Posted on December 18, 2009

The March of Diversity

Ronald Brownstein, National Journal (Washington, D.C.), December 19, 2009


A National Journal analysis of new Census Bureau data has found that 205 members in the House–almost half of the chamber–represent districts in which minorities constitute at least 30 percent of the population. That’s nearly double the one-fourth of members who hailed from districts that diverse during the 1990s. This pervasive diversity is literally changing the House’s complexion, opening fresh fault lines both between and within the parties, and adding twists to their legislative and political competition.

“We’re entering a new era which is being defined to a great degree by the incredible explosion of the nonwhite electorate and its distribution around the country,” says Simon Rosenberg, president of NDN, a Democratic group that studies electoral trends. “The growth of this nonwhite population is creating a fundamentally new politics in the United States.”

Growing and Dispersing

Two dynamics are driving the spread of heavily diverse districts. One is the sheer growth in the nonwhite share of the population, defined as everyone except non-Hispanic whites. In 1980, those nonwhites, including Hispanics, African-Americans, and Asians, constituted 20 percent of the population; that figure rose to 24 percent in 1990, 31 percent in 2000, and 34 percent in 2008, according to Census Bureau figures.

Accompanying this growth has been a dispersal of the minority population from its historical concentration in the largest cities across a much broader landscape of communities of every size, in almost every region of the country. That trend has been powered primarily by immigrants, especially Hispanics, notes Douglas Massey, a sociologist at Princeton University and the author of New Faces in New Places, a 2008 book on the phenomenon. “That’s the big story starting in the 1990s: Immigration shifted from being a regional phenomenon affecting a handful of states to truly being a national phenomenon,” Massey says. “That’s for the first time in 100 years–or maybe for the first time in all of American history.”


This human tide has already left a deep imprint on the House. One way to gauge the change is to compare the demographic makeup of the 435 districts today with the districts that were in place for the 1992 election, after the reapportionment and redistricting that followed the 1990 census. The data on the composition of the current districts come from the recently released three-year average (2006-08) of the Census Bureau’s annual American Community Survey; the data on the composition of the earlier districts come from results of the 1990 decennial census, which can be adjusted to the boundaries of the congressional districts in place as of the 1992 election. That election produced the 1993-94 Congress, the first during Bill Clinton’s initial term.

From the 103rd Congress until today, the number of districts where minorities make up at least 40 percent of the population has increased from 80 to 135–from 18 percent to 31 percent of the House. The number of districts where minorities make up at least 30 percent of the population, as noted earlier, has nearly doubled from 109 in 1993 to 205 today–nearly half of all House districts. Nearly three-fifths of all House members represent districts that are at least 25 percent nonwhite–up from one-third in the 1990s. “It used to be the exception [when members] said, ‘My district has really changed,’ ” said Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-Calif. “Now that’s the rule. If you are in a district that is not accustomed to seeing a lot of diversity, the rule now is that you are going to see it. And you can’t ignore it: That is the face of America tomorrow.”

Indeed, monolithically white districts are the exception: The number of districts where minorities constitute less than 20 percent of the population has plummeted from 245 in 1993 to just 145 today. Those preponderantly white districts represented an absolute majority of the House (56 percent) in 1993. Today they account for just one-third of House seats.

The most-diverse districts remain concentrated in traditional destinations for immigrants and minorities. Of the 205 districts where minorities make up at least 30 percent of the population, more than half are in four states: California (49), Texas (30), New York (17), and Florida (12). And as the map on p. 20 shows, the Sun Belt, the Southeast, and the West Coast remain more diverse than the interior states.

But 34 states now count at least one district where minorities make up at least 30 percent of the population. States as different as Arizona, Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey, North Carolina, and Virginia all contain multiple districts with that percentage of minorities. Only New England, the Upper Midwest, and the Appalachian swath from western Pennsylvania and southeastern Ohio down through West Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee have been largely exempt from this change.

Another measure underscores the sweep of the transformation. From 2000 through 2008, the minority share of the population increased in a stunning 410 of the 435 current congressional districts, a comparison of the most recent American Community Survey results with the 2000 decennial census shows. In 426 of the 435 districts, the Hispanic share of the population increased from 2000 to 2008; in 219 of them, the share jumped by at least one-third (albeit from a very low base in some places). Hispanics now constitute one-fifth or more of the population in 99 districts; one-quarter or more in 79; and at least 30 percent in 61. Each of those figures exceeds the number of districts where the African-American population reaches those thresholds; each figure also represents a huge increase over the Hispanic presence in the 1990s. “When you have those kinds of numbers across the broad brush of districts, it’s happening across the country,” Frey says. “It’s not just a city phenomena, it’s not just a few rural counties along the Mexican border.”

Likewise, the transformation is coloring both parties. Not surprisingly, given their advantages among minority voters, a higher proportion of Democrats than Republicans represent heavily diverse districts. Slightly more than two-fifths of the 258 House Democrats hold districts that are at least 40 percent nonwhite. Nearly three-fifths of House Democrats represent districts that are least 30 percent nonwhite. Only about one-third of them held districts that diverse in 1993.

The change hasn’t affected Republicans as much, but neither has it bypassed them. Seventy-six (43 percent) of the 177 House Republicans still represent districts that are at least four-fifths white. But that’s down from nearly three-fourths of House Republicans in 1993. Today exactly one-third (59) of House Republicans hold districts that are at least 30 percent nonwhite, with almost all of them coming from California, as well as Texas, Florida, and other Southern states. That’s up from only about 10 percent of Republicans who represented such diverse districts in 1993.

Even more striking, 13 House Republicans, all but one of them in California, Texas, and Florida, represent districts where minorities constitute a majority of the population. Those members include three Cuban-American Republicans in Florida and Asian-American Joseph Cao in Louisiana. But most are whites, such as Ken Calvert, David Dreier, Mary Bono Mack, and Buck McKeon in California, and Pete Sessions, the National Republican Congressional Committee chairman, in Texas. Several of those districts have seen their nonwhite population rapidly increase just since 2000. In fact, Republicans now hold 21 of the 35 districts where the nonwhite share of the population has increased the most since the 2000 census, a trend that could threaten the GOP’s ability to hold the seats centered on those areas in the redistricting that will follow the 2010 census.

Connecting With Minorities

The most visible manifestation of this growing diversity has been the increase in House members who are themselves part of minority groups: The chamber includes 64 nonwhite Democrats and six nonwhite Republicans. But even more significant may be the fact that 139 white members–84 Democrats and 55 Republicans–represent districts where minorities make up at least 30 percent of the population.


“Inexorable Logic”

In many districts, increased minority population hasn’t immediately translated into increased political clout, particularly for the Hispanic community. The Latino share of the vote is typically much smaller than its share of the population, partly because some Hispanics are here illegally but also because many legal residents are either not citizens or younger than 18. Census figures for 2008 provide one yardstick for that dynamic: In 2008, Latinos nationwide constituted 15.4 percent of the total population, 9.5 percent of the adult citizen population, and 7.4 percent of the vote on Election Day. The falloff for all nonwhites was from 35 percent of the total population to 24 percent of the total vote. “There’s definitely a lag in influence,” says Matthew Dowd, the chief strategist for George W. Bush’s 2004 campaign and now a Texas-based political analyst for ABC News.

As minorities increase their overall share of the population, however, their weight in the electorate also grows, if more slowly. The approximately one-fourth of the vote cast by minorities last year, for instance, was about double their share in 1992, according to network exit polls. Even with all of the impediments to their participation, Hispanics cast nearly 4 million more votes in 2008 than in 2000, according to Census Bureau figures. Minority voters tend to fall off slightly as a share of the electorate during midterm elections, but their trajectory still points up: Their portion of the vote in the 2006 off-year election was 50 percent larger than in 1994, exit polls show. “The demography is going to work its inexorable logic” on the electorate, Massey, the Princeton sociologist, predicts.

Democrats are dominating among these minority voters: In 2008, House Democrats won a cumulative 80 percent of their votes, according to network exit polls–the same overwhelming margin as Obama attracted. In 2006, House Democrats won about three-fourths of minority votes.

The evidence suggests that minority population growth contributed to the Democratic recapture of the House. In 18 of the 54 previously Republican districts that Democrats claimed in the past two elections, the nonwhite share of the population increased by more than the national average between 2000 and 2008. {snip}

Democrats control four-fifths of the House districts whose population is at least 40 percent nonwhite, and seven-tenths of the districts that are at least 30 percent minority. Republicans hold a slight advantage over Democrats (118-112) in the districts where minorities make up less than 30 percent of the population; the Democratic majority rests on the party’s huge edge (146-59) in the more diverse districts.

Even during the 1994 Republican landslide–the best GOP showing in recent times–Democrats lost very few of such highly diverse districts. Republicans ousted none of the minority Democratic representatives that year (54 at the time) and captured just five of the 40 seats held by white Democrats in districts where minorities made up at least 30 percent of the population. Political scientist Gary Jacobson, a congressional expert at the University of California (San Diego), says that in 2010 these highly diverse districts could provide “some kind of levee against the worst possible tsunami for Democrats.”

That levee, by itself, isn’t high enough to guarantee the Democrats continued control of the House. In some respects, Democrats in the next election could be victims of their successes in the two previous contests: Many of their gains came in overwhelmingly white districts that were competitive only because Bush’s support had eroded so thoroughly. Whites constituted at least 80 percent of the population in 27 of the 54 seats that Democrats captured from the GOP in the past two elections. With those gains, Democrats now hold 69 districts where whites make up at least four-fifths of the population, nearly half of all such districts.

With Obama’s approval rating among whites stuck in the low 40s, some defeats in these places appear virtually unavoidable for Democrats in 2010. “The losses that Democrats are going to sustain, which could be pretty significant, will be felt in districts like that,” said one senior Democratic strategist. History offers one measure of the Democratic risk: In their 1994 landslide, Republicans captured nearly one-third of the 114 districts that Democrats held at the time in which whites constituted at least four-fifths of the population.

Still, it is worth recalling that the number of such heavily white districts has plummeted from 245 in 1993 to 145 now. That trajectory suggests the limits of a GOP revival built around maximizing its control over those places. Many analysts in both parties agree that the proliferating number of diverse districts will disadvantage Republicans unless they improve their performance among nonwhite voters, particularly Hispanics. “The party has to recognize the demographic shift that is occurring,” Putnam, [Rep. Adam Putnam] the Florida Republican, says. “Candidate recruitment needs to reflect the shift in the population.” McCarthy, the California Republican who is spearheading recruitment for the NRCC, shares that sentiment. He promises that the class of 2010 GOP challengers will be “much more diverse” than in the past and points to nearly two dozen nonwhites already seeking GOP nominations. Many of those, though, are long-shot candidates who could face more-formidable opponents in Republican primaries.

Beyond recruiting more minority candidates, Putnam contends that congressional Republicans can find common cause with these new communities primarily around issues of education reform, conservative social values, and the promotion of entrepreneurship. “There is an opportunity there for the Republican Party to speak to recent arrivals,” he says.

But Democrats remain confident that the GOP’s militant tone on immigration reform has virtually eclipsed those potentially attractive positions. {snip}

Together all of these dynamics may point toward a further demographic sorting-out in the House. Unless voting patterns change, Republicans over the next few elections could gain ground in preponderantly white districts, while Democrats solidify their advantage in the heavily diverse ones, particularly after the 2010 redistricting. “Those Democratic members who come from the less racially tolerant regions of the country are going to be having a particularly difficult time in the next few years,” NDN’s Rosenberg predicts. {snip}

If it occurs, such an ongoing re-sorting would almost certainly benefit Democrats as the minority population continues its relentless ascent. Yet the challenge of assimilating such a vast demographic change could grow much more difficult if it becomes more deeply entangled in the escalating conflict between the two parties. Whatever the partisan implications of a political order defined ever more sharply by race, the social consequences may be chilling to contemplate.