America's population center is edging away from the Midwest, pulled by Hispanic growth in the Southwest, according to census figures. The historic shift is changing the nation's politics and even the traditional notion of the country's heartland -- long the symbol of mainstream American beliefs and culture.
The West is home to the four fastest-growing states -- Nevada, Arizona, Utah and Idaho -- and has surpassed the Midwest in population, according to 2010 figures. California and Texas added to the southwestern population tilt, making up more than one-fourth of the nation's total gains since 2000.
When the Census Bureau announces a new mean center of population next month, geographers believe it will be in or around Texas County, Mo., southwest of the present location in Phelps County, Mo. That would put the center at the outer edge of the Midwest, on a path to leave the region by midcentury.
"The geography is clearly shifting, with the West beginning to emerge as America's new heartland," said Robert Lang, a sociology professor at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas who regularly crunches data to determine the nation's center. "It's a pace-setting region that is dominant in population growth but also as a swing point in American politics."
The last time the U.S. center fell outside the Midwest was 1850, in the territory now known as West Virginia. Its later move to the Midwest bolstered the region as the nation's cultural heartland in the 20th century, central to farming and manufacturing sites.