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2020 census winners and losers paint a muddled future for the parties

The U.S. population has been moving south and west for 50 years. That used to sound like good news for the Republican Party, but now it's ... complicated.

WASHINGTON — Last week the Census Bureau released the 2020 decennial tally of the population of the nation and all 50 states, and both parties took notice. The count that determines each state’s number of seats in the House of Representatives and votes for the Electoral College was probably affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, but still left a fairly familiar list of winners and losers.

In fact, looking at the census tallies over time, the numbers generally showed a continuation of clear patterns where the country's population and political power has shifted in the last 50 years.

Those shifts are, without question, meaningful, but as people wade into the analysis, there is evidence that they also may mean less than people believe in terms of the national political picture.

Let's start with this year's winners and losers.

Texas added two seats to bring its number of members to 38 and its electoral vote tally to 40. And five states — Colorado, Florida, Montana, North Carolina and Oregon — saw smaller gains, all adding one seat each.

And what the census giveth, it also taketh away. On the other side of the ledger seven states each lost one seat and one electoral vote.

For California, this census was an ignominious first: It was the first time the state lost a House seat. For the others on the lost list though — Illinois, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia — the numbers are more of an extension of a much longer trend.

If you go back 50 years to the 1970 census and tally up the states that are the biggest winners and losers you see some familiar state names and some big numbers.

There's a pretty clear pattern in those numbers. The U.S. population has been moving south and west over the past 50 years. Not one of the biggest loser states is west of the Mississippi River or south of the Mason-Dixon Line.

And to be clear, all that movement is relevant to the governing in the United States.

Raw population growth affects spending and programs. It's easier for states or regions to get money from Congress if they have a bigger constituency. And the geographic shift adds wrinkles as well. The issues that affect border states are different than those that affect the Great Lakes region.

But the national electoral impacts can be harder to judge.

There was a time when the shift of political power to the Sun Belt was seen as a sign of rising strength for the GOP. Population gains in the South, where the Republican Party was ascendant, seemed to paint a rosy picture for the party. And declines in northern states, many with strong union populations, looked bad for the Democrats.

Flash forward to 2021, however, and the picture looks more muddled. Of the 10 states on that list, four (two in the Great Lakes and two in the Sun Belt) have looked more purple than blue or red in the last presidential elections.

In 2016, Arizona, Georgia, Michigan and Pennsylvania cast their presidential votes for Republican Donald Trump. But in 2020, they all shifted blue and went for the Democrat, Joe Biden. Meanwhile, California, Illinois and New York, went blue in both years. And Florida, Ohio and Texas went red twice.

But even that analysis ignores the subtleties in those "red" Sun Belt state votes. Florida, the perennial battleground, was close in both elections. Trump’s margin of victory was a little more than 1 point in 2016 and a little more than 3 points in 2020. And Texas, while still Republican, has been trending blue for the last few elections. Trump won it by fewer than 6 points in 2020.

The point here is that census numbers and population shifts, while important to governing, show another immutable truth of politics and life: Things change.

When places grow or shrink, their populations change. The issues that drive the national conversation change. And, as the last few years have clearly shown, the nation’s two major political parties are always changing.

That’s an important point to keep on mind as the analysis of the coming weeks unfolds. The clear political, cultural and economic trends that analysts use to examine the new census numbers of 2021 may look very different in 2030.