Redistricting is still a year and half off, but the first solid numbers indicating what to expect have now appeared. At a conference on 2011 district drawing, researchers at the Rose Institute at Claremont McKenna College unveiled population projections for all 53 California congressional districts.

The Rose researchers relied on data developed by Caliper, the nation’s leading redistricting software company, the US Census Bureau, and the state Department of Finance. The Census Bureau currently projects the 2010 California population at 36.8 million; Caliper at 37.4 million; and Department of Finance at 38 million. The Rose analysis used the middle number and disaggregated the figures to the census block level – and then combined the blocks into existing congressional districts.

The figures are obviously not exact – the actually census will not be taken until April 2010 – but Caliper’s population models take into account housing patterns and county projections, and so they provide a remarkably reliable projection of what the actual count will show.

The first issue is what’s called “reapportionment” – apportioning congressional districts among the states. Since California joined the Union in 1850, its growth has always outpaced the nation, and so the state has always gained congressional districts in the decennial reapportionment. But next decade it might not. California will do well to keep all 53 seats it has now, and may even lose a seat. The census count will be more difficult in California than in other states because of our high illegal population, who will not want to be counted, and the high rates of foreclosures. Where are the people in the now empty houses?

The Rose analysis finds that our population will have grown by over 3.5 million people, about 10 percent, but that the growth “is unevenly distributed across the state.” This means some current congressional districts are over populated, and some under. The most unpopulated district of all is that of Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), which is under by 121,000. The most overpopulated district is that of Mary Bono Mack (R-Riverside), which is a quarter million people over the ideal.

The Rose report did not discuss the politics of these numbers, but they allow a projection of the political impact of the line drawing. Under current law, the legislature will redraw the congressional districts in 2011 (Proposition 11 creates a commission to redraw state legislative districts). If Democrats elect the governor next year, and Democrats decide to maximize their numbers in Congress, these new figures show how they could do it.

The biggest problem Democrats face is the slow population growth in the San Francisco Bay Area. The entirely Democratic Bay Area districts are nearly a full district under populated. It is nearly impossible to push these districts outward to gain the needed population, so the Democrats will be forced to collapse one of their districts in the Bay Area.

The most likely victim is 78-year-old Rep. Pete Start (D-Fremont). Collapsing his district will solve the population problem and will allow Democrats to play some games. They will pull Rep. Jerry McNerney (D-Pleasanton) westward to absorb some of Stark’s Democrats, thus making his marginal seat safely Democratic. They will also be able to move GOP Rep Dan Lungren’s marginal Sacramento seat into Yolo County, making it into a Democratic seat. Lungren’s GOP base can be combined with the neighboring district of Rep Tom McClintock (R-Placer), setting up a GOP primary between Lungren and McClintock for the remaining district.

So in northern California, the Democrats will replace a Bay Area Democratic district with a new Democratic district in the Sacramento area, and combine two Republicans into single seat.

This only works, however, if you can shift excess Republican population southward, and that will require a huge rippling of hundreds of thousands of people throughout the Central Valley. But it can be done.

The heavily Democratic Los Angeles districts are also very under populated. They will be pushed north, east and south, to absorb marginally Republican territory that will both bring the Democratic seats up required populations and will rob suburban GOP districts of their people. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach) will lose his Los Angeles County population as will Rep. David Dreier (R-San Dimas). Rohrabacher can easily be combined with Rep. Ed Royce (R-Orange) into a single Orange County GOP district and a new Democratic district could be formed on the Los Angeles-Orange County border. Rohrabacher and Royce currently hold under populated districts.

Howard “Buck” McKeon (R-Santa Clarita) could be a very big loser in 2011. His district is showing Democratic growth and was narrowly carried by President Obama in 2008. He will lose the southern portions of his district to relieve Democratic population pressures in Los Angeles, including his home area of Santa Clarita, and he will be pushed northward into Kern County. That will set off a huge ripple of population as each neighboring GOP district moves northward. McClintock will lose the southern part of his district but he cannot move northward because of the state’s boundaries, so he will be forced westward into the current Lungren seat.

This scenario allots 52 of the 53 congressional districts and is the way Democrats would gerrymander the state if we lose a congressional district. If the state retains all 53 of its districts, there will be a floater” congressional district that the Democrats can easily form on the edge of Los Angeles. I would look for a new Democratic seat in the Riverside area if we hold 53 districts.

Either way, Republicans will lose two of the seats they currently have and Democrats will gain one or two new districts depending on the final number of districts allotted to California.

This scenario would obviously change if any of our congressional districts change party in 2010, or if a proposed initiative to bring congressional redistricting under Proposition 11 passes. But if neither of these events occurs, and the Democrats want to give Speaker Pelosi a little help in Congress, this is how they will do it.

Tony Quinn was a redistricting consultant to the legislature in the 1970s and 1980s.