Gerrymandering Isn't to Blame for D.C. Impasse

Gerrymandering Isn't to Blame for D.C. Impasse

By Sean Trende - October 11, 2013

It is now commonplace to see analysts tying our increasingly bitter fights in Washington, in particular over the debt limit and the government shutdown, to the post-2010 redistricting. We've heard claims to this effect from Charlie Cook, Ron Brownstein, Tom Freidman, and Elizabeth Drew. The arguments are somewhat varied, but the idea is that as a result of partisan line-drawing, Republicans are now ensconced in safe districts, have more to fear from primary challenges than from the general election, and have therefore radicalized.

These are all top-notch analysts, and there’s at least some truth to what they are saying. If every member hailed from an even-PVI district, there would probably be no government shutdown. It is also reasonably clear that the GOP gained some advantages from redistricting; it “won” redistricting, to my mind, by pushing the median district further to the right.

At the same time though, these analyses are based on a bit of mythology regarding just how much gerrymandering went on in the post-2010 redistricting, as well as the degree to which gerrymandering is contributing to polarized districts. Here are some important things to bear in mind when you’re hearing or reading these sorts of arguments:

1. The disparity between votes and seats is an endemic feature of U.S. politics.

One variant of this argument posits that because gerrymandering is so severe, Republicans can lose the popular vote badly and still win the House. This weakens their incentive to reach out to the median voter (and to some observers, it erodes the Republicans’ democratic legitimacy). There’s no doubt that the GOP won more seats than you would expect given its share of the popular vote: Common sense would dictate that 49 percent of the two-party vote would not entitle you to 54 percent of the seats.

But as is usually the case, common sense has its limits. First, as Theodore Arrington has observed, these vote counts are complicated by the fact that some states don’t count votes for unopposed candidates, while others, like California, employ a runoff system that frequently pitted Democrats against Democrats and Republicans against Republicans. When you account for this, the Democrats’ lead in the popular vote total shrinks.

As I’ve noted before, when you account for third parties, the total vote for right-of-center parties was roughly equivalent to left-of-center parties. If you combine my correction with Arrington’s, right-of-center parties probably come out ahead in the popular vote total. Perhaps most importantly, parties don’t run national campaigns for the House, which can make comparing district totals to national totals tricky. We don’t know what might have happened had Republicans tried to squeeze more votes out of Nassau County, or if the DCCC had sent field organizers to Nebraska.

In the end, though, tying this disparity to polarization is tough to do, because the “votes/seat gap” is endemic to American politics. By relatively recent standards, the five-point gap between the seats Republicans won and their share of the popular vote is modest. This chart shows the gap between the Democratic Party’s share of the popular vote and its share of seats, dating back to 1942.

Arrington has estimated that during the 1980s, when Republicans drew only 39 seats and Democrats obtained highly favorable maps in states like California, Illinois and Texas, Democrats would have won almost 57 percent of the House seats if they won only 50 percent of the House two-party vote. He also estimates that Republicans would win 53 percent of the seats today if they won 50 percent of the popular vote. Yet there were no lengthy shutdowns in the 1980s, the debt ceiling wasn't threatened, and the Democratic caucus was actually more moderate then than it is today.

2. The Effects of the 2010 Gerrymander Are Overstated.

There’s no doubt that Republicans used control of redistricting to help shore up their vulnerable incumbents. This is what parties have always done, since the early 1800s, when they have controlled redistricting. As a result, they obtained pretty favorable maps in states like Georgia, Michigan, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.

But at the same time, Democrats made good use of the seats that they controlled, ensuring shutouts of the GOP in Massachusetts, eliminating a Republican in Maryland, and decimating the House GOP delegation in Illinois (their best map by far; more on this later). At the same time, they received favorable maps from commissions in Arizona and California, which enabled further gains there. A successful ballot initiative in Florida helped guarantee that the map there wasn’t as bad for Democrats as it easily could have been.

Sixteen Republicans lost re-election in 2012, while Democrats picked up an open House seat in California that had been held by a Republican. In probably nine of those cases (CA-7, CA-26, CA-52, IL-8, IL-10, IL-11, IL-17, MD-6, TX-23) we can attribute the loss at least in significant part to redistricting. At the same time, Republicans defeated six Democrats and won five open seats; seven of these losses (IN-2, NY-27, NC-8, NC-11, NC-13, OH-16, PA-12) can probably be attributed to redistricting. So using back-of-the-envelope seat counts, redistricting was something of a wash.

But we can be a little bit more precise in our approach. The following chart shows the distribution of districts by PVI in each of the previous elections, although unlike Charlie Cook’s famous calculations, I use only the most recent presidential election for my baseline (using data helpfully supplied by DailyKos Elections and Polidata). The only exception is 2012, which I break down using both Romney data and McCain data. (For a larger version, click here.)

Using the McCain/Obama results, in 2010 there were 25 districts that were 20 points more Republican than the country as a whole under the lines in place. There were 26 such districts under the lines in place in 2012. If we define “Highly Partisan Districts” as those that are four points or more Republican (or Democratic) than the country as a whole, there were 195 such districts in 2010, and 200 in 2012. In 2000, under the previous set of lines, there were 193 “highly partisan” Republican districts. This isn’t an overwhelming change, and certainly isn’t enough to explain the polarization we see in Washington today.

What’s really changed isn’t the lines or the number of Highly Partisan Districts. What’s changed is that these seats have stopped electing representatives from the other party. The next chart shows the percentage of seats in each PVI category won by Democrats in each year. (For a larger version of this one, click here.)

In 2012, Democrats won 13 percent of the seats that were four-to-five points more Republican than the country as a whole using McCain/Obama results, and 5 percent using Romney/Obama results. In 2008, Democrats won 44 percent of those seats. Even in 1994, an atrocious Democratic year, Democrats still managed to win a higher share of these seats. Likewise, throughout the 1990s, Republicans always managed to win at least 10 (and as many as 20) of the Democrats’ Highly Partisan Districts; today they hold two.

We can go a step further, and ask ourselves what would have happened if Democrats had won the same distribution of PVI categories that they did in 2012, but the election had been run under the 2010 lines? The answer is that they would have won 205 seats, rather than the 201 seats they actually came away with. This isn’t a huge distinction.

This approach lends itself to a number of interesting applications. How safe is the GOP majority, really? Is it immune from waves now? We can get some sort of answer by taking the distribution of seats by PVI in 2012, and multiplying them by the percentages of each PVI category won by Democrats in 2008.

In other words, in 2008 there were 31 seats that were eight-to-nine points more Republican than the country as a whole, and Democrats won 23 percent of those, netting them seven seats. Under the current lines, using McCain/Obama numbers, there are 30 such seats. If Democrats had won 23 percent of them, rather than the 3 percent they actually won, they would have netted seven seats, instead of the one seat they wound up with.

If we do this for all the PVI categories, we find Democrats would have won 249 seats, claiming the House easily. That’s fewer than the 257 seats Democrats won under the lines in place in 2008, but that’s not a massive disparity either. In fact, with the distribution that Democrats had in 2008, they would have won the House handily in every year from 1992 through 2012:

What about the other two years where Democrats won the House, 2006 and 1992?

This idea of an invulnerable GOP majority as the result of gerrymandering is bunk. If Democrats could win GOP-leaning seats at the rate that they did in 2008, 2006, or 1992, they would win control of the House, and by roughly the margins that they did in those respective years. To the extent that Republicans are insulated from electoral pressure, it isn’t because of redrawn lines. It’s because Democrats haven’t won in red territory in the past two elections at the rates that they did in 1992, 2006 or 2008.

We should also note -- briefly -- that the focus on Republicans in safely Republican districts is a bit shortsighted. It is also the case that Democrats increasingly occupy safe districts and have therefore suffered similarly diminished incentives to compromise and push toward the center. Just over 170 Democrats hail from D+4 or more districts today, compared to 157 in 2008, 158 in 2006, and 131 in 1992.

3. The Senate Is Also Polarizing

It is odd that Ted Cruz, Mike Lee and Rand Paul are being held up as the face of polarized Washington by many of the same people who point the finger at gerrymandering as a cause of this polarization. The Senate is not gerrymandered, and none of these “Tea Party favorites” served in the House. In fact, fewer than half of all of the senators served in the House, none served under the present lines, and only about 20 served under the 2000 lines.

The fact that the non-gerrymandered Senate is also polarizing, and is doing so at roughly the same rate as the House, suggests some major alternate cause. Also noteworthy: The Electoral College is also becoming more polarized, and it is not gerrymandered either. 

4. Gerrymandering Is an Effect, Not a Cause.

To the extent that gerrymandering hurts Democrats in their attempts to reclaim the House and promotes extremism, it is merely a symptom, not the disease. The disease itself has three components. The first is noted above: Partisan districts have tended to elect fewer and fewer members from the opposing party. Because there are more Heavily Partisan Districts that lean Republican than lean Democrat, this disproportionately affects Democrats. Note that this tendency is longstanding and more or less constant: With the exception of 1996 and 1998, there have always been between 29 and 36 more Highly Partisan Districts that lean Republican than lean Democrat.

The second part of the problem is related: We are polarizing the seats. Look back to the second chart. There were two reasons I broke out the McCain and Romney PVIs. First, it allowed for a more apples-and-apples comparison to 2008 and 2010. But second, and more importantly for our purposes now, we see that the post-2010 lines themselves became more polarized after the result of the 2012 elections.

Under the present lines, using the McCain/Obama results, there were 123 seats that were R+10 or more and 110 seats that were D+10 or more. If we take the exact same lines, but use the Romney/Obama presidential results as our yardstick instead, we find 141 seats that are R+10 or more, and 121 seats that are D+10 or more. Looking at our broader set of Heavily Partisan Districts, we see eight additional heavily Republican districts and two additional heavily Democratic districts come into being just from the country becoming more polarized from 2008 to 2012. In a very odd way, we’re gerrymandering ourselves.

The third problem is specific to Democrats. Their coalition has become increasingly geographically concentrated, or pushed into majority-minority districts. As I noted in an earlier article, this makes it harder to draw large numbers of Democratic districts. Political scientists simulated thousands of districts in Florida using the 2000 election results and found a Republican bias; when they revisited the issue using the 2008 results, they found random lines drew one more Democratic-PVI district than the current map shows.

When I tried to simulate the maps in all 50 states that would be drawn by independent redistricting commissions, I ended up drawing about the same number of Republican and Democratic seats as we see under the present lines.

This is part of why Republicans could pretty much obliterate Democrats in a swing state like North Carolina, but Illinois Democrats had to bend over backwards to draw lines where two-thirds of the state’s districts would elect Democrats, even with that state’s overwhelmingly Democratic orientation these days.

Again, the point here isn’t that gerrymandering hasn’t had any effect on party polarization. It is just that the effects are likely very small. What’s really happened, more than anything else, is that conservative areas of the country have, at least for now, become extremely reluctant to elect conservative or moderate Democrats, while liberal areas have largely given up on liberal or moderate Republicans. This has resulted in party caucuses that are increasingly made up of ideologues, and has made political compromise difficult. If there’s anyone to point the finger at, it’s ourselves. 

Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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