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Exurban Growth Should Bolster G.O.P. in Congressional Redistricting

Update: For more on the results from the 2010 census: Census Data Show 308 Million People and a Regional Shift

Having made significant gains in statewide races on Nov. 2, Republicans are in an advantageous position for the Congressional redistricting process that will take place between now and the 2012 elections. That process will kick off later today when the Census Bureau announces the first set of results from the 2010 Census, including which states will gain or lose seats in Congress (and consequently, votes in the Electoral College).

Even before the midterm elections, though, Republicans were poised to gain seats in the next Congress for another reason: under the old boundary lines, which first went into effect in 2002, their Congressional districts tended to grow faster than Democratic ones.

Nine Congressional districts, for instance, had populations of 900,000 or more as of 2009, according to Census Bureau estimates, while the average Congressional district has about 700,000 people. All nine — as well as 17 of the 20 most populous districts over all — elected Republicans to the U.S. House in November. That means that the Republicans will, in many cases, have the luxury of both protecting their incumbents in these districts and spreading out their excess voters to neighboring districts to make them easier to win.

Essentially all of the fastest-growing districts are in inland areas south of the Mason-Dixon line, or are west of the Continental Divide. Many are in areas that demographers describe as ‘exurbs’: newly developing areas that are located relatively far — perhaps a 30- or 60-minute drive — from cities like Phoenix, Dallas, Houston, Las Vegas, Charlotte or Atlanta, and that attract an upscale mix of commuters, families and retirees. Although most major American cities are no longer losing population — on the contrary, at least 20 of the 25 largest cities are likely to have gained population in the 2010 Census compared with 2000 — they are not growing as fast as the exurbs, and therefore stand to lose proportionally, because the number of seats in Congress is fixed.

The partisan patterns are by no means uniform. Democrats will benefit from growing Hispanic populations in some places, and some Republican-leaning rural districts in Farm Belt states like Iowa are losing population. Further, in the urban areas that are losing population, like Cleveland and New Orleans, the voters are so overwhelmingly Democratic that modest changes in boundaries will not harm Democrats much. But the trends should benefit Republicans over all, almost no matter how the new boundary lines are drawn.

That is true even in states that will neither gain nor lose seats in Congress, since redistricting rules require that the populations of Congressional districts be as even as possible, not just between states (a congressman in Arizona should ideally represent about the same number of people as one in Minnesota) but also within them (each of Arizona’s Congressional districts should have about the same number of people).

Nevertheless, most of the action will take place in states that do stand to gain or lose seats, so those are worth examining in more detail. (Redistricting geeks might also want to review the work of David Wasserman at the Cook Political Report, whose analysis I will be referencing frequently in this article, as well as this chart — originally produced by the Republican National Committee and re-published by Ben Smith of Politico — which documents which party controls the redistricting process in each state.)

States that stand to gain seats in Congress

Texas (+3 or 4 seats). Texas’s population has grown by 4 million to 5 million people since 2000. Some of this growth comes from heavily Hispanic areas in South Texas, but the exurbs around Houston and Dallas have been growing even faster, and they tend to be heavily Republican. In fact, the eight Texas Congressional districts with the largest populations as of 2009 are all represented by the G.O.P. in Congress.

If Texas gains 3 seats in the new Congress rather than 4, population trends would probably dictate that one of them would be a Hispanic-majority district in South Texas, and the Dallas and Houston suburbs would each get one. If a fourth district were added, it would probably belong in Central Texas, but it would make the overall process much more fluid.

Republicans will control the redistricting process in Texas, and they may face a choice between creating a handful of extremely safe Democratic districts while also protecting their own incumbents, or instead creating a larger number of Republican-leaning (but not completely safe) ones.

However, Republican gains could be constrained by the fact that Texas’s congressional boundaries were already quite favorable to Republicans under the state’s controversial 2003 redistricting plan, and by the fact that the demographics of the state are evolving: some districts which might seem relatively safe now might not be by 2016 or 2018 as the Hispanic population continues to grow, particularly if Democrats are successful in registering more Hispanic voters.

Florida (+1 or 2 seats). The three Congressional districts in Florida that have gained the most population since 2000 are the 5th, 14th and 25th, all on the state’s west coast, which tends to be more Republican than the Democratic-leaning east coast. Exurban districts in the northern part of the state, like the 6th and the 7th, have also gained population, and they too are represented by Republicans. Since Republicans control both the governorship in Florida and both branches of the state legislature, they should be poised to gain ground here.

However, Florida voters also approved Amendment 5 on Nov. 2, which requires that districts be drawn to preserve geographic integrity, rather than to the benefit of either party. The measure is already subject to litigation and it is hard to predict how it will be perceived by the courts. Under the strictest interpretation, Democrats could actually improve their position in Florida, since the state’s existing boundaries, some of which are highly gerrymandered, are relatively favorable to Republicans. But under more flexible interpretations, the amendment might hardly impede Republicans at all.

Arizona (+1 or 2 seats). The 6th district, consisting of suburbs and exurbs to the southeast of Phoenix, and the oddly-shaped 2nd district — which stretches from the outskirts of Phoenix all the way to the borders with Nevada and Utah — are the most Republican in the state, and they are also the fastest-growing. Although Arizona has a bipartisan redistricting commission, its first new seat in Congress is therefore likely to to fall into Republican hands.

Republicans might be indifferent, however, as to whether Arizona also wins a second new seat: Mr. Wasserman speculates that it might be a Hispanic-majority district on the western outskirts of Phoenix, which would presumably favor Democrats.

Georgia (+1 seat) By far the fastest-growing of Georgia’s current congressional districts is the 7th, which now has more than 920,000 people, mostly in exurban Gwinnett County, which is heavily Republican. The Republicans, who control the new redistricting process, should have the flexibility to add a new safe seat while protecting their existing ones.

Nevada (+1 seat) This is one of the more interesting cases and one of the few where Democrats could have an advantage. The whole of Nevada has been growing, but growth has been especially strong in the 3rd District, consisting of Las Vegas suburbs like Henderson; it already had more than 1 million people as of 2009, making it the most populous in the country. The 3rd is a swing district that changed party in November, when a Republican, Joe Heck, defeated the Democratic incumbent, Dina Titus. His margin was narrow, and both parties have a veto on the new map, because Democrats control the state legislature while Republicans have the governorship. The most logical outcome might be to protect Mr. Heck while creating a 4th district that would be Democratic-leaning.

Utah (+1 seat) Utah is Utah, so the new district is almost certain to be won by a Republican. The question is whether Republicans, who are in control the redistricting process, might also try to redraw the current 2nd District to impair the re-election prospects of the state’s lone Democratic representative, Jim Matheson. There is very little downside to their doing so — there just aren’t enough Democrats in Utah to make more than one district competitive — but Mr. Matheson might prove to be up for the challenge, after having survived in the very difficult climate of 2010.

South Carolina (0 or +1 seat) South Carolina is likely, but not certain, to gain a seat. If it does, Republicans would seem to be the favorites on paper, as they control the redistricting process, and as the most overpopulated of South Carolina’s current districts is the 1st, which runs along the Atlantic Coast and has voted Republican since 1980.

Still, the party will need to be careful not to cleave their seats too finely and create a newly competitive district in Charleston (which, while liberal-leaning, is now outweighed by more conservative parts of the 1st district like Myrtle Beach). Also, as Mr. Wasserman notes, there is chance that a version of this scenario might be compelled by the courts: there are enough African Americans in the state to create two black-majority districts — one resembling the 6th district (the only one in the state still held by a Democrat, Jim Clyburn) and the other surrounding Charleston —. Certain interpretations of the Voting Rights Act might require the state to do just that. Politics is rarely pretty in South Carolina, and this should be no exception.

Washington (0 or +1 seat) Although Washington is a rare blue state that might gain a seat, that is not necessarily good news for Democrats, because the most overpopulated among its current districts are the 3rd and the 8th, two swing seats now held by Republicans. In looking at the map, I come to the same conclusion that Mr. Wasserman does: the most logical and likely outcome is a map that creates a new Democratic-leaning 10th district but also makes the 3rd and the 8th safer for their Republican incumbents, Jaime Herrera and Dave Reichert.

North Carolina (0 or +1 seat) The existing, highly gerrymandered boundary lines in North Carolina are favorable to Democrats, but since Republicans will be in control of the redistricting process, this state may be intriguing. Population growth has been spread unevenly throughout the state: the Democratic-leaning Research Triangle area is growing rapidly, but so is the exurban and Republican 9th district southwest of Charlotte. A particularly aggressive Republican plan might be to gerrymander the Democratic-held 1st district in the Inner Banks region, which has lost population, into something more competitive.

California (0 or +1 seat) At one point the state seemed unlikely to gain another seat, but more recent population estimates suggest it has a chance. If it does, it will be because of prodigious population growth away from the coast, both in the Inland Empire and the Central Valley. Although it has largely been driven by an influx of Hispanic residents (including, to some extent, illegal immigrants), the voter rolls in those parts of the state are nevertheless much more Republican than their coastal counterparts, so Republicans might actually have the chance to make a couple of their incumbents safer, or to create a new Republican-leaning district.

This is especially so since redistricting in California will now be led by a bipartisan commission, rather than a Democratic majority, as had been the case in 2002. Bipartisan commissions in many states have been inclined to protect incumbents. But California currently has remarkably few competitive seats, so the equilibrium could swing the other way.

Oregon (0 or +1 seat) Oregon has an outside chance to add a Congressional seat, making the politics of redistricting interesting: Democrats control both the governorship and the state senate, but the house of representatives is evenly divided. The 1st district in the northwest corner of the state, which is liberal, has grown somewhat faster than other regions, which might give the Democrats an edge. But the Democratic advantage is narrow in the neighboring 5th district so they would need to proceed carefully. If Oregon does not gain a seat, then using the excess voters from the 1st to reinforce the 5th might be nearly as good an outcome for them.

States that stand to lose seats in Congress

Ohio (−2 seats) Quite a few Ohio districts have lost population outright since 2000. The one that has lost the most is 11th district, which covers most of Cleveland, but it is so blue that a core of Democratic voters will remain to ensure Marcia Fudge’s re-election to Congress. Dennis Kucinich’s neighboring 10th district, however, has also lost ground, and he could be vulnerable. Some of Ohio’s Republican-leaning and swing areas, like the Appalachian 6th district that Republicans took over in November, have lost population as well. But the Republicans in control of the redistricting process will do their best to see that the two seats the state loses both come from the Democratic column.

New York (−1 or 2 seats) If the state loses just one seat, it will almost certainly come from the region that Democrats would prefer: upstate. Northwestern New York — and even more particularly, Buffalo — has lost significant population since 2000.

The loss wouldn’t necessarily be a Republican one, since several of the upstate districts are held by Democrats or are otherwise competitive, but eliminating one seat upstate would be a better outcome for Democrats than what might happen if New York loses two seats: that might mean one of New York City’s districts might have to to be consolidated, even though the city’s population has increased by 5 percent since 2000.

Democrats, indeed, may very much regret not having won control of the State Senate in November, in which case Republicans would lack a veto over redistricting. That might have allowed them to improve the odds that the upstate loss was a Republican seat, and to protect their city incumbents from a second seat loss through creative measures like combining city and suburban tracts or merging the Republican-held 13th district on Staten Island — which is not quite populous enough to warrant a district of its own — with especially Democratic-leaning areas in Brooklyn. Finally, the Democrats might have had the chance to squeeze the Republican Peter King out of the 3rd district in Long Island. As it is, his district has lost population relative to the neighboring 2nd and 4th districts, so he could be rendered somewhat more vulnerable anyway.

Louisiana (−1 seat) Here’s a potential case of addition by subtraction for Democrats. Although Louisiana’s population loss is concentrated around New Orleans, which hemorrhaged population after Hurricane Katrina (its 2nd Congressional District was the least populous in the country as of 2009), there are probably still enough African-American voters in the city that it will be impossible to draw a map without a Democratic-leaning seat there. Republicans already control the red-trending state’s other six seats, and one of those would probably have to go.

While I’ve come across a couple of a highly creative proposals to gerrymander the 2nd district into one that is more competitive for Republicans, they would probably run afoul of both the Voting Rights Act and the state legislature, which is still controlled by Democrats. It’s more likely that the new map will keep the 2nd as Democratic as possible and ensure that the five remaining Republican incumbents have a safe path to re-election.

Massachusetts (−1 seat) There’s not much to think about here: all 10 of its current Congressional districts are still controlled by Democrats, Democrats control the redistricting process, and no one part of the state has gained or lost much population relative to the others. Democrats will probably look at who is planning to retire — or to run for the Senate against Scott Brown — and will build a plan from there.

Michigan (−1 seat) As in Ohio, many Michigan districts have lost population. The districts with the largest population losses, the 13th and the 14th, are Democratic-leaning parts of Detroit, and Republicans are in control of redistricting, which would seem to give them an edge.

Michigan’s current boundaries were already pretty decent for Republicans — and some of their strongholds have lost population, too — so while they can work to improve the odds that the lost seat will be a Democratic one, they may not be able to guarantee it. For instance, they could try to force Democratic incumbents Dale Kildee and Gary Peters, now of the 5th and 9th districts, to compete against one another — but that might render the 11th or the 8th districts, now held by Republicans, more vulnerable.

Iowa (−1 seat) Most of Iowa’s population loss is concentrated in the western portion of the state, which is also the strongest region for Republicans. That could make Steve King, the Republican incumbent in the 5th district, especially vulnerable (Democrats narrowly held on to a majority in the state senate, so they have a say in redistricting). All four of Iowa’s remaining districts should be highly competitive.

New Jersey (−1 seat) New Jersey will use a commission to redraw its map. But the most Democratic districts in the state — particularly the 10th in parts of Newark and Jersey City and the 8th in Passaic and Essex Counties — are the ones that have lost the most population, so the Republicans have a mathematical advantage.

Pennsylvania (−1 seat) Winning control of both the legislature and the governorship was a big deal for Republicans, since several different parts of Pennsylvania have lost population — urban Pittsburgh, for instance, but also the state’s conservative center — so there will be any number of possibilities for how to reconfigure the remaining seats. Given Republican control, the 12th district held by the Democrat Mark Critz — which was already highly gerrymandered and has lost population — seems especially likely to be absorbed into its neighbors.

Missouri (0 or −1 seat) With Democrats holding the governorship but Republicans the legislature, both parties have a veto here, and it is hard to figure out who will lose the game of musical chairs. Most of the population loss is concentrated in the eastern portion of the state, including the 1st district in St. Louis, Russ Carnahan’s suburban-leaning 3rd district, and the strongly Republican 8th district in the southeast. Mr. Carnahan’s district is the most vulnerable of the three on paper, but he is a powerful figure in Missouri and will resist any erosion in his boundaries. One way or another, if Missouri loses a seat — which is likely, but not certain — its congressional elections are likely to be more competitive than in the recent past, with blurred dividing lines between urban, rural and suburban areas.

Illinois (0 or −1 seat) Democrats were fortunate to retain control over redistricting in Illinois. Whether or not the state loses a seat — and it is not assured to — it has seen a population shift out of Chicago’s predominately black South Side and into the suburbs and exurbs surrounding the city, which might ordinarily favor Republicans. But with control in Springfield, Democrats may well be able to draw relatively safe districts to protect their inner-city incumbents in the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th districts — all are so overwhelmingly Democratic that they can afford to expand their boundaries somewhat — while targeting any of a number of Republicans, who surprisingly emerged with a 11 of the state’s 19 districts in November.

Minnesota (0 or −1 seat) The seats with slack population growth, like the 4th, 5th and 7th, are held by Democrats; meanwhile, the suburban 6th district, held by Michelle Bachmann, has gained population. If Minnesota holds steady at 8 seats, Democrats and Republicans will probably preserve their 4-4 tie, as the parties will share control over redistricting. But if a seat is lost, it is more likely to come from the blue team.

Nebraska (0 or −1 seat) Nebraska has an outside chance to lose a seat, which would be problematic for Republicans since they hold all three seats now and since the western part of the state, which is extremely Republican, has lost the most population. The downside for Democrats is that the 2nd district in Omaha, which is sometimes competitive in both Congressional and Presidential elections (Nebraska awards one electoral vote to the winner of each of its Congressional districts), would also become less so.

Rhode Island (0 or −1 seat) Rhode Island may finally have reached the point where it will be reduced from two seats to one; if it holds on now, it will be even more vulnerable in 2020. Democrats hold both seats now, and neither is typically competitive, so they would endure the loss.

Correction: A previous version of this post stated that Minnesota currently has nine seats in the House of Representatives. It has eight.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.