On a frigid February morning, the Census Bureau delivered chilling news to the mayors of New York, Detroit and Chicago.
A big chunk of each city’s black population had packed up and left. They took with them political clout, congressional seats, and the federal funding for roads, bridges, schools and other public services, on which big cities depend.
After reviewing the numbers and calculating the impact, New York’s mayor, Michael Bloomberg, led the chorus on the decennial count, demanding a do-over.
The last recount was conducted following the 2000 census, census spokesperson Tom Edwards said.
"We identified potential count problems for 1,180 out of 39,000 jurisdictions across the country. Our corrections resulted in a net gain in population of about 2,700 people," Edwards noted. "Basically this amounts to 1/1000th of 1 percent of the nation’s population of 280-plus million people counted."
Even if all of the miscounts were in New York City, a 2,700-person gap would not fix the problems that Bloomberg or other industrial big-city mayors face as blacks (and whites) head south and west.
In politics, census numbers matter. Yet they are a measure of demographics that changed in the previous 10 years, not digits that change demographics.
"Which is exactly the point that gets missed," according to Jeff Brauer, a Keystone College political science professor. "These numbers are a snapshot of the population changes that have already occurred, trends that have already been reflected … in the recent midterm elections which gave Republicans the current advantage."
An important point that is missed in the census-impact discussion is what the census does to U.S. politics and what it does not do.
What it does is to provide data to reapportion power regarding the number of U.S. House seats that each state gets and that corresponds to each state’s electoral votes in presidential elections. With this, it is easy to measure winners and losers for the next 10 years – or even longer, after further demographic changes.
"As expected, the states of the ‘Old Economic Core’ or the Rust Belt were the big losers, with Ohio and New York losing two each and Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Michigan, and Illinois losing one each," explained Brauer.
States in the South and the West were the big winners: Texas, remarkably, gained four seats; Florida, two; South Carolina, Georgia and Arizona, one each.
That shifts power to more Republican-red states.
While the material translation of demographics to political power is important, even more important and interesting are the demographics themselves, said Brauer.
Many analysts act as if census numbers instantaneously change the country’s demographics and, therefore, politics instantaneously change as well.
This, actually, is what the Census does not do: It does not change demographics or politics.
Many analysts argue that population shifts from the blue states of the Northeast (such as Democrats, liberals and blacks) to Republican-red states of the South and West will make those red states less red.
"There is no doubt that this will occur at least at some micro levels," said Brauer. "However, it will not have much significant overall impact."
For one thing, much of the population change is due to birthrates, not just to migration. For another, the migrating blues’ impact on politics will be diluted in many cases, especially in redder states; many of the newcomers assimilate into the culture and politics of their new communities.
And, quite frankly, the new demographics already were tested in the 2010 midterm election, with Republican success.
The evidence that this affects Democrats more than Republicans came last week, when the National Urban League joined the big-city-mayor hand-wringing. It worries that southern states may improperly seek to stem the political clout of blacks as they move into white neighborhoods.
One of the bigger stories of the census is the significant growth of America’s Latino population, making them the largest minority group, surpassing blacks.
Republicans once had a natural advantage with Latinos, said Brauer: "They tend to be more fiscally conservative and to hold more traditional values."
Yet the GOP has steadily lost that support to Democrats because of its stances on immigration, English-only and union issues.
Census numbers are math that already has happened. Politicians understand the impact of that math, they just don’t want to get used to it.