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The Rust Belt Elevated Trump, But Its Electoral Power Is Dwindling

Donald Trump won the presidency despite losing the popular vote, in large part because of his near-sweep of Midwestern states. However, a changing electoral map means the next Republican nominee may want to pursue a different path.

Three years from now, in 2020, hundreds of thousands of census takers will fan out across the country to carry out the constitutionally mandated U.S. population count. That count will determine how the 435 seats in the House and 538 votes in the Electoral College will be distributed among the states starting in the 2022 congressional election cycle (and therefore in time for the 2024 presidential election).1

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The 2020 census will almost certainly show a continued shift in population — and therefore electoral power — away from the Northeast and Midwest and toward the South and West. The political impact of that shift is harder to assess: Most of the fastest-growing states voted for Trump in 2016, but the demographic groups that are growing fastest, particularly Latinos, tend to vote Democratic. Cities, which voted overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton, are likewise growing faster than rural areas, which voted overwhelmingly for Trump.

What is clear, however, is that demographic trends are accelerating the existing southward migration of the nation’s center of political gravity. Traditional Northern and Midwestern swing states like Pennsylvania and Ohio are likely to lose electoral votes and congressional seats, while states like Texas and Arizona — which aren’t swing states now but are becoming more competitive — are likely to gain them. Florida, which is already among the swingiest swing states, will also likely gain seats. That means Trump’s strategy of appealing to Rust Belt voters could be less successful in future races.

To explore these trends in more detail, I analyzed annual state-level population estimates from the Census Bureau, which were recently updated with 2016 data. Those estimates show that with a handful of exceptions, states in the Northeast and Midwest have been growing slowly since 2010 or outright declining in population, while states in the West and parts of the South are growing rapidly.2 Many states in Appalachia and along the Mississippi River are also growing slowly.3

By projecting these recent trends forward, we can forecast what the electoral map will look like after 2020.4 As the table below shows, many of the states that will probably lose an electoral vote are in the Northeast and Rust Belt. Rhode Island, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois and Michigan are all likely to lose a vote. Minnesota, West Virginia and Alabama will also likely lose one. Those electoral votes will all go to states in the South or West. Texas is on track to gain three, Florida two, and Arizona, Colorado, North Carolina, and Oregon one each. (These projections are similar to those from the Election Data Service, a political consulting firm that released its own estimates in December.)

ELECTORAL VOTES 2016 ELECTION
GAINING VOTES CURRENT PROJECTED CHANGE GOP VOTE MARGIN SHIFT FROM 2012
Texas 38 41 +3 +9.0 -6.8
Florida 29 31 +2 +1.2 +2.1
Arizona 11 12 +1 +3.5 -5.5
Colorado 9 10 +1 -4.9 +0.5
North Carolina 15 16 +1 +3.7 +1.6
Oregon 7 8 +1 -11.0 +1.1
LOSING VOTES
Alabama 9 8 -1 +27.7 +5.5
Illinois 20 19 -1 -16.9 -0.1
Michigan 16 15 -1 +0.2 +9.7
Minnesota 10 9 -1 -1.5 +6.2
New York 29 28 -1 -22.5 +5.7
Ohio 18 17 -1 +8.1 +11.0
Pennsylvania 20 19 -1 +0.7 +6.1
Rhode Island 4 3 -1 -15.5 +11.9
West Virginia 5 4 -1 +41.7 +15.0
States projected to gain and lose electoral votes in 2024

Based on projected populations as of the 2020 census.

Sources: U.S. Census Bureau, Dave Leip’s Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections

These estimates could still change, although with only four years left until the 2020 census, the major trends are probably mostly baked-in. Still, unforeseen shifts are possible. The best recent example of that happened in 2005, when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, causing Louisiana’s population to shrink by a quarter million people. The state’s population eventually rebounded, but the storm may still have cost the state a congressional seat (and electoral vote) in the 2010 census. (Many Louisiana residents displaced by Katrina settled in Texas, which may have contributed to Texas gaining four seats, rather than three, after the 2010 census.) Less dramatic, but still significant, were the shifts during the housing boom and bust of the 2000s: Before the 2008 recession, some of the country’s fastest-growing states (such as Nevada, Arizona and Georgia) were adding population at a rates at or above 2 percent per year. During and after the recession, growth rates in many of those states dropped to around 1 percent for several years. Struggles in the fossil-fuel industry have also substantially slowed or reversed population growth in a handful of states (Alaska, North Dakota, West Virginia and Wyoming) in recent years.

According to my analysis, the final congressional seat (and electoral vote) will go to Florida — but only barely.5 Montana needs only around 5,500 more residents than currently projected in order to leapfrog Florida for the 435th seat and gain its fourth electoral vote. That’s certainly possible: Florida, for example, has grown quickly in recent years in part because of a wave of migration from Puerto Rico that’s tied to the island’s economic struggles. If that trend slows, Florida’s population growth might too. Other changes are also possible with even relatively minor shifts in growth patterns: Illinois is likely to lose one seat, but could lose two; Texas is likely to gain three seats but could gain four; California will probably keep its 55 electoral votes but could conceivably gain or lose a seat.

Assuming that recent trends hold, however, they reflect a continuation of a decades-long shift in the distribution of the U.S. population. When Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Illinois and Michigan held 140 electoral votes between them, more than half of the total needed to win the presidency. These five states also held 130 seats in Congress, or almost 30 percent of its total members. Today, those same states hold only 103 electoral votes and 93 representatives. In that same span, California, Arizona, Texas, Florida and Georgia have increased their totals from 106 electoral votes (96 representatives) to 149 votes (139 representatives), a near mirror image of the former group.

In the short term, changes in the 2024 electoral map look like they’d slightly favor the GOP. States that voted for Trump in 2016 would net two electoral votes. States that voted for Mitt Romney in 2012 would gain three votes.

But all of the red state gains are in states moving toward swing status. Arizona, North Carolina and Texas gain five seats between them, and all could be battlegrounds in 2024. Florida, which went red in 2016, has been a battleground for decades. If all of these states are competitive in the 2024 election, the additional votes would be equivalent to adding Connecticut as a swing state (in addition to the 93 electoral votes Arizona, North Carolina, Texas and Florida already have).

Meanwhile, the Rust Belt states that Trump flipped to the GOP column this year (Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin) will likely lose three seats between them, and Minnesota — which voted for Clinton but by less than the U.S. as a whole — will lose one. Even if the GOP stays competitive in presidential elections in these states, their importance in presidential elections will decrease next decade.

Another clear trend that the probable map reflects is increasing Latino political power. Seven of the nine seats gained will go to states where more than 1 in 5 residents is Latino, and all nine will go to states where at least 15 percent of minors are Latino (many of whom will be of voting age by 2024). Latinos made up more than half of the United States’ population growth from 2000 to 2014, and they’re especially concentrated in states that will likely gain electoral votes in 2024.

This could substantially alter the tone and issues in next decade’s elections, since presidential candidates tailor their message for swing state voters. In an analysis last year, Andrew Gelman and Pierre-Antoine Kremp showed that white voters are overrepresented in swing states, which in 2016 contributed to the campaign’s focus on issues that resonate with white voters, such as the decline of manufacturing. If the fast-growing, red-leaning states become battlegrounds by 2024, the narrative will almost certainly change. Alienating Latino voters will become riskier as Florida, Texas and Arizona become more competitive while also gaining electoral votes.

It’s harder to assess how population trends could affect the balance of power in the House. Even though states that currently lean red are likely to gain congressional seats, the new seats could very well be blue. That’s what happened in Texas after the last round of reapportionment — three of the four congressional seats the state gained after the 2010 census went to Democrats. Republicans have shown great skill in drawing favorable House districts in recent years, but it may take all of that skill and some luck in state elections to keep their current advantage in the House.

Finally, it’s important to note that all of this only matters at the margins. Other shifts — Republicans’ newfound strength in the Midwest, Democrats’ increasing competitiveness in one-time GOP strongholds in the South and West — could have much larger impacts on next decade’s elections than the reallocation of a few votes between states. But the 2016 election was decided by tens of thousand of votes in a handful of states: Sometimes the margins matter.

Footnotes

  1. States get one vote in the Electoral College for each member of their full congressional delegation — so one for each member of the House plus one each for the state’s two senators. Under the 23rd amendment to the Constitution, Washington, D.C., gets three votes.
  2. States in the Census Bureau’s Western region have grown at a rate of 1 percent per year on average since 2010. States in the South have grown 0.8 percent per year on average, with the South Atlantic and West South Central divisions growing the fastest. States in the Midwest, as defined by the Census Bureau, grew just 0.5 percent on average, and the Northeast grew the most slowly, with an average annual growth rate of just 0.2 percent. Washington, D.C., is also growing rapidly, but it has no voting representation in Congress and, as noted earlier, cannot hold more than three votes in the Electoral College.
  3. It’s important to note that Appalachia as a region is growing slowly, but some states that border on Appalachia also contain fast-growing population centers outside of it. So while Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia and Kentucky are growing slowly, Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina are not.
  4. Specifically, I assume that each state’s population growth will hold steady for the next four years at its six-year average (2010-16).
  5. The exact allocation of electoral votes is based on a complex formula determined by Congress.

Jesse Alston, a graduate student in the University of Wyoming’s Zoology and Physiology Department, writes on science and policy issues.

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