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Why are Democrats the only ones talking about the Census?

Congress View: The Census

Starting in March 2020, households across the US began to receive Census questionnaires so that federal and state governments can get an accurate, updated total on how many people live across the US and our territories. This happens every 10 years and is mandated in the Constitution, yet every decade political actors have to remind people of the importance of filling out and returning Census forms.

States benefit from greater Census completion counts; federal dollars and programs rely on these total to determine distributions, Congressional districts are reallocated across states to account for shifts in population, and with that, power in the House varies.

I’ve had DCinbox up and running since October 2009, which means I’ve been able to observe legislator communication patterns for two Censuses now. Tracking the overtime use of the word “Census” shows both the cyclical nature of focus and how the overall use of e-newsletters has increased overtime.

Number of Congressional e-newsletters mentioning “census” overtime

This picture makes sense, why talk about something that only happens every ten years in the interim years? But, as I’m apt to do with any sort of topic, I looked at which party tended to focus on a certain term or phrase, and doing that shows some pretty interesting results.

Theoretically both Democrats and Republicans benefit from accurate and full census counts. The more people in an area, the more money can flow to that area, and in two years a state may even get an additional House seat. Given this, and the generally apolitical nature of filling out the Census, I expected that members of both parties would engage in reminding in roughly equal numbers. Instead, I find that one party talks a lot more about the census than the other. Just looking at 2020 I find that of the 733 e-newsletters discussing the census with constituents, 75% come from Democrats despite only holding 53% of seats in Congress. Here is a breakdown of 2020 into months by party of sender:

Number of congressional e-newsletters sent mentioning “census” by party.

What are possible explanations for this difference? Perhaps districts represented by democrats have lower response rates, so their members feel the need to do more chiding. On the other hand, because democrats mention the census more maybe they tend to have higher response rates. I checked the response rates for Michigan by congressional district because it’s 14 person delegation in Congress is split with 7 members of each party. Anyone can download the Census response rates from the official website.

Census response rates as of June, 28 2020 in Michigan by Congressional District

I find that response rates are pretty close across the party of a congressional district’s representative. A more cynical explanation might be that the GOP doesn’t want higher response rates from non-white communities. Stacey Abrams takes on this idea in her new book, Our Time is Now, detailing the uncovered work of the late operative, Thomas Hofeller.

This look at e-newsletter patterns doesn’t offer any sort of certain answer to why Democrats seem to mention the Census more than Republicans, but it does raise interesting questions that political scientists, D. Sunshine Hillygus and Jesse Lopez argue ought concern us and merit more analysis. The Census keeps and provides very granular data; if anyone wants to dig deeper and wrangle with the e-newsletter data, I’m only an email away.

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Lindsey Cormack

Lindsey Cormack

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I am an associate professor of political science and run www.dcinbox.com. I teach at Stevens Institute of Technology and reside on the Upper East Side