Dreaming of a White Christmas: A Demographic Perspective

Probability of a White Christmas by State
Probability of a White Christmas by State, Lighter Blue Indicates a Higher Probability

“I’m dreaming of a White Christmas…”  So sang Bing Crosby more than fifty years ago. And today, more Americans are dreaming of—rather than waking up to—a  snow-filled front yard on Christmas morning. For the first time in history, less than a quarter of all Americans are likely to see a White Christmas. And not because of climate change. Rather, it is the result of massive demographic shifts that have slowly seen the traditional northern population centers of the United States decline over the last 100 years, with enormous repercussions for American political and cultural life.

Imagine waking up Christmas morning, 1900. Sixty-two percent of the U.S. population lives in the Northeast or Midwest. New York is the biggest state in the country, with 7.25 million residents. Most Americans still reside in small towns; less than 40 percent of Americans are from an urban area. The big industrial towns of the manufacturing belt and the farming communities of the Midwest dominate politics.  President William McKinley is an Ohioan, the Vice President is from New York, the Speaker of the House is an Iowan, and the President Pro-Tempore of the Senate is from Maine. McKinley won the 1900 election without a single electoral vote from the South. And as an American, you have a 33 percent chance of looking out the window and seeing white.

Percentage of US Population with a White Christmas by Region
Percentage of US Population with a White Christmas by Region

Flash forward to 1950. After World War II, urbanization accelerated at a dramatic rate. Now, more than 64 percent of Americans live in an urban area. New York is still the largest state in the country, but things have changed. California is the second-largest state, after growing at an incredible pace (from 1.5 million in 1900 to 10.6 million in 1950); Los Angeles is the fourth largest city in the United States. The West’s share of U.S. population has grown by 7 percent, to 12.1 percent, while the Midwest and Northeast now comprise only 52 percent of the country’s population. Although the South has lost population slightly compared to the rest of the country, Texas is booming, up to 7.7 million residents. Politics have responded in kind; the Speaker of the House is Sam Rayburn of Texas, only the second House Speaker born in a state belonging to the Confederacy since the Civil War. In 1948, Harry Truman had beaten Thomas Dewey, despite losing half of the Midwest and almost the entire Northeast. And, now, only 30 percent of Americans live in regions where they can have a White Christmas.

Now, skip forward another forty years to 1990. Three-fourths of all Americans live in urban areas; Los Angeles has just passed Chicago as the second largest city in America. Six of the ten largest cities in the country are now in the South and West.  California is the most populous state, with 11.5 percent of the country’s population. The Northeast contains less than 20 percent of the national population, making it the smallest region; The Midwest, too, has shrunk to only 23.1 percent. The southern boom has gathered speed, as employment opportunities have increased and cities like Atlanta, Dallas, Houston and Miami have grown rapidly.  The South is now the largest region of the country. As always, there is a political response to the demographic changes. President George H. W. Bush is from Texas, having succeeded Ronald Reagan of California.  Only a quarter of Americans—25.5 percent—now live in places where they are likely to see snow out the window on December 25th.

Percentage of Americans with a White Christmas (WS)
Percentage of Americans with a White Christmas (WC)

Now recall Christmas 2008. The country has changed a lot since 1990. The South and West now make up almost 60 percent of the U.S. population. Of the fifty largest metropolitan areas in the United States, 64 percent are in the South and West.  Texas and California have more people than all the Northeastern states combined. A stunning 27 percent of Americans live in the ten largest metropolitan areas in the country.  Politics again mirror demographics. The President is, again, from Texas, the Vice President from Wyoming, the Speaker of the House from California, and the Majority Leader in the Senate from Nevada.

The Election of 2008 temporarily reversed the political response to these broad demographic trends, as the nation elected a Presidential ticket from Northern climes—Barack Obama of Illinois and Joe Biden of Delaware.  But the nation’s population continues to shift South and West—and there is now only a 23.8 percent chance that you will wake up this Christmas to snow on the ground.

What do these dramatic shifts mean for the country going forward? Much of the West’s growth has been Hispanic. By 2050, the Census Bureau projects non-Hispanic whites will no longer be the majority population in the United States. Atlanta and Houston may join the top six cities in metropolitan population by 2030, while urban areas in the Northeast and Midwest will likely keep decreasing in relative size. As a result, political power will continue to shift towards the South and West. It is likely that these regions will achieve increasing domination of both houses of Congress in coming years. All of these guesses presume a lot; forty years is a long time and many surprises are possible. However for the foreseeable future, an increasing share of Americans will be singing along with Bing Crosby: dreaming of snow on Christmas, rather than seeing it.

All demographic data are from the US Census Bureau. Regions are those defined by the United States Census Bureau; see http://www.census.gov/geo/www/us_regdiv.pdf for more information. Christmas snowfall projections are based on data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). All Christmas snowfall projections, including the map above, averaged the NOAA-calculated likelihood of snow on Christmas day at the major meteorological centers in each state to achieve a statewide average likelihood of at least one inch of snow on December 25th.

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