By JONATHAN TILOVE
May 26, 2005
c.2005 Newhouse News Service
(UNDATED) By 2030, nearly two-thirds of all Americans will live in the South and West _ the Sun Belt _ according to recent Census Bureau projections.
In fact, the bureau forecasts that 30 percent of all Americans will be living in just three states _ California, Texas and Florida _ each of which it calculates will grow by 12 million, the total population in 2000 of Pennsylvania or Illinois.
The shift will profoundly affect American life, most obviously in culture and politics. The Sun Belt’s changing racial and ethnic landscape may be the shiny silver lining for Democrats otherwise fated to watch the air leak out of much of blue America.
The overall trend continues a decades-long migration of people and power south and west that author Kevin Phillips in 1969 accurately predicted would carry Republicans to political ascendancy _ but with a twist. In ways Phillips could not have foreseen when he wrote “The Emerging Republican Majority,” immigration is Latinizing significant stretches of a region whose conservative identity was forged by the white middle class. As a result, its political character is fracturing in uneven and unpredictable ways.
“I don’t think the Sun Belt has the political cohesion it had 40 years ago,” Phillips said from his home in Connecticut. “The Sun Belt is so dominant that it now has divisions and compartments that are really different from one another.”
The continuing change will recalibrate the electoral map, with the rough Sun Belt/Snow Belt parity that existed in Richard Nixon’s day yielding an increasingly lopsided Sun Belt advantage. By 2030, Florida will have more electoral votes than New York and Massachusetts combined, Arizona will match Michigan in electoral might, and North Carolina will be the equal of Pennsylvania.
Last year, 220 of President Bush’s 286 electoral votes came from Sun Belt states. According to an analysis by William Frey of the Brookings Institution and University of Michigan, 2004’s red states should yield 303 electoral votes in 2032 _ 245 of them in the Sun Belt.
“At first blush this looks like a windfall for the Republicans,” Frey said.
But, he cautioned, 2032 is seven presidential elections away, and while the makeup of many Snow Belt states may not change that much, except to get older, politics in the Sun Belt, with its younger, growing population of new arrivals from the rest of America and around the globe, will be harder to predict. “You know who’s going to be in the Snow Belt,” Frey said. “In the Sun Belt, you just don’t know.”
The opportunity for the Democrats is in the emerging presence of Hispanics, who, with the exception of Cubans in Florida, usually vote 2-to-1 Democratic, though President Bush has done somewhat better.
John Pitney Jr., a Claremont McKenna College government professor who worked four years as a Republican National Committee researcher in the late 1980s and early ’90s, put it this way: “The growth of the Latino vote presumably is the only thing keeping the Democratic leadership off Prozac.”
While the new national estimates did not break down the numbers by race and Hispanic origin, the state demographic units in Florida, California and Texas have done their own projections, and the results are striking:
_ By 2030, Florida’s non-Hispanic white population will have slipped to 56 percent from 66 percent and the state will be a quarter Hispanic.
_ Texas will be majority Hispanic. It will gain fewer than a million non-Hispanic whites between 2000 and 2030, while the Hispanic population will triple, growing by 13 million.
_ California, which Phillips envisioned as the cornerstone of a conservative majority but which now anchors the Democratic map, will see its Hispanic population double by 2030, growing by 11 million, while its non-Hispanic white population declines by 2 million. It will be 29 percent white and 47 percent Hispanic.
The census projections are in keeping with an inexorable migration, dating from the 1950s, of people out of the urbanized Northeast and Midwest into newer, more suburban-style communities in the South and West. The line tracking the movement of the U.S. population center, decade by decade, looks like the route of a family headed West on a cross-country trip and driven, over 40 years, to veer south, alighting in 2000 in south-central Missouri and headed toward Oklahoma.
According to University of Michigan historian Matt Lassiter, author of the forthcoming book “The Silent Majority: Suburban Politics in the Sunbelt South,” many newcomers to the Sun Belt were members of “the suburban, corporate, white-collar class, and many of them brought their Republican politics with them.”
Their destination was already more conservative _ on the whole less urban and ethnic, more sprawling, more individualistic, more pro-business, anti-union, anti-tax, anti-regulation, more ensconced in the military and aerospace, more devoted to cars and trucks and guns, to NASCAR and country music. It was also altogether less enamored of government _ even though, as Lassiter points out, the Sun Belt has been the greater beneficiary of government largesse.
And no American political dynasty has a history more attuned to the rise of the Sun Belt than the Bushes.
George H.W. Bush moved the family from Connecticut, where his father, Prescott, had been a senator, to Texas, when George W. Bush, who would become governor of the Lone Star State, was 2. Another son, Jeb, is now governor of Florida. He is married to a Mexican-born woman, Columba, and their son, George P., carries the name of two presidents and an ethnic identification with the fastest-growing group in the states most crucial to the Republican future.
The Bush personality, too, became more Sun Belt over time. The first President Bush was caught on the campaign trail asking for a “splash” more coffee, and had to be advised by strategist Lee Atwater to snack on pork rinds. But the second President Bush went from Episcopalian to born-again Christian, and from Yale and Harvard to effortlessly dropping his g’s.
For a nation born in the East, whose eyes and ears in the national media remain concentrated in New York and Washington, it can be hard to take in how much things have changed.
“There is a tendency to stand with your back to the Atlantic Ocean and look toward the country and say, `The country is moving away from us,”’ said Carl Abbott, who grew up in Dayton, Ohio, and is now a professor of urban studies and planning at Portland State University in Oregon. “To some degree, that is what the Sun Belt is all about.”
Already there is the sense that, wherever America is headed, the Sun Belt will get there first.
“If you come to Texas, look around. … Texas today is the United States tomorrow,” said Steve Murdock, the state demographer there, explaining that in 2000, Texas was 53 percent white, about what the nation as a whole is projected to be in 2040.
Still, the new Census Bureau forecast is based on current trends, which raises some caveats.
As Harvey Graff, a professor of English and history at Ohio State University, notes, this is the same Census Bureau that failed to anticipate either the Baby Boom or the Baby Bust. Graff, who taught in Texas for 29 years and is writing a book on Dallas, doubts the fluctuating Texas economy and infrastructure can sustain the projected growth.
Certainly, as Sun Belt destinations exhibit the same problems of traffic, crowding, pollution and costs that movers thought they were leaving behind, their drawing power could fade.
“The quality of life in Arizona will be significantly degraded if we double the population,” said David Plane, professor in the Department of Geography and Regional Development at the University of Arizona in Tucson.
The migration’s political impact also could change over time.
North Carolina, according to the forecasts, will grow by half. “In the short term, this growth will solidify Republican gains,” said Ferrell Guillory, director of the Program on Southern Politics at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
But, Guillory added, “people moving in and people likely to move in want good hospitals, good roads and good schools, and that’s what the Democrats think of themselves as delivering. Republicans, who have made a lot of gains on some of these social and values issues, face a challenge in not moving so far to the right that they lose these people.”
Republicans also will be challenged to show some finesse in appealing to Hispanic voters.
Immigration was key to California turning Democratic (Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger notwithstanding). Many Republicans are treading lightly on the issue out of fear of alienating Hispanics, said Claremont McKenna’s Pitney. “They can do the arithmetic.”
They are also taking a history lesson from Gov. Pete Wilson’s embrace in 1994 of Proposition 187. That ballot initiative to deny many public services to illegal immigrants was seen as energizing lasting Hispanic antipathy to the GOP.
Still, Luis Fraga, a Stanford University political scientist, notes that Wilson won re-election that year by driving up his margin among white voters.
By contrast, Texas Republicans routinely rack up large white margins. Their task in coming years will be to at least marginally improve their standing with Hispanics, something Bush has done but that Fraga said has not transferred to other Republicans. But Fraga noted, “I don’t think it will matter that much in Texas until the Democrats become competitive among white voters.”
In the meantime, Phillips, who once envisioned Texas and California as twin pillars of a new Republican majority, now sees them competing for “spheres of influence” among the other states of the Southwest. And it is these states that may prove the decisive electoral battleground in years to come.