Politics is power. Politics is people. Politics is also numbers. Votes are counted in an election, people win or lose and power shifts. In all of politics, no set of numbers is more sweeping in its import than those the Census Bureau reports every 10 years.
They provide the basis for the reapportionment of seats in the House of Representatives and votes in the electoral college. Within each state, the population numbers are the raw materiall from which crafty political architects build their intricate redistricting plans to increase their party's number of state-legislature and House seats and to create vulnerable districts for the opposition.
So it was hardly surprising that headlines greeted the news that the 1980 census figures -- certified on New Year's Eve despite continuing court challenges to their accuracy -- mandated a 17-seat shift, largely from the Northeast and Great Lakes states to the South and the West. Eleven states gained seats, 10 lost -- in some cases drastically. New York loses five House seats and electoral votes; Pennsylvania, Ohio and Illinois, two each. Florida is up four; Texas, three; California, two.
That is a real power shift an a continuation of a trend that has been gaining force for decades. In just 20 years, Florida has eliminated half the 29-vote edge New York had on it in the House and the electoral college. Similarly drastic shifts have occured within the borders of individual states, as old cities have declined, suburbs spread and new population centers emerged in rural areas.Tracing the impact of these population changes through the bloody redistricting battles ahead in the legislatures will be one of the most fascinating political stories of the year.
But as that process begins, one word of caution is in order. Some commentaries suggest that the population trends reflected in the census report spell doom for urban programs, liberalism, the Democratic Party or all of the above.
That is almost cetainly an overstatement, as a couple of simple experiments show. My colleague Christopher Colford and I recalculated the recent presidential elections on the basis of the new electoral college strengths and were surprised by the modesty of the resulting changes.
There have been three very close presidential elections in the last 20 years -- those of 1960, 1968 and 1976. In popular vote terms, the winning candidates margins over the runners-up were respectively, 0.2 percent, 0.7 percent and 2.1 percent. You can hardly imagine closer races.
When Colford and I recalculated the electoral college results of those three elections as they would have been under the post-1980 census reapportionment, the surprise was that there was no surprise: the same candidates won by roughly the same margins.
In the "adjusted re-run" of 1960, John Kennedy beat Richard Nixon by 32 electoral votes -- not the actual 80. In the re-run of 1968, Nixon beat Hubert Humphrey by 131 electoral votes, not 111.
And in the re-run of 1976, Jimmy Carter's margin over Jerry Ford was 50 votes, not 56.
In other words, the shift of electoral votes mandated by the last three censuses consistently helps the Republicans -- but not by enough even to reverse the two extremely close Democratic victories of the past two decades.
The other finding casts doubt on the theory that a reapportioned House would necessarily doom liberal programs. Colford and I looked back to some of the closest votes of the Great Society period to see how reapportionment might have affected their outcome.
Whether it was food stamps in 1964, rent supplements or the creation of the Department of Housing and Urban Development in 1965, support was comparable in the states that have gained seats to the states that are losing votes.
Obviously, it is impossible to "prove" what would have happened to such programs -- or to more recent controversial liberal bills -- in a reapportioned House. The impact of the population shifts will be filtered through the districting battles only now beginning in the legislatures.
But the most sweeping judgments about the decimation of Democratic presidential prospects and of liberal programs are at least premature and very possibly precarious.