Commentary

The Philly ‘burbs grew over the last decade. That’s a problem for the GOP | Mark O’Keefe

New Census data must be a source of consternation for Republican strategists who will have to overcome the state’s changing landscape

September 5, 2021 6:30 am

Supporters of Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden rally on the campus of Bucks County Community College in Bristol Twp, Pa. during the 2020 campaign (Capital-Star photo by Nick Field)

The good old days of the 1960s were good, especially for Pennsylvania’s population. The 1970 census revealed that Pennsylvania had a population increase of 4.2 percent in the 1960s.

That’s almost 50 percent higher than the state’s population increase in the 2010s, as revealed recently. The state’s population grew by only 2.4 percent in the 2010s, far below the national average of  7.4 percent.

The population increase in the 1960s was part of a growth spurt across the commonwealth. Back then, 44 counties saw population increases, with 23 seeing decreases.

Twelve counties in the 1960s had population increases over 10 percent. According to the 2020 Census, only one county had an increase of over 10 percent. That was Cumberland County, located in Central Pennsylvania, with a growth rate of 11.2 percent.

Leading the way in the 1960s was Bucks County, outside of Philadelphia, with a 34 percent increase. Here’s a list of the counties with the highest growth percentages in Pennsylvania in the 1960s.

1. Chester County, 32.1 percent.
2 Cumberland County, 26.7 percent.
3. Centre County, 26.3 percent.
4. Montgomery County, 20.7 percent.
5. Lancaster County, 14.8 percent.
6. Monroe County, 14. 7 percent.
7. Franklin County, 14.4 percent.
8. York County, 14.3 percent.
9. Wyoming County, 13.5 percent.
10. Lehigh County, 12.2 percent.

It’s interesting to note that several of those counties also showed up in the top 10 counties with population gains in the 2010s.

Counties making both lists were Cumberland County; Lehigh County, tied for third at 7.2 percent; Chester County and Montgomery County, tied for fourth at 7.1 percent and Lancaster, seventh at 6.5 percent.

Other counties in the top 10 among Pennsylvania counties with population increases in the 2010s were Lebanon County, tied for third at 7.2 percent; Dauphin County, sixth at 6.8 percent; Butler County eighth at 5.4 percent and Northampton and Philadelphia counties tied for tenth at 5.1 percent.

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Several counties showed up on the lists for the biggest population losses in the 1960s and 2010s.

In the southwestern corner of the state, Greene County was tied for the second-highest population losses in the 1960s, with Clearfield County at 8.5 percent. Greene County was eighth in the 2010s with a population loss of 7.1 percent.

Cambria County was fourth in the 1960s at 8.1 percent and eighth in the 1960s at 7.1 percent. Cameron County was seventh in the 1960s at 6.7 percent and second in the 2010s at 10.6 percent. McKean County was tenth in the 1960s at 4.8 percent and 10th in the 2010s at 6.9 percent.

In the top 10 for population losses in the 1960s, others included Fayette, 8.7 percent; Schuylkill, 7.5 percent; Jefferson, 6.6 percent; Lawrence and Armstrong, 4.9 percent; and McKean County, 4.8 percent.

Others in the top 10 percent for population losses in the 2010s included Susquehanna County, 11.4 percent; Forest, 9.6 percent; Sullivan, 9.1 percent; Venango, 8.2 percent; Wyoming, 7.8 percent; and Warren 7.7 percent,

Overall, the numbers show plenty of population growth in eastern and central Pennsylvania. They also point to population losses in the north and west. The numbers show that not much has changed over the past 50 years, with several counties continuing to grow and others continuing to decline.

So, what’s it all mean?

Well, there’s no doubt that the population of states is significant. For instance, because of Pennsylvania’s low growth, the state will lose a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2022 and one vote in the Electoral College in 2024 and 2028.

The Census helps the federal government disperse various funds based on population, with the biggest states getting the most money.

However, the most significant consequence of population gains and losses is elections, particularly statewide contests.

And that’s why Pennsylvania elections might be swinging to the Democrats for at least the next decade. The problem for Republicans is that the areas they dominate, such as the west and north, have declining populations. And even in Central Pennsylvania, where Republicans dominate, it’s not enough to top the Democrats lead in Eastern Pennsylvania, which keeps growing.

Of the top 10 counties which gained population in the 2010s, six voted for President Joe Biden. Led by Philadelphia’s population of 1,603,997, those six counties have a total of 4,078,672 people.

The other four counties which voted for former President Donald Trump have a total population of 1,149,473.

Consider this. Biden beat Trump by 659,908 votes in Philadelphia and the surrounding counties of Chester, Delaware, Montgomery, and Bucks counties. That was 114,267 more votes than Hillary Clinton received in 2016 when she ran against Trump. And remember that Trump won by only 44,292 votes while Biden triumphed by 80,555 votes.

There’s no doubt that Biden’s showing in southeastern Pennsylvania secured his victory. And you have to at least credit part of his win to the soaring populations in those southeastern counties.

There’s no guarantee that those population increases will help other Democratic candidates in statewide races in the coming years. Still, they have to cause some consternation for Republican strategists who will have to overcome the state’s changing landscape.

Opinion contributor Mark O’Keefe, of Mechanicsburg, Pa., is the former editorial page editor of the Uniontown Herald-Standard. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. 

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