SPECIAL EDITION: The new U.S. Census data.

And what it means...
Isaac Saul Aug 25, 2021
I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum — then “my take.” You can read Tangle for free or subscribe for Friday editions, and you can reach me anytime by replying to this email. If someone sent you this email, they’re asking you to sign up. You can do that by clicking here.

Today’s read: 10 minutes.

We’re running a special edition today to take a look at the U.S. Census data. Also, a guest response to a reader question!

One of the questions about race asked on the U.S. Census.

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Quick hits.

  1. Moderate House Democrats struck a deal with leadership to end their standoff and move the $3.5 trillion budget blueprint forward, and agreed to vote on the bipartisan infrastructure package no later than September 27. (The deal)
  2. Herschel Walker, the former Heisman Trophy winner, officially launched his campaign for a U.S. Senate seat in Georgia with the backing of former President Donald Trump. (The announcement)
  3. Rep. Seth Moulton (D-MA) and Rep. Peter Meijer (R-MI) flew unannounced into Kabul yesterday, shocking State Department and U.S. military personnel who scrambled to provide security for them. (The controversy)
  4. President Biden recommitted to August 31 as the deadline for when he plans to complete the U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. More than 80,000 people have been evacuated from Kabul airport since the Taliban took over. (The commitment)
  5. The Supreme Court ordered former President Trump’s “remain in Mexico” policy to be reinstated in a 6-3 vote, requiring asylum seekers to stay in Mexico while awaiting hearings on their requests to enter the U.S. (The order)

The data.

In April, the U.S. Census Bureau released state-level numbers from its once-a-decade count of the U.S. population. Those data help determine how Congressional seats will change, and the top-level takeaway has been that Texas (+2), Florida (+1), Colorado (+1), Montana (+1), Oregon (+1) and North Carolina (+1) are all picking up Congressional seats while California, Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Michigan and West Virginia have each lost a seat. On net, these changes are widely viewed as bad news for Democrats.

Two weeks ago, the U.S. Census Bureau released its more detailed trove of data: the population counts of every county, city, and neighborhood in the country. The news was largely drowned out by the Afghanistan withdrawal, but it included some critical information. The census is used to help redraw Congressional districts and to apportion federal funds, which means it has a huge impact on communities and Congressional power as well.

What the data shows: For the first time on record, white people declined in numbers and no racial or ethnic group holds a majority for Americans under the age of 18. The share of the white population fell from 63.7% in 2010 to 57.8% in 2020. Both the Hispanic and Asian populations grew substantially. The Hispanic boom accounted for almost half of all population growth. But the share of children in the U.S. population declined because of falling birth rates, and the  under-18 portion dropped from 74.2 million in 2010 to 73.1 million in 2020.

This was the slowest population growth decade since the 1930s and the Great Depression. From 2010 to 2020, the increase rate was just 7.4 percent. In the 1990s that rate was 13.2 percent, and from 2000 to 2010 it was 9.7 percent.

The caveats: The census is always changing how it asks questions about race. This year, for instance, the form first asked people if they are of Hispanic, Latino or Spanish origin, and then asked for their race (White, Black, American Indian or Alaskan Native, etc.) Some research has indicated that Hispanics do not see themselves in the race question so are unsure how to answer it.

There are also two ways to count the “White” population. As many stories have led with, one major piece of news in this census is the purported shrinkage of the White population. But that’s only true if you count people who only checked off the “White” box and did not also identify as Latino or Hispanic. For instance, the White-only population decreased by 8.6 percent in this census, but the number of people identifying as multiracial grew by 276 percent.

The politics: Now that the data have been released, states will redraw their congressional and legislative districts. Both Republicans and Democrats use these data to distribute voters in a way that increases their chances of winning the legislative districts they are drawing. For example: if Republicans see an area with a large population of Black voters, who tend to vote more often for Democrats, they’ll either try to draw those voters into one district (to consolidate them into a single loss) or run multiple districts through the area to thin out the influence of Black voters. Both parties look at populations and Census data this way to decide how to redraw districts.

During this redrawing cycle, though, Republicans have a huge advantage thanks to a decade of election wins at the state level. They have a majority of governorships and state legislatures. As Democratic strategist Max Burns noted, “Republicans now control the redistricting process in 20 states, or 187 congressional districts, compared to only 11 states or 84 congressional districts for Democrats. (The remainder are either evenly overseen by politically split legislatures, offering some protection from gerrymandering, or have district lines drawn by nonpartisan redistricting committees.)”

Because the federal House of Representatives currently holds a 220-212 Democratic advantage, some pollsters believe Republicans could take back the House (by winning five more seats) through redistricting alone. And that’s before the 2022 midterm elections, where the party in control of the White House is usually already at a disadvantage.


Some reactions.

Unlike many of the topics we cover in Tangle, the census data is not something that draws particularly strong arguments that track some kind of political partisan lines. But there was plenty of interesting commentary on the census. Here are a few helpful pieces of punditry:

The New York Times’ lead pollster Nate Cohn said at first blush, the data looks good for Democrats. But they still “face great challenges in translating favorable demographic trends into electoral success, and the new census data may prove to be only the latest example. While the census shows that Democratic-leaning groups represent a growing share of the population, much of the population growth occurred in the Sun Belt, where Republicans still control the redistricting process. That gives them yet another chance to preserve their political power in the face of unfavorable demographic trends. And they are well prepared to do so.”

Charles Blow, also writing in The New York Times, penned a sharp, cheeky column on how this was a “terrifying census” for White nationalists.

“The white power acolytes saw this train approaching from a distance — the browning of America, the shrinking of the white population and the explosion of the nonwhite — and they did everything they could to head it off,” he wrote. “They tried to clamp down on immigration, both unlawful and lawful. They waged a propaganda war against abortion, and they lobbied for ‘traditional family values’ in the hopes of persuading more white women to have more babies. They orchestrated a system of mass incarceration that siphoned millions of young, marriage-age men, disproportionately Black and Hispanic, out of the free population… On every level, in every way, these forces, whether wittingly or not, worked to prevent the nonwhite population from growing. And yet it did.”

In a CNN opinion piece, Justin Gest explained why the Census data isn’t the good news many Democrats might think it is.

“We are witnessing a steady shift of population -- and therefore power -- to the south and west of the country, regions that are largely controlled by Republicans. In the last 50 years, the share of the US population living in southern and western states increased from 48% to 62%. And of the 10 states experiencing the fastest population growth since 2010 -- Utah, Idaho, Texas, North Dakota, Nevada, Colorado, Washington, Florida, Arizona, South Carolina -- only Washington is a solidly Democratic state, though Colorado is trending in that direction... One counterargument is that an influx of Americans from the Northeast, Midwest and/or minority backgrounds to these more Republican regions may offset conservatives' prior advantage -- much as they have in Georgia,” he added. “However, a second trend complicates this possibility. Partisan gerrymandering is profoundly effective at mitigating the effect of demographic change on US House and state legislative races.”

The New York Post editorial board celebrated the Census, noting that New York City’s population grew by 7 percent. “Consider: The city’s net gain of more than 629,000 people totaled more than the increase for Houston, Dallas, Phoenix and Los Angeles combined. (Brooklyn alone is now a match for the population of Chicago, the No. 2 US city, at 2.7 million.) That’s fundamental proof that New York remains a unique draw for those seeking a better life,” the board said.

In Bloomberg, Justin Fox said the two main takeaways — that “Racial diversity grew while the nation’s White population shrank,” and that “Cities grew while rural areas lost population” — both deserve asterisks.

“Changes to the Census questionnaire explain a lot of the shift in the racial numbers — and the number of White Americans didn’t shrink if you include those who said they were White plus one or more other races — while the stated aim of the Census to measure people’s place of permanent residence as of April 1, 2020 means that the local population numbers don’t tell us much about what’s happened lately,” he wrote.


My thoughts.

It’s pretty incredible how hard it is to count people. Especially during a pandemic.

Frankly, I have no idea what to make of these data. In April of 2020, so many people I know were in flux — moving to a new state, new city, or hiding out at a remote family home with some outdoor space, or generally just upending their lives because of the pandemic. That, paired with the changes in how questions about race were being asked (and written about) makes it seem nearly impossible to glean anything concrete from these data.

The one thing we do seem fairly certain of, though, is that there was big growth in urban areas and shrinking numbers just about anywhere else. Fewer than half of all 3,143 counties in the U.S. added population over the last decade. That, plus the fact that the Sun Belt and south are exploding, make for some interesting changes in the political center of gravity.

One really interesting thing to consider is how this migration of Americans is going to work out long term. For instance, Texas gaining Congressional seats and having a huge population boom may sound like terrible news for Democrats — but what if all the people moving there are from New York and California? Will they bring their politics with them? If Texas moves like Georgia did in the last decade, becoming more liberal, it could change the entire electoral map (though, naturally, people have been saying that about Texas for years).

Redistricting and gerrymandering also deserve a newsletter of their own (and will get one), but there are already some fascinating districts to keep an eye on — some of which are microcosms of how unpredictable the ripple effects of this could be.

Take Illinois’ 16th District, the seat currently held by Republican Rep. Adam Kinzinger. Democrats control redistricting in Illinois and are about to roll out a new congressional map that is probably going to gut Kinzinger’s Chicago seat, leaving him with a very narrow (and unlikely) path to re-election. That means Kinzinger will have two options: run in the new lines and likely lose, or take a swing at a Senate seat or governorship in a blue state.

For Democrats, or anyone invested in progressive politics, a situation like this is really bizarre. They want the seat blue, of course, but Kinzinger is one of the most prominent conservative critics of Trump and losing him from Congress — even if it picks up a vote — could actually be less advantageous politically for Democrats than the alternative. That’s to say nothing of the potential impacts if the redistricting forces him out of the House and he ends up winning a Senate seat or the governorship. These little calculations and butterfly effects are going to take place all across the country, and could have serious impacts on the political landscape for the next decade.


Your questions, answered.

Q: If Biden does pull out of Iraq, is it not likely that we will see the same kind of deterioration that we're witnessing right now in Afghanistan? Isn't it better to officially end active combat operations while leaving a small but visible force, to act as a deterrent against a resurgence of terrorism in the country? We can't "win" in Iraq but we can help keep the peace just by being present.

— Jack, New York, New York

Tangle: Every now and then, I like to pass on reader questions to people who are experts in their field. For today’s question, I turned to a friend and expert on Iraq: Ben Van Heuvelen, who is the managing editor of Iraq Oil Report.

Ben Van Heuvelen: To answer the question, it might be helpful to start by highlighting some differences between Iraq and Afghanistan. If you had asked a good journalist in Kabul back in April, “What's the worst-case scenario for a U.S. withdrawal?” I think the answer would have been: “The government falls to the Taliban.” If you ask a good journalist in Baghdad, “What's the worst-case scenario for a U.S. withdrawal?” nobody today would talk about the collapse of the government. Even though there are some remnants of ISIS fighting an insurgency in some rural and desert areas, they number in the low thousands and they can't control any territory. The Taliban, by contrast, have something like 75,000 fighters and already controlled parts of Afghanistan before the U.S. decided to leave. So the stakes are different. The Iraqi government would not collapse without the U.S.

But that doesn't necessarily mean the U.S. should disengage. The biggest strategic benefit of a strong U.S. presence is to serve as a bulwark against Iranian influence in Baghdad.

What does that mean, exactly? I'll give one concrete example. Among the many different types of security forces in Iraq, there are dozens of paramilitary groups that are simultaneously funded by the Iraqi government and affiliated with political parties, tribes, and/or religious identity groups. Many of these paramilitary groups have also been trained and (to varying degrees) are controlled by Iran. So it is reasonable to worry that these groups are becoming a vehicle through which Iran can control Iraq. For example, let's say the prime minister wants to make a big decision that Iran won't like — a powerful Iranian or Iran-aligned politician in Baghdad might visit his office and say something like, “I don't like that trade deal you're thinking about signing... and it would be a shame if something happened to your uncle or your sister.” What protection does the prime minister have against that kind of blackmail or extortion?

Right now, the answer is that the prime minister directly commands the Iraqi Army and state intelligence services, many parts of which have been trained by the U.S. and cooperate closely with the U.S. military. These forces are not powerful enough to eradicate the lawless paramilitary groups by force. But they are currently powerful enough to deter Iran-backed armed groups from completely compromising the sovereignty of the elected government in Baghdad. If the U.S. military were to withdraw from Iraq entirely, the U.S.-backed elements within the Iraqi security forces would probably lose capacity over time, and the balance would tilt more in the favor of the Iran-backed armed groups. It would become harder for anyone in a position of power to trust that they can defy the wishes of Iran without risking their livelihood or personal safety.

If I were President Biden, the questions I'd be asking my national security team would be: “What is the strategic benefit for the U.S. to ensure that Iraq remains balanced between us and Iran? And, do those benefits justify the costs? Can we achieve a similar benefit with a smaller footprint?” Etc. For now, their answer seems to be that it's worth keeping a military presence of a couple thousand troops, in addition to a massive embassy.

Ben Van Heuvelen is the managing editor of Iraq Oil Report, which does some of the best reporting on Iraq and the region that I know of. You can also follow him on Twitter here.


A story that matters.

House Republicans are launching their attack ads against 15 vulnerable Democrats in the 2022 midterms today, and there is zero focus on Afghanistan. Instead, the ads focus almost entirely on inflation. The decisions by the Republican campaign arm to focus on the rising costs of goods means they believe domestic, kitchen table issues are the key to winning back voters in the midterms, not the images coming out of Afghanistan. The ads are focused on 15 districts held by moderate Democrats.


Numbers.

  • 77%. The percenratge of America’s ICU beds that are in use right now, as many hospitals grapple with a crush of severely ill Covid-19 patients.
  • 1 in 100. The number of school-aged children who have tested positive for Covid-19 in the past two weeks in Georgia.
  • 258.3 million. The number of Americans above the age of 18, according to the latest census.
  • 73.1 million. The number of Americans below the age of 18, according to the latest census.
  • 18.3%. The percentage of the U.S. population that is Hispanic, according to the latest census.
  • 12,000. The number of Covid-19 deaths in New York that Gov. Kathy Hochul says were not publicized by the Andrew Cuomo administration.

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Have a nice day.

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Isaac Saul

I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Buck County, PA — one of the most politically divisive counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.

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