Rupert Cornwell: The march of American conservatism

New data shows a big shift of population towards Republican strongholds in the south and west. That trend will continue
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The Independent Online

Christmas came early this year for America's conservatives, and I'm not talking about the midterm "shellacking" suffered by Barack Obama's Democrats. The instrument of their joy was something that's been around ever since the Founding Fathers wrote the constitution: the census.

Individual elections come and go; you win some, you lose some. But the long-term conclusions to be drawn from the latest 2010 census – the 23rd such exercise since the first was held in 1790, a year after George Washington became president – are clear. Slowly but ineluctably, the US is becoming more conservative. And if Republicans play their cards right, a bonanza awaits.

The reason is simple. The 435 seats in the House of Representatives are distributed among the states according to the population returns of the census, with each congressional district representing about 700,000 people. And as the relative populations of the states change, so does their number of congressional seats, and the number of their votes in the electoral college that ultimately elects presidents.

The new census, whose main results were released a few days ago, shows a big shift of population towards the Republican strongholds of the south and west. That trend of itself of course is nothing new. Since traditional manufacturing industry started to decline – and air conditioning became standard – the north and east of the country, with their shuttered factories and harsh winters, have lost ground, as people moved to warmer and more agreeable climes, where jobs, opportunity and retirement comforts beckoned: places like California, then Florida and Texas, and everywhere else the sun shone.

Each US census calculates the population's centre of gravity. Imagine America as a giant plate resting on a needle, and every inhabitant – all weighing the same – standing where they lived. The centre is the point at which the plate would be in perfect balance. In 1790, when there were just 13 excolonies, the centre of gravity was actually east of Washington DC, in coastal Maryland. Now it's moved almost 1,000 miles to the wooded hills of the midwestern state of Missouri and is gradually bending southward. If anything, this southwestern drift is accelerating. For Republicans and their election prospects, that's nothing but good news.

The biggest winner of all is the party's stronghold of Texas, which has been given four extra House seats. The second biggest is Florida, which gets two more. In all, eight states gained seats, five of them in the south and west, all reliably Republican in presidential elections, as well as two swing states, Florida and Nevada. The only exception was Washington state, that Starbucks- and Microsoft-land of the Pacific northwest, which regularly votes Democrat.

And the main losers? The rust-belt states of the North East, naturally. Pennsylvania, Illinois, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Michigan (the only state in the union actually to lose population over the last decade) give up one seat apiece. Ohio loses two, and so, most tellingly of all, does New York.

For 150 years, it was the most populous state in the Union; indeed, for many foreigners, New York was the very emblem of America. Some time around 1960 however, it surrendered primacy to California. Then it was overtaken by Texas. Now it's tied in terms of House seats and electoral college votes with upstart Florida, no more than a steamy outpost of the Deep South until the 1950s, when air conditioning and retirement communities arrived, and mass immigration from Cuba and central America started in earnest. It's a fair bet that come the 2020 census, New York will have slipped down to fourth place.

Do the sums and these shifts mean that in the average presidential election, Republicans can count on an extra six to eight of the 538 electoral votes at stake. Democrats will lose five to seven, with another six or so up for grabs.

That may not sound much. But remember that in 2000 George W Bush beat Al Gore by just four electoral college votes, 271 to 267. Four years later, had just 18 more electoral votes gone his way, John Kerry would have been president. Of the 10 states that have just lost seats and electoral votes, eight went for the Democrat last time around.

The chances are that (assuming he runs again), in 2012 Obama will lose some states like Indiana and North Carolina that he carried against the odds in the euphoria of 2008. If a couple of big swing states like Florida and Ohio go the other way, it could be really close – and those two dozen or so electoral votes re-allocated by the census could be crucial to the outcome. Either way, America's shifting population has made the mountain a little harder to climb for Democrats. And in future – barring one caveat – it's likely to get steeper still.

By and large the states that have gained clout have lower taxes, smaller public sectors and lighter business regulation, all articles of conservative faith. Both by geography and by ancient instinct, they are far removed from "big government", as symbolised by Washington DC. They also tend to be socially conservative. They are, in short, cut from largely Republican cloth, and their electoral importance is only growing.

All other things being equal moreover, newcomers will imbibe the ingrained local attitudes. Texas, in many respects the new American powerhouse, may have added 25 per cent to its population between 2000 and 2010, but it hasn't yet become less Republican for that. Or at least, not yet.

The caveat in question is the immigrant vote, largely but not exclusively Hispanic. According to the census, the total US population grew by 10 per cent during the last decade, to reach almost 309m. Three quarters of that growth however was accounted for by immigrants, Hispanics primarily, but also Asians.

For obvious reasons they gravitate to the south and west. They also tend to vote Democrat. This is not due to any particular love of government – for people tend to emigrate in search of freedom and economic opportunity. Immigrants support Democrats because the Republicans, and in particular the strident Tea Party movement, are so crassly anti-immigrant (an honorable exception must be made for Bush, who understood just how much immigrants had contributed to the prosperity of his native Texas).

As long as this perception lasts, and as long as Republicans continue to resist immigration reform – as they did again this month by blocking Congressional passage of the "Dream Act" offering a path to citizenship for the children of illegal immigrants, the Hispanic vote will reman solidly Democratic.

But sooner or later the penny will surely drop. Republicans will realise that however tight visa controls, for all the border fences and vigilante squads, illegal immigration into the US continues. America is a conservative country that if anything is getting more conservative. It is also a country made by immigrants, whose inhabitants are descended from immigrants. When Republicans grasp that, they will truly be in clover for many Christmases to come.