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Jewish World Review Jan. 4, 2001 / 9 Teves 5761

Philip Terzian

Terzian
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Up for the count


http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- THE BIG POLITICAL STORY of 2000, of course, took place in Florida. But a bigger story wasn't strictly political, and it took place here in Washington. That is the U.S. Census.

First, there is the size of the country: 281 million, and counting. Not exactly the People's Republic of China, of course, but impressive nonetheless. Alabama and South Carolina, by themselves, now have larger populations than the whole nation boasted in the first census, in 1790. When Franklin Roosevelt was elected president in 1932, the population stood at 123 million. In the 20th century, the population better than doubled.

This represents, by the way, a gradual slowing-down. In the 19th century the United States not only extended itself from the Ohio Valley to the Pacific coast, but its population grew from 5.3 million (1800) to 76.2 million (1900). And that was in the middle of the last great wave of immigration to these shores. By 1920 we were up to 106 million.

But it also represents the continuation of a trend. Since the founding of the republic 212 years ago, Americans have been moving southward and westward, and they are still doing so. In 1790 the statistical center of the population was 23 miles west of Baltimore; two centuries later it is in central Missouri. This relentless migration is now routinely defined as the growth of the Sun Belt, as though Americans suddenly crave air-conditioned climates and are abandoning their ancestral homes in New England. Not at all. Americans have been moving south and west, for whatever reasons, since the opening of the Cumberland Gap in the 1760s.

One might argue, in fact, that the great wave of Eastern European immigration (1880-1920) retarded the process, statistically speaking. The immigrants laned in the East, and tended to concentrate in cities where industrial jobs were plentiful. Now, immigrants appear at different points of entry, and their numbers are reflected in state populations. California, Texas and Florida (with 68 million people combined) are three of the four most populous states in the nation; New York (18 million) is third. And descendants of those Eastern European immigrants are now as likely to live in Atlanta or Los Angeles as Pittsburgh or Brooklyn.

So much for numbers; what about politics. Shifts in population mean that certain states will gain, or lose, members in the House of Representatives in order to maintain its 435-seat limit. As a result, Arizona, Georgia, Florida and Texas will be awarded two more seats in Congress, and California, Colorado, Nevada and North Carolina will gain one. Conversely, New York and Pennsylvania will be stripped of two congressional seats, while Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Ohio, Oklahoma and Wisconsin will lose one each.

This is, on the whole, good news for Republicans. Seven of the eight states gaining representation in Congress supported George W. Bush in the presidential election, and six of the 10 losing states went for Al Gore. Congressional districts are, for the most part, designed by state legislatures, and while Democrats made gains in some Republican strongholds in the last elections, Republicans are better positioned on the whole. Indeed, as Virginia Rep. Thomas Davis, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, puts it, "Republicans will control more seats at the bargaining table than at any time since 1920."

Which is not to say Republicans have nothing to worry about. Reapportionment will provide some insulation for congressional Republicans, but historically, the party in the White House loses seats in off-year elections. And political trends are mixed, at best. While President-elect Bush defeated an incumbent vice president in peaceful, prosperous times -- no small acievement -- he also found the unions united against him, along with blacks and a majority of Hispanic voters. Silicon Valley is now solidly Democratic, and Democrats won Senate seats in Georgia and Florida.

Well, Georgia and Florida have been sending mixed delegations to Washington for years, and when the Internet bubble bursts, the political complexion of Silicon Valley will be transformed. Which leaves Hispanic voters, America's largest immigrant group, and a huge voting bloc. The presumption is that Hispanics -- recent arrivals, poorer than most Americans -- will remain eternally wedded to the Democratic party, but is that necessarily so? There are large differences between Salvadoran refugees in California and Cuban exiles in Florida, and Hispanic public officials are evenly divided between the parties.

Moreover, there is every indication that Hispanics are following the pattern of immigration -- gradual, but inexorable, assimilation -- which, in time, could make Hispanics as politically predictable as citizens of, say, Scottish descent. It's a process the Census has been tracking since 1790.



JWR contributor Philip Terzian is associate editor of The Providence Journal. Comment by clicking here.

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