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California's population gains not enough for another seat in Congress

Census data show the fastest growth continues to be in the West and South, but places like Texas and Florida far outpaced California. The shift is likely to benefit Republicans.

December 21, 2010|By Seema Mehta, Tom Hamburger and Kim Geiger, Los Angeles Times

The nation's population and political heft continued to swing toward the South and West in the 2010 census, but for the first time since statehood, California's population did not grow enough to gain additional congressional seats, the U.S. Census Bureau said Tuesday.

As it has since the last reapportionment 10 years ago, the state will continue to have 53 members in the House of Representatives — by far the largest bloc. California gained about 3.4 million residents over the decade, a 10% growth rate that closely tracked the national rate.

The U.S. population reached 308.7 million, but the growth rate for the decade was the lowest since the Great Depression.

The big winners in the once-a-decade reallocation of House seats were Texas, which will gain four seats, and Florida, which will gain two. The biggest losers were New York and Ohio, which each lose two. Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, South Carolina, Utah and Washington will pick up one seat each, while Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New Jersey and Pennsylvania will each lose one.

The numbers will give Republicans an edge in the 2012 congressional and presidential elections. Assuming states follow their past patterns in presidential races, the GOP should see a net gain of about seven votes in the electoral college. President Obama won the 2008 election by a margin of 192 electoral votes.

Republicans are likely to gain in Congress as well, but to what degree will depend in part on whether the voters who have swelled the populations of Southern and Western states adopt the party loyalties of longtime residents or head in a different direction.

"The big question mark long-term is Texas," said William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution, who noted that the big gains in that state were due in large part to a growing Latino population. In California, the growth of the Latino vote has made the state considerably more Democratic, but "Democrats can't depend on Hispanics in Texas as much as they might in other states," Frey said.

Another factor will be the state-by-state battles over the redrawing of congressional district lines. Republicans will have the advantage there because they control a majority of state legislatures.

In the census-driven reapportionment, each state is guaranteed one House seat, with the remaining 385 seats then divvied among the states using a formula pegged to the rate of state population growth. The census data will also be used to distribute more than $400 billion annually from federal programs that allocate funds on a per-capita basis.

Overall, the new census figures reflect how population growth varied regionally, with the South and West continuing a multi-decade trend of big gains. Nevada led the nation with a population explosion of 35.1%. Growth in the Northeast and the industrial Midwest was anemic, with one state, Michigan, losing 0.6% of its population.

Since California became a state in 1850, it has failed to gain a new seat in the House only one other time — after the 1920 census, when Congress decided not to change the size of any state's delegation.

It had been widely acknowledged that it was unlikely to gain a seat this time. Although California added millions of residents, its growth lagged far behind that of states such as Nevada, Texas, Arizona and Florida.

"This is exactly what we had guessed would happen," said Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D- San Jose), chairwoman of California's Democratic congressional delegation. "We did gain population in the state … but some of these Sun Belt states just skyrocketed."

Tony Quinn, a Republican demographer, portrayed the trend more negatively. "California is no longer the pacesetter for the nation," he said. "People are voting with their feet."

Stephen Levy, director and senior economist at the Center for Continuing Study of the California Economy in Palo Alto, said it was common for large states that once had explosive growth to stabilize.

"There's no question that in the last 20 years California has become an average job-growth state, so it's become an average population-growth state," he said.

Size presents an obstacle for a state as large as California, since reapportionment is pegged to the rate of population increase rather than sheer numbers. For example, Utah is gaining a seat after seeing a 531,000 population increase, a fraction of the 3.4-million growth seen in California.

Fights over reapportionment are handled differently in each state. In California and six other states, districts will be redrawn by independent bodies to limit political influence. But elsewhere, legislatures will craft the new boundaries, often with final approval required from the governor.

Republicans now control both legislative houses in 25 states, up from 14 before the election. Democrats control both houses in 16 states.

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