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Presidential Mandates in a Gerrymandered America

In all but one presidential election between 1880 and 1964, Presidents started a new term with a House of their party. That symmetry is not the case any more.

August 5, 2016

When Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton spoke in Philadelphia last week about how the Framers believed that the 13 newly independent states would be “stronger together,” she made a lofty appeal for national togetherness but also highlighted — likely inadvertently —  one of the central tensions of our time.

The founding generation did, of course, believe that we were stronger together. Hillary Clinton no doubt is equally sincere. But togetherness is easier talked about than achieved, especially when people have sharply different ideas about the country’s future – as they have throughout virtually all of our history.

For the founding generation, the answer to the dilemma of how to bind the nation together was to make some pretty big compromises — things like forgoing the abolition of slavery, allowing the slave trade to continue until 1808, and the infamous Three-Fifths Compromise that counted some people as fractions and gave extra power to the South.

Compromise, however, is almost certainly the last thing Democrats gathered at the Wells Fargo Center had on their minds Thursday night. Rather, they are probably much like President Barack Obama’s supporters, who spoke out in favor of a less divisive and more bipartisan politics, but somehow also expected progressive policy ends to be achieved – something hard to do without the opposition giving in.

Of course, there is an alternative:  A new president could win a mandate by sweeping in a new Congress with him or her and use that mandate to push an agenda forward. And for much of our history that’s what happened. In 1880, for example, Americans elected Republican James Garfield as president and replaced a Democratic House with a Republican one. A few years later, in 1888, in a presidential contest dominated by battles over tariff policy, voters chose Republican challenger Benjamin Harrison over Democratic incumbent Grover Cleveland and elected a Republican House. The victories of Harry Truman in 1948 and Dwight Eisenhower in 1952, likewise, were accompanied by changes in control of the House. In fact, in the 22 presidential elections between 1880 and 1964, the winning presidential candidate faced a House controlled by the opposite party only once — in 1956, when the nation re-elected Dwight Eisenhower but re-elected a Democratic House.

But today those sorts of mandates are being rarer. This year, the reality is that even with an unusual and frenzied election cycle, control of the U.S. House remains unlikely to change hands.

There are many reasons that have been posited for this change: increasing residential self-sorting along ideological lines, a hardening of partisan identities (especially in places like the South where race and political affiliation increasingly are one and the same), and  the role of money in politics, which makes congressional races multi-million dollar affairs.

But there also is no question that manipulation of district lines plays an important role. As author David Daley vividly tells in his new book Ratf**ked, the process of congressional redistricting around the country is increasingly dominated by outside players and big money — and sophisticated, data-driven technology that enables districts to be drawn with micro-precision. The result is that the Senate — elected at large — is more likely to change hands this November than the House.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. The Framers’ vision for the House was for a body that would be electorally volatile to produce, in the words of John Adams, a “miniature, an exact portrait of the people at large.” Frequent changes to the House were expected. And for most of the nation’s history, they were commonplace.

But while presidents almost always used to have a House of their party at least for the start of their term, some now say it is possible to envision a scenario where Hillary Clinton, even if she wins back-to-back terms, might never have a Democratic majority in the House. Our forebears would have found that remarkable. We should find it worrying.