Census Results Could Shape 2012 Presidential Campaign

Presidential hopefuls got a taste Tuesday of what the 2012 campaign trail might look like as the Census Bureau announced which states would gain and lose congressional seats based on the results of the once-a-decade head count.

The results appeared to set the stage for potential Republican gains in Congress in the next cycle, with GOP-leaning states in the South and West picking up seats while liberal strongholds lost representation across the board. Whether and to what degree those partisan gains materialize will depend in part on how state legislatures redraw the congressional districts next year.

But the representational shift will also tilt the presidential race, as those states gaining House seats gain more clout in the Electoral College. Though the growth of GOP-leaning states gives a built-in advantage to the Republican nominee in the 2012 election, it also potentially changes the playing field for the race as a whole. Candidates from both parties may spend more time wooing the larger populations in western and southern states while shying away from the regions with less influence.

Ten states, concentrated in the Northeast and Midwest, will lose a total of 12 seats based on the 2010 Census results. The numbers make the Sun Belt more attractive than the Rust Belt for those planning stump speeches two years from now.

"Both candidates will pay attention to them," former Democratic Party Chairman Don Fowler said of the southwestern states.

Based on the Census numbers, Texas will gain four House members in 2012 and Florida will gain two. Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, South Carolina, Utah and Washington each gain one.

States losing seats include Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania. All those states lost one seat apiece, save for New York and Ohio, which lost two each.

Fowler cautioned against reading too much into the changes. After all, President Obama would have still won -- by a long shot -- even if the 2008 map were based on the 2010 Census numbers.

He said Texas, traditionally a gimme for Republicans and a throw-away for Democrats, still won't be a battleground in the next general election. And he said South Carolina, where he's from, won't suddenly be the hot destination for Democrats just because it's got an extra seat.

"Democrats have not campaigned in South Carolina since 1980," Fowler said.

But possible battlegrounds like Arizona, Nevada and Florida now rise in prominence. With Ohio losing two seats and Florida gaining as many, the Sunshine State seals its reputation as the country's mega-swing state. Florida is now worth 27 electoral votes, while Ohio is worth just 16.

"Now, with a larger delegation and increased electoral votes, Floridians are guaranteed to play an even more pivotal role in the next decade," Florida Republican Party Chairman John Thrasher said in a written statement.

Some of the states that grew, like Nevada and Arizona, are heavy with Hispanic residents, a largely Democratic voting bloc which will be even more important in 2012. Illegal immigrants are also counted in the decennial Census.

Given where the growth is recorded, Democrats downplayed the early results from the Census Bureau, arguing that their constituencies were responsible for much of the shift.

"Today's release of U.S. Census data pours cold water on Republicans hype that redistricting is a disaster for Democrats," Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel said in a written statement. "Democratic communities and constituencies have grown in size in states like Arizona, Florida, Nevada, and Washington. "

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs also downplayed the significance of the 12-seat shift, suggesting Democrats will be able to make "politically potent arguments" in the places gaining seats.

But the population shift to traditionally conservative territory coincides with GOP gains at the state level, where legislatures and governors will in many cases be responsible for redrawing the congressional districts that make up the bulk of the Electoral College. The incoming Republican governors in Florida and other states with an inflated cache of electors will also be in position to tap their state's political infrastructure on behalf of their party's presidential candidate in 2012.

"I would rather be us than them right now," Republican strategist Ron Bonjean said.

Though the population shift reflects long-term trends -- Texas, for instance, has grown for seven consecutive decades -- some argued that the numbers were the result, as well as the cause, of political trends.

"It is no coincidence that the states gaining population the fastest over the last 10 years have lower tax rates and, consequently, stronger economies," Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., said in a written statement. "As states draw new congressional districts to reflect this shift, we will certainly see more Republicans in the U.S. House."