December 21, 2010— -- Census data released Tuesday led to a seismic shift in the allocation of Congressional seats, with Republican-leaning Sun Belt states gaining seats and Democratic-leaning Rust Belt states losing.
Every 10 years, after the census gauges population shifts, government officials divvy up the nation's 435 seats in Congress. This year's census data resulted in a shift of 12 seats across 18 different states.
As demographic and redistricting experts predicted, Texas was the big winner, picking up four new House seats and capping seven consecutive decades of gains. The state now has a total of 36 seats.
Florida was second with two more seats, with the smaller Sun Belt states of Georgia, South Carolina, Arizona, Utah and Nevada picking up one each, and northwest Washington grabbing one as well. All but one of the gaining states have a Republican governor, implying long-term damage to Democrats for future elections.
State legislatures will redraw boundaries for congressional districts next year. The process is called redistricting or "gerrymandering," after a salamander-shaped district created by Gov. Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts in 1812. It is a bitter political process with high stakes for both parties.
The biggest losers were in the Northeast and Midwest, with New York and Ohio losing two seats each. Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New Jersey and Pennsylvania each lost one.
Boiling it down to red states gaining over blue states is overly simplistic, according to demographers.
"As they grow, the people who enter those states are coming from other states, they bring with them the cultures and the belief systems that they had in other states as well," Census Bureau director Robert Groves told ABC News. So those Sun Belt states are not just growing in size, they are also shifting in character.
The congressional gains also mean a change in Electoral College votes. If the 2008 Presidential election had been held with the newly reapportioned Congress, President Obama would have gotten six fewer electoral votes; the growth was primarily in states that favored his opponent, John McCain.
"On its face, 6 seats isn't much of a dent. But, it also assumes that Obama wins some of these fast growing swing states – like Florida and Nevada – again in 2012," said Amy Walter, ABC's Political Director.
"In order to chip away at Obama's 2008 electoral college advantage, the Republican nominee will still need to be able to pick up states all across the country - including the Midwest and West," Walter added.
Minorities Fuel Demographic Shift
Texas' big gain emphasizes its strength relative to the rest of the GOP strongholds. The Lone Star state was the fifth fastest growing in the country. The population boom was partly because of the state's relative resilience to hard economic times.
"Texas is a big gainer because they survived the recession and the mortgage meltdown," said William Frey, a demographics expert with the Brookings Institute.
Frey added that Hispanics and blacks played a huge role in the demographic shift.
"Minorities are the engines of most of this population change in the states that are gaining seats," he said. In Texas, Hispanic will account for more than 60 percent of growth this decade.
"That all doesn't translate necessarily into votes, a lot are under 18, some aren't citizens," said Frey.
Population gains in the other Sun Belt states may result from people migrating from Democratic-leaning states; in Nevada, for example, the influx of new residents generally flows from neighboring California.
During Tuesday's White House briefing, press secretary Robert Gibbs downplayed the political impact of the reapportionment. The Southeast and Southwest states, he said, are purple.
Chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Rep. Steve Israel (D-NY) said Tuesday's release pours "cold water" on Republicans predicting a looming redistricting disaster for Democrats because, he argued, much of the population growth in Republican states comes from Democrats.
"Democratic communities and constituencies have grown in size in states like Arizona, Florida, Nevada, and Washington," said Israel in a statement. "In states that will lose a seat, the number of Republicans who will be competing with each other creates opportunities for House Democrats."
A bigger Texas may not necessarily be so Texan after all. As Census Bureau director Robert Groves pointed out, new residents may not necessarily agree with their new home state's traditional politics.
"I'm not a political scientist, but I do know enough about demography that we should at least be cautious in predicting how these new residents will behave."