substantially different next year, as new census data shows them trending away from his base.

Both states have grown in population, and many of their congressional districts have become more racially and ethnically diverse. However, that growth hasn’t been uniform and that may have implications for local politics in 2020 and beyond.

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Both states tinkered with their congressional maps following court challenges — Florida in 2015 and Pennsylvania in 2018 — and the Census Bureau recently released data showing demographic changes within those new districts over the decade.

Pennsylvania and Florida, which President Barack Obama won in 2012, went to Trump in 2016 by the slightest of margins. It was enough to get Trump over the finish line for victory, but the long-term trends in the two states show that demographic groups least friendly to the president, including African Americans, Asian Americans, and Hispanic or Latino voters, may make up a larger portion of the electorate next year.


The I-81 line

The Keystone State has been caught between two trends, as population gradually declines in the Appalachian west while growing in Philadelphia and its suburbs.

Jonathan Johnson, a senior policy analyst for The Center for Rural Pennsylvania, said the state can be divided roughly in two along Interstate 81, which runs through Harrisburg northeast to Scranton. West of that line, the population has started to age and decline, part of a regional trend in Appalachia kicked off by the steel industry collapse in the 1980s, he said.

The birth rate in western portions of the state has fallen below replacement, and the population is slowly getting older, Johnson said. On top of that, the people moving to the region for opportunities like natural gas drilling, or technology jobs in Pittsburgh, are not replacing the losses.

“People aren’t really leaving western Pennsylvania. They’re staying there, but they’re in the ground,” Johnson said.

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Democratic Rep. Conor Lamb, who represents an area in western Pennsylvania that’s actually grown since 2010, tried to sell the lack of growth as a positive.

“One good thing that it presents is that cost of living has stayed extremely low compared to other parts of the country,” he said.

Increased economic growth in Lamb’s district has come from natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale formation. That’s also attracted Shell to break ground in the district on an ethane “cracker” plant where natural gas is turned into plastics.

Lamb hopes the plant can attract manufacturing to the area and spur growth. He said it’s too early to tell whether the area’s newfound economic legs will run up against Democratic presidential candidates who have opposed natural gas drilling to curb climate change.

“I would say that there’s consensus in Pittsburgh that natural gas presents an opportunity if we do it right. And we make sure, for example, that methane leaks are plugged in, and that we’re investing in carbon capture where possible,” Lamb said.

Republican Rep. Scott Perry’s district, which straddles I-81, has experienced some of the most dramatic growth in the state, gaining about 29,000 people in the decade. That’s fueled by manufacturing and transportation, he said, particularly manufacturing growth in York County. But those gains have put a strain on the state’s aging road infrastructure, Perry said.

“So with all those people moving in, and the construction and so forth is quite honestly why we’re very frustrated with the majority failure to do a transportation bill or even have one,” Perry said.

Most of the growth in his district came from residents identifying as African American or Latino, according to census data. Since 2010, many of the districts in the eastern part of the state gained thousands of residents in already crowded cities and suburbs.

Lamb represents the only district west of I-81 to flip Democratic since Trump’s victory. Otherwise, Democrats’ three new congressional seats have come in the Philadelphia suburbs in the growing eastern half of the state following the Pennsylvania Supreme Court-mandated map rewrite last year.

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Sunshine and Florida growth

Florida saw some of the most rapid growth in the country, and several population projections have the state gaining two seats after the 2020 census.

The growth has been concentrated in the increasingly diverse southern half of the state, including the suburbs of Orlando, Miami and Tampa. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Florida, whose district gained about 70,000 Hispanic residents through 2018, argued that the area’s Cuban-American and Puerto Rican populations have historically been counted on to vote Republican.

That may be changing, according to Rep. Darren Soto, a Democrat whose Orlando-area district has been one of the fastest-growing in the country. That growth has largely come from 140,000 Hispanic residents, many of whom are Puerto Rican.

“This is sort of the manifest destiny of Puerto Ricans leaving the northeast because it is cold and it is expensive and leaving the island because of its troubles there,” Soto said.

Puerto Ricans in Soto’s district have fixated on Trump’s “disastrous and deadly response” to Hurricane Maria’s devastation on the island, he said, and “it is really hard to separate that from any other part of Puerto Ricans’ opinion on him at this point.”

Further south of Diaz-Balart’s district is the area represented by Democratic Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, which saw an increase of 90,000 residents from 2010 to 2018, almost all of it from people identifying as Hispanic. Many of those residents come from Latin America and South America and frequently have tight ties to their home countries.

The changes will influence the 2020 election as well as Florida’s politics going forward, says former Rep. Jim Davis, who represented a Tampa-area district before making an unsuccessful run for governor in 2006. Davis said the demographic changes in the state could shift the electorate’s priorities on different issues even if they don’t change party alignment.

“On immigration, for example, you are going to have way more lawmakers representing districts where there are more residents from other countries,” he said.

As the state’s population gets more densely packed, it will change in other ways, as “those urban voters tend to be more moderate on issues like gun control, the environment and social issues,” Davis said.

Since the court-mandated map change, Democrats have net gained three seats in the state’s delegation, primarily around Orlando and in the southern portion of the state. Even with those trends, though, recent Republican victories have given the GOP both Senate seats and control of the state capitol.

“I think Florida is getting more diverse demographically, and structurally, Republicans control the state capitol,” Davis said.

The new data by the Census Bureau was released as part of the American Community Survey program, which sends surveys to U.S. households on a rolling basis.

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