Why Gerrymandering Doesn't Explain Congressional Extremism — and Masks the Real Problems

October 30, 2013
Gerrymader Congress

The map of Iowa’s four congressional districts is aesthetically appealing — or, at least, it is to a political junkie like me. No weird computer-drawn shapes never before seen in nature. No skin-tight districts that follow a highway across the state plucking off a precinct here and skirting a precinct there. In fact, Iowa has managed to adhere to the rectangular lines of the state’s 99 counties, so the four districts radiating out from the Des Moines media market boast a geographical and political coherence.

Not surprisingly, a group of non-partisan civil servants (the Legislative Services Agency) played a major role in redrawing Iowa’s political map after the 2010 Census. In 2012, Iowa elected two Democrats and two Republicans to the House with no winning candidate corralling more than 57 percent of the vote. You want competitive elections? In the most Republican district in the state, the GOP incumbent Steve King survived a spirited 2012 challenge from Christie Vilsack, the wife of the former governor who is currently Barack Obama’s secretary of agriculture, with 53 percent of the vote.

Think a little about King — a fire-breathing Tea Party favorite from socially conservative western Iowa — the next time you hear glib explanations about the underlying reasons for scorched-earth partisanship in Congress.

During the government shutdown, TV pundits, armchair columnists and Obama himself excoriated a 269-year-old villain. That supposed scoundrel was former Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry, whose approval of a salamander-shaped congressional district in 1812 gave rise to the word “gerrymander.” Two centuries later, gerrymandering is rightfully scorned as undemocratic and it emerges as a popular target during round-up-the-usual-suspects moments in American political life.

At an early October press conference, Obama gave full voice to the theory directly linking the government shutdown to the politically cynical drawing of congressional district lines after the 2010 Census. Obama claimed that “a big chunk of the Republican Party” represents “gerrymandered districts where’s there’s no competition and those folks are much more worried about a Tea Party challenger than they are about the general election.”

That certainly doesn’t explain Steve King, whose congressional district was created by a largely exemplary process in Iowa. The six-term incumbent was one of the most outspoken House incendiaries, blithely declaring that the debt ceiling was an illusion because America “can go indefinitely without hitting default.” Yet King represents a district where he could be toppled in a Democratic wave election.

King offers a dramatic example – and I will confess my journalistic weakness for argument by anecdote. But political scientists and election analysts have also been arguing against primarily blaming gerrymandered House districts for the breakdown of a functioning Congress. True, political gamesmanship  during redistricting contributes to the vitriolic battles in Washington, but it is far from a major cause of the current deadlock of democracy.

For one thing, the numbers don’t work. A post-election analysis by the Brennan Center calculated that partisan redistricting after the 2010 Census netted the Republicans just six more House seats in 2012 than they would have won using the old district lines. Other estimates of the GOP redistricting advantage range from zero to 15 seats. All these projections are iffy because, as Sundeep Iyer points out in the Brennan study, elections are not run as a social science experiment with the same candidates competing in both the old and new districts. But based on virtually every model out there, John Boehner would still be speaker of the House even if all the congressional district lines were sketched by judicial commissions.

What about the oft-quoted fact that Democratic House candidates won 51 percent of the vote in 2012? Doesn’t that suggest that a heavy thumb on the scales left the Democrats 17 seats short of a House majority?

That 51-percent number is probably exaggerated. As Sean Trende, the co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics, points out in an article for Real Clear Politics, the clarity of these aggregate statistics from all 435 districts is muddied by the way different states tabulate votes for unopposed candidates and November run-offs in California where the only surviving candidates were sometimes from the same party. (A prime example was the free-spending California House race between Democratic incumbents Brad Sherman and Howard Berman). Factoring in third parties, Trende estimates that in 2012 “the total vote for right-of-center parties was roughly equivalent to left-of-center parties.”

Democrats also would get less than their fair share of House seats under any redistricting formula because their voters are more tightly clustered. As political scientists John Sides and Eric McGhee point out, “Democratic votes are increasingly concentrated in urban areas where they are more likely to waste votes with large majorities.”

An illustration: My own congressman in New York City, Democrat Jerry Nadler, won reelection in 2012 with 81 percent of the vote. In contrast, Mitt Romney carried every single county in Oklahoma while romping home in the Sooner State by a two-to-one margin. But none of the state’s five congressional districts is as lopsidedly Republican as Nadler’s district is Democratic. In fact, only one GOP House member from Oklahoma won with more than 70 percent of the vote in 2012.

Political scientists also advance the intriguing argument that the House Republicans have veered so far to the right because they decided to rather than because of the contours of their districts. Writing a joint article for Bloomberg News at the height of the shutdown, Nolan McCarty (Princeton), Keith Poole (University of Georgia) and Howard Rosenthal (New York University) make a point that would fit Occam’s Razor. Their explanation for the divisiveness on Capitol Hill: “The right wing of the Republican Party has embraced a fundamentalist version of free-market capitalism and succeeded in winning elections.”

Sure, some GOP congressional incumbents fear Tea Party primary challengers if they ever veer away from the politics of intransigence. But, as was probably inevitable, the mainstream Republican business community is beginning to mount primary challenges against right-wing House zealots like Michigan’s Justin Amash.

Another polarizing factor deserves far more public attention than it has received — the dramatic decline in split-ticket voting. If House incumbents are unlikely to win support from voters who normally opt for the other political party, there is little electoral incentive for them to compromise in Washington.

Writing in the aftermath of the presidential election, polling maven Nate Silver pointed out that in 1992 more than one-sixth of all congressional districts that went heavily (more than 10 percent) Democratic or Republican simultaneously elected a House member from the other party. In 2012, that figure (a rough measure of ticket splitting) had dwindled to just 2 percent.

Election analyst Charlie Cook makes an analogous point as he notes that only 17 House Republicans currently represent districts carried by Obama in 2012. In contrast, during the 1995-96 government shutdowns engineered by House Speaker Newt Gingrich, 79 House Republicans hailed from districts carried by Bill Clinton.

Some of these trends are the obvious result of the near-extinction of moderate Republicans from the northeast and conservative-leaning Democrats from the South. Another cause of the decline of ticket-splitting may be the nationalization of congressional elections, which harks back to the success of Gingrich’s “Contract with America” in 1994. Also — in an era of austerity with little federal money available even to members of the House Appropriations Committee — it is hard for incumbent legislators to run against the ideological grain of their districts by bragging about the pork-barrel projects they have delivered from Washington.

Please understand that it is impossible to make a high-minded moral case for the virtues of gerrymandering. And, aside from a right-wing fringe that wants to do nothing other than hurl (Ted) Cruz missiles against the Obama White House, there is little public support for political paralysis in Washington.

The intellectual danger lies in conflating the two problems. Blaming everything on gerrymandering is self-defeating because it prevents us from searching for the true roots of this low-ebb moment in our political history. Now that the short-term crisis is over, it is time to abandon bumper-sticker answers that sound persuasive on cable television news, but have little connection with reality.  

(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The views expressed are the author's own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.