Fertile Ground

Census shows a GOP edge in states with higher birth and marriage rates.

When the Census Bureau released in October its first-ever state-by-state analysis of the links between marriage, fertility and other socioeconomic characteristics, it was hard not to notice the familiar red- and blue-state divisions. The top 11 states with most births per 1,000 women were carried by Republican President George W. Bush in 2004. Of the bottom 11 states, eight were won by Democratic Sen. John Kerry.

In the Northeast, the Democratic Party's stronghold, men and women marry later, on average, than in any other region, and the Northeastern states feature some of the highest levels of unmarried-couple households in the nation. Marriage rate data reveal similarly stark distinctions: Red states dominate the top of the chart while blue states are clustered at the low end.

These figures would be nothing more than curiosities if they weren't so portentous. Democratic strength is concentrated in states with low fertility and low marriage rates, which wouldn't be a problem if these places were attracting large numbers of new residents. But most are not, at least when compared with the fastest-growing states, and that will have consequences after the next decennial census when congressional seats (and thus electoral votes) are reallocated according to population. Based on 2004 population estimates, Poli-data of Lake Ridge, Va., a political data analysis firm, projects that nine states will lose House seats after the next census-all but two of them voted for Kerry. Seven will gain seats-all but one of them carried by Bush. In 2012, even if every state voted the same way it did in 2004, there would be a net gain of six electoral votes for the GOP ticket based on these projections.

Mapping out Census projections two decades from now, the picture gets even more stark: Eight of the top 10 population gainers ranked by projected percentage change between 2000 and 2030 were Bush states in 2004.

Before Republicans can celebrate these trends, it's important to remember how fluid the political landscape can be. Between 1952 and 1988, California voted Republican in every presidential election but one. As recently as 1994, the state elected a GOP governor for the fourth time in a row along with a Republican state House. Today, that scenario seems almost unthinkable, in no small part due to Democratic gains among Latino voters. Likewise, Arizona's raging growth and changing voting habits over the past two decades have turned it from one of the most conservative states into one that, for a brief moment in 2004, appeared to be a presidential battleground state.

For that reason, the Census Bureau's marriage data should be more worrisome than trends in population growth. For if it seems that the Democratic Party is struggling to speak to married people, it might be because it does not represent enough of them to truly understand how that demographic thinks.

Democrats are not only concentrated in low-marriage states but also in low-marriage congressional districts. Consider this: As of 2002, 55 of the top 60 congressional districts ranked by percentage of married people were represented by Republicans. That disparity was manifested on Election Day when national exit polls revealed that the Democratic share of the two-party vote among married women (under 65) with children was 43 percent in 2004, down from 49 percent in 1992. Among married men with kids, the Democratic share was even more anemic at just 38 percent, down from 46 percent in 1992.

Since the New Deal era, the Democratic Party has been accustomed to thinking of itself as the nation's majority party. This was true enough for decades but today, as political analyst Rhodes Cook has pointed out, Democrats are at best the plurality party. That leaves Democrats with one last option if they hope regain their former status: The party needs to figure out why the Census Bureau's marriage and fertility data so closely mirrors the 2004 electoral landscape.

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