Political Animal


November 16, 2012 12:14 PM Redistricting, Vote-Distribution, and the U.S. House

By Ed Kilgore

Anyone interested in truly understanding why Democrats won a majority of the national popular vote for the U.S. House but made only small gains against the GOP majority won in 2010 should read a guest post by Washington University’s Nicholas Goedert at that fine political science site The Monkey Cage. The bottom line is that it appears gerrymandering was responsible for a lot, but by no means all, of the disproportionate haul of House seats by the GOP. That old devil, “relatively inefficient vote distribution,” had an impact as well.

In a careful analysis of House results in states where Republicans did and did not control redistricting, Goedert made these findings:

In every state districted by Republicans, Democrats won fewer seats than their historical expectation, and in six cases they underperformed by 20% or more (as a percentage of total seats up for election). So it appears that Republicans gained benefits across the board from controlling the redistricting process.
By contrast, Democrats exceeded their expected seat share only slightly in the three states where they controlled the process….
But partisan control of redistricting cannot completely explain each party’s performance relative to the hypothetical unbiased map. Instead, we still observe bias even where we should expect none in the redistricting process….Democrats also fell short in several states with bipartisan or court-drawn maps, winning on average 7% fewer seats than expected.

In another indication that Democratic voters are simply concentrated too much geographically to produce representative results, Goedert found that Democrats fell short more in urban than in rural states. And in an especially intriguing data point in terms of future voting trends, he noted that Democrats did better as compared to the popular vote distribution in states with large areas dominated by Latino voters:

It is possible that nonpartisan commissions may have contributed to greater fairness, but the ease of drawing geographically large, majority Hispanic districts in these states, (e.g. AZ-2, CA-16, CA-51, and TX-23) might have also mitigated the natural advantage Republicans have in other regions in the distribution of the their vote.

This isn’t grounds for any sort of Democratic despair: the “inefficient vote distribution” problem is not new, and during the last decade, despite another GOP-dominated redistricting cycle, Democrats managed to unravel an “unassailable” GOP advantage in the House by 2006 (though there is some evidence Republicans in that redistricting cycle overreached instead of defending vulnerable incumbents, which made them especially susceptible to a big Democratic “wave”). A bigger question for 2014 is probably whether the ever-closer alignment of the two parties with elements of the electorate that are significantly more (older white voters) and less (young and minority voters) to vote in midterm elections. But add together that problem for Democrats with the redistricting and vote-distribution problems and you can see why a Democratic House in 2014 might be a real reach, even as long-term trends continue to benefit the Donkey Party.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • rdale on November 16, 2012 12:22 PM:

    Here in Glennbeckistan (Utah), the GOP super-majority in the state lege is ruthless about gerrymandering anyone who might have ever talked to a Democrat. Their biggest goal has always been to get rid of blue dog Jim Matheson, and this time it seemed like they might succeed, but he weaseled out of it once again by being more republican than many republicans.

  • Ron Byers on November 16, 2012 12:53 PM:

    I agree with your technical assessment and your conclusions Ed, which is why the Democrats need to start working the 2014 election cycle sooner than later.

    For many years now politicians on both sides have placed most of their emphasis on the air game. Why not, that is where they can make a lot of money for not much work, but if this cycled proved anything it is a strong ground game can trump carpet bombing. Since ground games require foot soldiers the Democratic party should emphasize state and local legislative races. Turn out a great ground game in those local races and the congressional campaigns will have the ground troups they need to beat Citizens United money, or at least give our congressional candidates a fighting chance.

  • chasmrich on November 16, 2012 1:13 PM:

    In part this is an unintended consequence of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. The creation of majority minority districts, especially supermajority minority districts, usually creates one or more adjacent districts that have been drained of liberal-leaning voters, creating a structural advantage for conservatives. In this respect, "we have met the enemy, and he is us."

  • FriscoSF on November 16, 2012 1:19 PM:

    In California, Democratic politicians had resisted non-partisan redistricting commissions
    Good government groups pushed it, over their objections

    Now, in the first election after 'non-partisan' redistricting, Democrats have gained 'supermajorities' in both houses of the Legislature

    Go figure

  • c u n d gulag on November 16, 2012 1:24 PM:

    I agree with Ron Byers.

    The Democrats didn't take advantage of, then candidate, Obama's ground game. They should have taken what was learned, and applied it to the '10 midterms.

    Instead, after winning Congress in '06, and a political Trifecta in '08, felt that the country had finally turned.

    And what the Republicans did, was scare the living bejesus out of voters, with "Death Panels," and other BS.

    That, and the FACT that younger voters don't show up for anything but Presidential elections, let them have their big victory in the House - and only the feckin' idjit's the Teabaggers put up as candidates, kept them from having the majority in the Senate, too.

    So, if my party is smart, they'll make sure to keep the Democratic voters involved in the process THROUGH the midterms, and make them aware how important EVERY election is - school boards, local, district, state, AND national elections.
    I'll be contacting my new Democratic Congressman, who beat the odious Nan Hayworth(less), after he's sworn in, to see what we can do in my district.

  • danimal on November 16, 2012 1:33 PM:

    Can I just make the point that "inefficient distribution of voters" and gerrymandering are intricately related. They are not opposite poles, and are often describing the exact same phenomenom.

    If a large urban district with 80% Dems were paired with a wealthy GOP suburb diluting the Dem advanatage to 55%, the gerrymander would support Dems, since the rest of the concentrated Dem vote is split out to another district, and the GOP suburban voters are split inefficiently from the GOP perspective. If that same urban area remains 80% Dem concentration, the districting is an inefficiency from the Dem perspective. The whole point of gerrymandering is to create these inefficiencies.

  • Doug on November 16, 2012 7:16 PM:

    danimal, I believe the phrase "inefficient distribution of voters" was coined to describe districts that were designed along geographic rather than political lines.
    Such districts would, it was believed, have a greater political unity as the interests of the population would more likely be similar. Thus we had urban districts, suburban districts and rural districts, but post-WWII population movements blurred the lines between all three types. However, if districts are designed only using geography as the base, there's the risk of not using one's majority to its' fullest; thus the word "inefficent".
    So, you take a district you control by an 80/20% and three districts you don't that are, say, 70/30, 80/20 and 60/40 against your party; add some of the "80" from the 80/20 to the 70/30, some of the "60" from the 60/40 to what's left of the 80/20 and 10-15% of your own from the 80/20 you now control to the new district that USED to be 60/40 and is now, at worst, 50/50, but more likely a gain for you.
    The phrase "inefficient distribution of voters" could be used to simply describe a method of distributing voters, but that word "inefficient" is the giveaaway;
    it's just a scientific phrase being used as a cover for justifying gerrymandering.

  • jhm on November 17, 2012 7:43 AM:

    Not that it will likely happen in my lifetime, but even if we resist the ideas of eliminating districts and using proportional allotment of seats, we could go far it redressing this problem simply by increasing the number of seats in the House.