Editor’s Note: Justin Gest (@_JustinGest) is an associate professor at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government. He is the author of “The New Minority: White Working Class Politics in an Age of Immigration and Inequality” and next year a new book, “Majority Minority.” The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
The 2020 Census numbers released Thursday tell the story of a rapidly changing America: The relative size of the nation’s White population continues to decline, while ethnic and racial minorities represent the only source of population growth.
On the surface, these numbers suggest a bleak future for the Republican Party, which finds its strongest support among Whites. Yet the surprising reality is that, overall, these demographic trends may favor the GOP because of the way political power is apportioned in America.
Increasing shares of ethnic and/or racial minorities have long been thought to favor the Democratic Party, which has appealed heavily to diverse, urban constituencies and prioritized racial equity. In contrast, the Republican Party – under the leadership of former President Donald Trump – has embraced a politics of nativism and nostalgia, capitalizing on White Americans’ fear about the changing demographics of the country.
More on the 2020 Census
At first glance, the Census’ 2020 tally offers demographic evidence for those conservative social anxieties. The country is making steady progress toward its long-anticipated “majority minority” milestone – when the number of non-White Americans outnumbers Americans who identify as White. Estimates suggest that Americans under the age of 18 are already majority minority, while more than three-quarters of those over 65 years old are White.
The share of White Americans – at this point Republicans’ primary constituency – is dwindling thanks to a combination of lower immigration from Europe, lower fertility rates and lower life expectancy attributable to drug overdoses and suicides.
However, three countervailing demographic and political trends are likely to mitigate the effect of the country’s diversification.
1) We are witnessing a steady shift of population – and therefore power – to the south and west of the country, regions that are largely controlled by Republicans.
In the last 50 years, the share of the US population living in southern and western states increased from 48% to 62%. And of the 10 states experiencing the fastest population growth since 2010 – Utah, Idaho, Texas, North Dakota, Nevada, Colorado, Washington, Florida, Arizona, South Carolina – only Washington is a solidly Democratic state, though Colorado is trending in that direction.
Meanwhile, California, Illinois, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, which have experienced population loss over the last decade, will each lose one seat from their congressional delegations. Of those, only West Virginia votes reliably Republican. On the other hand, Colorado, Florida, Montana, North Carolina and Oregon will each gain one seat, and Texas will gain two. Of those, only Oregon votes reliably Democratic.
One counterargument is that an influx of Americans from the Northeast, Midwest and/or minority backgrounds to these more Republican regions may offset conservatives’ prior advantage – much as they have in Georgia. However, a second trend complicates this possibility.
2) Partisan gerrymandering is profoundly effective at mitigating the effect of demographic change on US House and state legislative races.
With the release of the Census results, states will now redraw their congressional and legislative boundaries. When this process is in the hands of Democratic or Republican-controlled state houses, the parties employ sophisticated math to redistribute voters in a manner that maximizes their likelihood of victory across the most legislative districts.
For Republicans, this has historically meant either consolidating many constituencies of Americans with minority backgrounds into as few districts as possible or distributing them thinly across multiple districts.
Already, America’s majority minority future is reflected in only a few super-diverse regions. Majority minority counties are now home to one third of all Americans, but they comprise a small fraction of all US counties, largely in the south and southwest of the country. While these concentrations can facilitate the election of some local leaders with ethnic minority backgrounds, they also make minority voters easier to isolate in the redistricting process.
In this current re-drawing cycle, Republicans hold a clear advantage: Thanks to majorities in state legislatures and governorships, the GOP will have complete power to draw 38% of congressional district lines to Democrats’ 16%.
This advantage will allow Republican-led redistricting commissions in diversifying states like Texas or Florida to absorb demographic change in a way that reduces the clout one might otherwise associate with growing populations of minorities.
Still, some might believe it is possible that the number of Americans from minority backgrounds will override the capacity of gerrymandering to dilute their power. And certainly demographic change could shift gubernatorial, senatorial and other statewide elections in states like Texas. But a third trend gives pause for thought.
3) Even while their share of the American population grows, ethnic minority growth rates are slowing and immigration is declining.
The country’s march toward a majority minority milestone has been fueled by large numbers of immigrant arrivals who settle in the United States and give birth to more children on average than native-born Americans do.
But thanks to an outdated immigration system, greater border enforcement and the global pandemic, immigration to the US has slowed down over the past decade and the population gains of ethnic minorities have mostly been attributable to birth rates. Among Hispanic Americans, about three-quarters of the last decade’s population growth came from US births, and the remaining quarter from immigration.
Meanwhile, immigration reform has been stalled in Congress for over three decades, and Republicans have made reducing annual flows a hallmark of their policies and platform since Trump’s 2016 victory.
Many liberals thought Republican politics would mobilize a new generation of minority voters. But despite Trump’s incendiary comments and policies implicating ethnic and religious minorities, Republicans increased their share of minority voters nationwide in the 2020 election. So even as the ranks of voters with ethnic minority backgrounds grow, they could suddenly become less reliably Democratic.
Some social scientists also expect greater numbers of biracial and Hispanic Americans to self-identify as “White.” And, indeed, the number of mixed-race Americans increased almost threefold since 2010 alone. This will further undercut Democrats’ identity-based appeals and could reduce any penalty Republicans endure for their nativism.
Taken together, the 2020 US Census reveals trends that hold countervailing political implications in the context of America’s unique electoral institutions. The diversification of America is unquestionable. But because the US population is moving into regions where the GOP continues to hold control, Republicans will be able to delay and minimize the political representation of ethnic minorities – at least until 2030.