Political Animal


November 17, 2012 1:43 PM Why are the Democrats underrepresented in the House? It’s (mostly) the geography, stupid!

By Kathleen Geier

The 2012 election gave progressives much to cheer about. In practically every high-profile race where the outcome was at all in doubt,the more progressive candidate won — from the presidency on down. It was the single most satisfying election I have ever experienced in my life. I couldn’t believe it! I kept waiting for something important to go amiss — for Elizabeth Warren to lose, for example, or Tammy Baldwin. But no — all the candidates I most cared about won — a first, in my political lifetime. The cherry on top of the sundae was the right’s post-election, full-scale meltdown. Even now, a full 11 days after the election, they’re forming a circular firing squad and undergoing a nasty recriminations fiesta. Hey, I thought only Democrats did that! Like so many things in politics, it won’t last, but right now it’s a whole lot of fun to be a Democrat.

But as much of a triumph as election 2012 was for progressives, there were some clouds on the horizon as well. Undoubtedly the biggest of these is that the House of Representatives remains comfortably in Republican hands, which means that most progressive pieces of legislation will be thwarted for the foreseeable future. And sadly, according to Nate Silver, the Democrats are unlikely to regain the House in 2014. What is particularly frustrating about last week’s election is that House Democrats apparently won only 46% of House seats, in spite of garnering 50.5% of major party votes. Why did this happen, and what we can do to ensure that Democrats win representation in the House at levels that are equivalent to the votes they receive in the general population?

Political scientists say that there are three main reasons the G.O.P. is overrepresented in Congress, as compared to their national vote share. One reason is the power of incumbency. As political scientist Eric McGhee wrote about the 2010 election:

Congressional elections are not written on a clean slate. Instead, a substantial number of voters give their incumbent the benefit of the doubt unless offered ample reason to do otherwise. That means the party with more incumbents is going to do better, especially in a status quo election with no signs of a broader partisan tide.

Incumbents tend to be better funded and have higher name recognition than their opponents. And they can leverage the considerable power of their office to produce benefits for their district, which tends to win them endorsements and votes.

Incumbency, however, only explains part of it. Partisan redistricting — otherwise known as gerrymandering — also plays a role. Republicans certainly have not been shy about blatant attempts at gerrymandering (remember this?) and political scientists say that partisan redistricting does have an impact. 2010 was a very good year for Republicans, and since in that election so many statehouses remained in or shifted to the GOP column, lawmakers in those states were well-positioned to carve out GOP-friendly districts in the redistricting process that occurred following the 2010 census. Political scientist Nicholas Goedert recently found that

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.

Even so, the impact of gerrymandering is, surprisingly, smaller than you may think. Says McGhee:

The point should be clear: even under the most generous assumptions, redistricting explains less than half the gap between vote share and seat share this election cycle.

Goedert notes that, according to his findings:

we still observe bias even where we should expect none in the redistricting process… [Snip] … Democrats also fell short in several states with bipartisan or court-drawn maps, winning on average 7% fewer seats than expected.

Clearly then, something else is going on. What is it? According to Goedert, the most important factor is the geographic distribution of the two parties. Republicans tend to be concentrated in rural areas, Democrats in urban areas, and rural areas are awarded more seats, on a per person basis than urban areas. For example:

[S]tates that are heavily urbanized (such as New Jersey and Pennsylvania) are more distorted against Democrats than more rural states (such as Minnesota and Wisconsin). Indeed, urbanization has a negative and significant effect on the difference between seats won by Democrats and expected seats, even after controlling for the party in control of redistricting.

Another study, by Jowei Chen and Jonathan Rodden, comes to a similar conclusion:

We show that in many states, Democrats are inefficiently concentrated in large cities and smaller industrial agglomerations such that they can expect to win fewer than 50 percent of the seats when they win 50 percent of the votes. To measure this “unintentional gerrymandering,” we use automated districting simulations based on precinct-level 2000 presidential election results in several states. Our results illustrate a strong relationship between the geographic concentration of Democratic voters and electoral bias favoring Republicans.

A more equitable redistricting process would help Democrats gain more seats, but given our country’s skewed population distribution, they would still be facing uphill struggle. But even though Democrats are likely to continue to be underrepresented in Congress, relative to vote share, they are not, says Goedert, “doomed to the the minority for the foreseeable future, or even the next decade. For example:

The Pennsylvania map includes five Republican seats won by Obama in 2008, suggesting that a wave of sufficient strength could reverse the delegation’s majority. But because of unequal concentrations of vote share in most states, not just those with Republican gerrymanders, a Democratic majority will be more difficult than it should be. And this difficulty persists even when both parties agree to the maps.

He concludes, “Changing our redistricting institutions alone will not assure national proportionality.”

UPDATE: To clarify, even automated redistricting simulations, like the ones used here , tend to produce results in which Republicans are overrepresented. This is because, so long as you use traditional geographical criteria for redistricting, it’s very hard to draw up districts in which sparsely populated, Republican-friendly areas do not end up getting more representation than densely populated, Democratic ones. Non-geographic criteria that would create a more level playing field could be used, I supposed, but I don’t know of anyone suggesting such. Ending Republican gerrymandering would help, and should be strongly supported, but even so, Democrats would face an uphill struggle.

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee


  • Equal Opportunity Cynic on November 17, 2012 4:30 PM:

    I don't even understand the first point about incumbency. Incumbents' inherent advantage would be included in the aggregate national vote total, so why would that explain a difference between that aggregate and the seat allocation?

    It is a great point that "gerrymandering" comes in two flavors. I'd not thought about how much of this isn't due to Republican malfeasance.

    The real answer is proportional representation in each state's House delegation (perhaps with a German-style "top up" system so that everyone still has some particular rep), but no one wants to discuss PR.

  • c u n d gulag on November 17, 2012 4:39 PM:

    If Republicans couldn't gerrymander, or jury-rig the election process with fictional nonsense, try to suppress the vote, and/or "blacken" their opponents, they'd be very much a minority party.

    As for Republican incumbents in House races, the fact that people like Bachmann, Gohmert, the King's, and other idiot's, grifters, fools, maniacs, morons, and lunatics, remain in Congress, is a testament to the abject stupidity and ignorance, among other things, of the voters in their districts.
    I wouldn't want to live in a district whose voters looked at a Congressperson like that, and said, "Yup! He/she is the best one amongst all of us! I'm gonna vote for him/her!"

    I think in some districts, on top of the Flouride in the water, we need to add some anti-psychotics, and see if that does any good.

    Or, legalize pot.
    Then, if it didn't lessen their fear, hatred, and anger - maybe they'd forget to show up and vote.

  • wilder on November 17, 2012 4:44 PM:

    What would it take to launch a proportional vote movement? For instance, demand that every district across the country have exactly the same number of constituents? That would give California at least 20 more seats, most of them likely Democratic.

  • pzerzan on November 17, 2012 5:10 PM:

    Expand the House-why we are at 435-where it was in 1910, when the country had only 90 million people-makes no sense. This is nothing to do with the Constitution-in fact, the Founders proposed Article 1, which would make every district 50k people. Expand the house and you won't have this problem...

  • jharp on November 17, 2012 6:08 PM:

    I think we need to get the college age voters registered to vote where it matters.

    My kids votes are worthless in my district. And they both registered at college where their votes does much more good.

  • David Carlton on November 17, 2012 6:21 PM:

    Just an illustration--Here in Tennessee nearly forty percent of Obama's vote came from just two counties: Shelby (Memphis) and Davidson (Nashville). Shelby alone accounted for a quarter. By comparison, they only accounted for a quarter of the two-party statewide total. They were among only four counties in the entire state that supported Obama (the other two are small, heavily black old plantation counties in West Tennessee). Of course, those are also the only two places in Tennessee with Democratic congressmen; it was a lead-pipe cinch for our Republican-dominated General Assembly to pack us into two districts (out of nine). If representation followed the popular vote for President there'd be one or two more. I might add that prior to 2010 the Democrats used some weird gerrymandering to keep their numbers up: Marsha Blackburn represented a district that included the Republican suburbs of both Nashville and Memphis, even though the two cities are two hundred miles apart.

  • mb on November 17, 2012 7:51 PM:

    This situation is much easier to be outraged about than to fix especially since this is truly one of times when both sides do it -- no false equivalency here.

    I think the best solution is to work on winning the state legislatures over the next 8 years so we can swing the pendulum back our way -- I don't see a chance for proportional representation or enlarging the House. Winning the legislatures would do all kinds of good things besides giving us an edge in the next round of gerrymandering. If the GOP is ever successful in devolving everything possible back to the states, it'd be nice to have few more progressive state legislatures to mitigate the damage.

  • Robert Waldmann on November 17, 2012 8:05 PM:

    Thank you for your excellent post based on good shoe leather (OK leather ear to the phone) reporting. I should also thank the political scientists who have been doing their job while I pretend to do it commenting on blogs (I'm supposed to be an economist).

    But (of course there is a but) in those comments I have been stressing that bipartisan and court-drawn maps systematically cause Republicans to win a larger fraction of seats than votes. The reason is that a bipartisan and court (except sometimes the Supremes) principal is that the House should look like the country and not like the White plus some brown and no black at all Senate. There is an absolutely deliberate effort to create majority minority districts. Those districts are overwhelmingly Democratic districts. The intent isn't partisan, but the effect is to cause Republicans to be over represented. I add that I support the effort to make the House look like the country and not like the Senate.

    Also, while I see why incumbency helps the party with more seats I do not at all find an eplanation for why it explains the gap between popular vote and seats won. The advantages of incumbency discussed in the post should cause the party with more incumbents to get more votes, yet they are discussed as if they affect seats won but not vote totals. To explain the gap, one has to argue that incumbents generally win by narrow margins or lose by wide margins.

    Here I think the problem may be with the reported vote totals. Some states don't report votes in races where there is only one candidate on the ballot. Incumbents often get on the order of 99% of votes or more. That's a lot of wasted votes which would cause the party of incumbents to have a lot of votes per seat won. But only if they are counted.

    Even if the votes are counted, they may be few. Some people (definitely including me) are irritated when invited to vote for the only candidate on the ballot (if I wanted to live in the USSR I would have moved there back when it existed). For decades I chose Michael Capuano over write in, but I'm sure lots of other people left the oval empty out of irritation (this year I actually got to vote in a contested congressional election for the first time since hmmm voting for O'Neill over Abt in 1982 IIRC). I think some correction for races with only one candidate on the ballot is needed.

    Finally I don't get this bit about fewer people in red districts. What geographic boundaries are being considered ? I can see how the requirement that each state have 1 representative could in theory create a small population at large district. However, I think it doesn't as even Wyoming is not an unusually small district. I don't see why representation of low population states would be rounded up more often than down. If the boundaries are, say, county boundaries, then current redistricting does not respect them (I vote in the same county and a different district). I tend to suspect that the random districting which respects geographic boundaries doesn't correspond to anything but a silly modelling assumption.

    Polite conclusion about how this is a great post and political scientists are awesome.

  • JoanneinDenver on November 17, 2012 9:57 PM:

    EXCEPT, the rural-urban demographic has been part of the political landscape of the United States for almost a hundred years at least. During this time,, the
    Democrats controlled both Houses of Congress from 1960 to 1992 with a brief interval during the Reagan years. So there are two questions:

    1) How did the Democrats maintain control during those recent years?

    2) How did the Democrats lose control of the House in 2010 as well as a majority of the state legislatures and governors?

  • Tom on November 17, 2012 11:03 PM:

    Expand the geographic reach of the Democratic Party into more suburban, exurban and rural areas. The policies of the party are not inimical to the interests of non-urban voters. In fact, infrastructure development, fair taxation, increased investment in education, better health care, women's equality are also attractive beyond the city limits. It does require challenging the political views of the conservative churches, which is often the link between the GOP and the non-urban voter.

  • phillygirl on November 17, 2012 11:58 PM:

    The effects of partisan redistricting seem screamingly obvious to me. Take the four most egregious examples from 2010 gerrymandering: In PA, which voted Democratic by well over 50%, our new delegation is 5 Democrats, 13 Republicans. In Ohio, it's 4-12. In NC, it's 3-9 (with one race uncalled). In Illinois, the sole counterexample that comes to mind, Democrats engineered a map that now has 12 Dems and 6 Republicans. These results are not attributable to unfortunate distributions of voters but to raw partisan power. Granted, other states with slightly less awful redistrcting processes are also lopsided (see MD, MA, VA). But as long as we resist nonpartisan redistricting (and especially as long as Republicans control most state legislatures), we will get nothing resembling representative government in the House.

  • Tony Greco on November 18, 2012 12:24 AM:

    Equal Opportunity Cynic is absolutely correct: "Incumbents' inherent advantage would be included in the aggregate national vote total, so why would that explain a difference between that aggregate and the seat allocation?"

    Incumbency makes NO contribution to the overrepresentation of Republican seats in the House compared to their vote total. None. It does, of course, constitute an advantage, which can result in the Republican House candidates getting more votes than we might otherwise expect (say, compared to the rest of the ticket). But it cannot produce a higher proportion of seats won than of votes. How can so many smart people continue to make this obvious error?

  • joanneinDenver on November 18, 2012 9:25 AM:

    You all are proposing solutions that are not politically viable, because the Democrats do not have the kind of political power in the states to make the various changes. In order to solve a problem, you must go back to the beginning.

    Another question I have is: Why are the Republicans in charge in so many states?
    Granted, the state legislatures reflect the urban-rural dilemma in many states.
    BUT, the thirty Republican governors were all elected state-wide.

    Next question: The redistricting that followed the 2010 census is mandated by the Constitution. If the Republicans planned to control state legislatures so that they could control redistricting, why didn't the Democrats plan the same? Were there Democratic campaigns in the states? IF not, why not? If so, why were they not successful?

    In college BS sessions (which I think are very valuable) and in poll sic classes,
    drawing up theoretical solutions may earn points, but in the real world, you have to start with understanding the real problem, first.

  • Michael Lee on November 18, 2012 10:04 AM:

    This does not mean that gerrymandering wasn't the main factor but that gerrymandering is easier and more effective for repubs than democrats.
    Rules & assumptions applied to 'fair' redistricting have an anti-urban bias. It's simple really, One of the 2 main tools for gerrymandering is packing, and urban democratic voters come pre-packed.
    Also the party's commendable support for "majority-minority" districts (likely to be represented by minority reps), leads democrats to pack themselves even when they are in charge of redistricting.

  • Citizen Alan on November 18, 2012 12:23 PM:

    The real issue is that we simply don't have enough representatives! The Framers of the Constitution intended there to be 1 representative for every 50,000 citizens (google "Original First Amendment"). That proposed Amendment to the Constitution failed only because of a procedural glitch. If it had passed, we would have 6000 congressmen to day, instead of 435 who are tilted unfairly towards rural areas because a Congressman from California represents almost twice as many people as one from Wyoming.

  • TCinLA on November 18, 2012 12:31 PM:

    Why are Republicans over-represented in Congress?


    All the "disappointed liberals" (I was a "disappointed" liberal and I managed to show up) let it go, all the Democratic dumbasses (like my very smart nephew) who thought only presidential elections counted, all the others with whatever pathetic bullshit excuse they had, they are all responsible for why Republicans are over-represented in Congress.

    That's because Republicans took control of 30 state legislatures, and then Gerrymandered the hell out of Congressional seats. IT DIDN'T HAVE A GODDAMNED THING TO DO WITH "INCUMBEMNCY"!!!! It had to do with all those marginal districts Tea Partiers won in when the other side didn't show up being turned into solid Republican bastions because of the Great Gerrymander!!!!

    My oh-so-smart (he really is) nephew finally admitted to me last weekend that he now understood why I kept telling him to go vote back in 2010, when he discovered his very blue neighborhood in Pittsburgh was now a very minor part of a very red congressional district represented by a moron who stands for everything my nephew disagrees with strongly.

    All you had to do was look at the picture Ed put up on his show last week of Pennsylvania: in 2008, 1/3 of the state was 'blue" be congressional districts. After the Great Gerrymander, there are two little blue dots at either end of the state as far as congressional districts are concerned. THAT is what happened!!!

    As was pointed out to Rachel Maddow by Barney Frank, had the 2012 elections been run in 2008 congressional districts, the Democrats would have won the House back.

    IT'S NOT "INCUMBENCY"! It's that one side has been politically neutered, and this is going to last at least till 2020, and it's only going to change if Democrats show up in 2014, 2016, 2018 and 2020 in the numbers they showed up in this year.

    The cockroaches of the other side (Frank Rich had a good analogy there - just when you think you stomped them, like 2008 - they're baa-aa-aack!) have been showing up for EVERY ELECTION since 1962, regardless of how often they get whacked. They have 28% of the electorate. Any time the percentage of voters falls below 50% - THEY WIN!

    The Republicans didn't suddenly find all kinds of new voters in 2010, we Democrats didn't show up to play and forfeited the game.

  • TCinLA on November 18, 2012 12:37 PM:

    And for all who think the only solution is partisan gerrymandering by our side, look at California. We took the power of redistricting away from the Legislature, created "competitive" districts, and the result is the Republicans lost four more congressional seats (California was responsible for the majority of their losses nationwide), and we have the 2/3 majority in State Senate and State Assembly to now be able to put our financial house in order without having to pay any attention to the Republican idiots. Republicans in California are now Officially Irrelevant. And so the people's business can now be transacted.

    That's what "fair" elections can do.

  • Aussie on November 18, 2012 5:27 PM:

    Politically unrealistic, but there is a solution to the problem of Democratic voters being more tightly packed than Republican voters Ė adopt the model implemented in the Australian state of South Australia. In SA, after each election an independent commission redistricts such that, based on the last electionís results, the party that wins a majority of the two-party vote at the next election can expect to win a majority of seats. Only after that consideration are matters like community of interest/contiguity taken into account. In the states people are talking about, that would presumably mean districts coming out of urban areas and into suburban areas like spokes.

    It doesnít always work if swings from the last election in competitive districts are systematically different to swings in non-competitive districts, but it reduces the chance of the popular vote winner getting a minority of seats. Of course, itís more important in a parliamentary system where the executive is chosen by the legislature.

    On the incumbency thing, there have been five national Australian elections since WWII where the popular vote loser won a majority of seats and therefore government, and every single one of them was an incumbent Government up for reelection. As far as I can tell with my limited mathematical skills, incumbency could cause a disparity between votes and seats if incumbency confers more of an advantage in competitive districts where both sides campaign hard than in non-competitive districts where no-one campaigns. Maybe people in the latter districts are less likely to be aware of their incumbent.

  • Nicnewsdad on November 20, 2012 3:01 PM:

    Yes, expand the House of Representatives. Triple the number of reps. The number of reps is is arbitrary and we have at least 3 times the population of when the number last changed. It would be nearly impossible to gerrymander and the reps could get back to listening to their constituents which stopped around 1975. Districts would be small enough that campaigns would individually be cheaper. This change would only take a majority vote of congress and the pres's signature.

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