Even when Republican Tom Davis first won the Virginia congressional district centered on affluent Fairfax County during the GOP's 1994 landslide, the area wasn't a lily-white, Leave It to Beaver suburb. But at that point, minorities were the rainbow sprinkles on a mostly vanilla cone: Nonwhites represented slightly less than one-fourth of the district's population.
In the redistricting that followed the 2000 census, the Virginia Republicans who controlled the process modestly altered the seat to incorporate more white Republican-leaning voters. Yet, by the time Davis retired in 2008, the district's flavor had been radically changed by a steady influx of Asians, African-Americans, and Hispanics, many of them well-educated entrepreneurs drawn by Fairfax's burgeoning high-tech economy. By 2008, Fairfax public schools were sending home official notices in seven languages (including Korean and Urdu), and Census Bureau figures showed that the minority share of the district's population had soared past 42 percent. Davis, a skilled and moderate politician, might have navigated these changes for years. But when he stepped down last year, another skilled moderate -- Democrat Gerald Connolly, the chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors -- captured the seat, easily defeating a Republican who outspent him.
Demography alone didn't deliver the district to Democrats: Connolly also benefited from his party's growing strength among the well-educated, socially liberal white voters who crowd into comfortable suburbs such as Fairfax. But the explosive growth in the minority population, at a time when minorities have tilted increasingly toward Democrats, was central to Connolly's victory in a district that had been drawn to elect Republicans. "The demographics just overwhelmed the gerrymandering process and its intentions," Connolly says.
The transformation of Connolly's once lopsidedly white district places him at the forefront of a demographic and political upheaval. With Hispanics providing the principal engine, the nation's minority population is not only increasing but also dispersing beyond the big cities where it traditionally congregated. And as minorities enlarge their numbers in the suburbs and even the exurbs, the number of House members representing districts with heavily diverse populations is soaring -- probably to unprecedented heights.
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."
The searing recession has slowed this process somewhat. As housing and job markets have contracted, fewer immigrants have relocated beyond major metropolitan areas. But that reconcentration is likely only a temporary phenomenon, says Brookings Institution demographer William Frey, who has been at the forefront of documenting the shift. "All of this migration slowdown that we're seeing and dispersal slowdown has to do with the short-term blips in the housing markets," he says. "If you are looking at long-term projections four years out, eight years out this dispersal is going to be back, and it is going to continue."
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.
The need to connect with those new constituencies has compelled many of these members to interact with their districts in new ways. Rep. Gene Green, a Democrat first elected in 1992 to a heavily Hispanic district in Houston, is one of the most experienced at managing that challenge. No other white representative in either party holds a district where minorities constitute as large a share of the population (85 percent), with Hispanics alone representing three-fourths.
To maintain the seat, Green had to fend off repeated primary challenges from Hispanic Democrats early in his career. He has also faced general election opposition from Hispanic and Asian-American Republicans. By necessity, he has made something of a science out of staying in touch with the Hispanic community. Spanish-speaking aides work in both his Washington and district offices. Portions of his official website are available in Spanish (although perhaps not as many as one might expect given the district's composition). Green sponsors annual immunization days at elementary schools in his district and annual citizenship days, where his office helps guide legal residents through the citizenship process. "It is personally rewarding," he says. "It also turned out to be great politics because I can hardly go anywhere in the whole city of Houston without running into someone who says, 'You helped my uncle or my aunt become citizens.' "
Other members are making similar adaptations. Rep. Adam Putnam, a Florida Republican whose district's Hispanic population has spiked in this decade, has also put more emphasis on hiring Spanish-speakers. "We are moving toward publications that are bilingual as well, for things like Medicare enrollment, education seminars, and things like that," says Putnam, who is not running again and instead is seeking election as Florida's agriculture commissioner. Rep. Kevin McCarthy, an energetic California Republican from a Bakersfield district whose Hispanic population has also jumped since 2000, is studying Spanish, often on the long flights home, and he has hired Spanish-speaking staffers. But McCarthy has chosen not to make printed materials available in Spanish. "I am a big proponent of no matter where you come from you learn English," he says.
Connolly, the Virginia Democrat, faces an especially complex task because his district's minority population is divided almost evenly between African-Americans, Hispanics, and Asian-Americans, with other groups seasoning the blend. When a National Journal reporter arrived to interview Connolly, he had just finished hiring a Korean-speaking office aide; he has other aides who speak Spanish, Urdu, and Arabic.
The international nature of Connolly's constituency transforms global issues into local concerns. Because so many of the nonwhite residents are entrepreneurs, he says, he faces strong pressure to support free trade. Substantial Indian, Pakistani, and Iranian populations attentively follow debates over U.S. policies toward those nations. "Definitely, I hear from them," says Connolly, a former Senate Foreign Relations Committee staffer. A significant portion of his staff's time is consumed by helping constituents navigate what he calls "the very byzantine world of U.S. immigration."
Yet to Connolly, a Boston native, these demands amount to a new variation on an old equation. "Look," he says, "I come from an urban environment where we practice ethnic politics, so it isn't alien to me, other than [that] there are more groups to be touched." He argues that in Fairfax today, as in the Boston of his youth, the primary challenge for elected officials in diverse places remains the same: to find shared interests between the minority and majority communities. "You look for the common ground," he says, "not the differences."
Finding that common ground, however, may increasingly challenge House Democrats. Polls this year have consistently found that nonwhites are much more supportive of an activist government agenda on such issues as health care than are whites. Those contrasting attitudes are influencing voting patterns in the House. On both the climate-change and health care reform votes this year, Democrats from less diverse districts (those where less than 30 percent of the population is nonwhite) opposed the bills at about double the rate of Democrats from more-diverse districts. The fiscally conservative "Blue Dogs," the Democrats most likely to dissent from the party agenda, are much more concentrated in heavily white areas than are other Democrats: More than two-fifths of them represent districts that are least 80 percent white, double the rate of all other Democrats. The Democrats from such preponderantly white districts are also likely to express the most resistance if the White House and Democratic leaders attempt to pass comprehensive immigration reform next year.
Fewer fault lines are evident in the GOP. House Republicans from both racially diverse and predominantly white districts have opposed President Obama's key proposals virtually en masse and aligned with a staunchly conservative message centered on cutting spending and taxes. Immigration reform might split the GOP somewhat between members from more- and less-diverse places, but few observers are expecting much support from any Republicans for a plan that would include a path to legal status for illegal immigrants.
But, analysts note, this unity has left the party with an agenda that has attracted only about one-third of Hispanic voters in the past two elections. Antonio Gonzalez, president of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, a group that registers Latinos, says that the Republican Party's return to such an unbendingly anti-government message will create obstacles in a Hispanic community with "bread-and-butter" needs for such public services as health care, schools, and housing. "If there is one group you could say that does not share the Republican small-government philosophy, it's Latinos," Gonzalez says. "We are Big-Government, government-safety-net, activist-government [voters]. There is a feeling in the community that today we hurt, but tomorrow is ours, so you spend money on your kids, on your community, on your schools."
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. That growing minority presence provided a thumb on the scale for 2006 and 2008 Democratic winners such as Jerry McNerney in California, Gerald Connolly in Virginia, Dina Titus in Nevada, and Alan Grayson, Ron Klein, and Suzanne Kosmas in Florida.
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, 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. "I think the Democratic message resonates ... with a lot of new Americans," Connolly says. "But we don't even have to work hard at it, frankly, because the other side is absolutely driving folks into our arms because of the 'you're not welcome' message up front."
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. "But Republicans who are in heavily mixed districts are going to have a very hard time over time, too." Dowd and other political strate -- gists agree.
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.
Research Associate Cameron Joseph contributed to this report.
Graphic by Charlie Szymanski contributed to this article.
This article appears in the January 9, 2010 edition of National Journal Magazine.