When the new decennial map of Minnesota’s legislative districts was unveiled in late February, most neutral observers said the DFL had won the battle for a favorable map. But the degree of the DFL victory may have been understated. If the map is destiny (which it isn’t, but it can change the odds), the DFL may have a decent shot at taking back control of both houses of the Minnesota Legislature in the 2012 election.
DFL State Chair Ken Martin recently told me that the way his party scores the partisan lean of the new districts, the DFL has at least a slight advantage in 73 House districts and 34 Senate districts. If (a big “if” unless and until it happens) the DFL candidates were to prevail in those districts, it would give the party a substantial (73-61) majority in the House and a bare (34-33) single vote majority in the Senate.
To be precise for the total political wonks in the audience, the DFL has developed a methodology that looks – precinct by precinct – at DFL votes across the last many elections. (As you can imagine, the partisan breakdown of a precinct can vary from year to year and from race to race within a given year.) The DFL method massages the numbers into what it called the DPI (Democratic Performance Index) of each precinct. And now that they know which precincts go with which state House and Senate districts, they can calculate which districts have a DPI of greater than 50 percent, which means that the DFL should have an advantage in winning and hold that seat.
Before you get too excited (or upset, depending on your partisan preference) you should know that:
a) Martin didn’t release the map of the DFL-leaning districts nor the numbers on which the calculation is based, so skeptics cannot check his statement;
b) The Pioneer Press, which published a similar calculation, reached a significantly less favorable DFL number on the Senate map. (The Pi-Press analysis did indicate that the DFL has the map potential to take back control of the House and gain ground – but enough for control – in the Senate); and
c) Everyone that I interviewed for this post assured me that, while the map is important, it is neither the only nor even the most important thing.
Some key factors
To smoosh together a few of the comments along the lines of point c), just think about the other factors that can determine the outcome a particular close legislative race. There’s incumbency (which is all messed up by the new map, which created many districts that contain more than one incumbent) and in a general sense, incumbency would have to be considered a Repub strength, since they have more incumbents.
There’s the quality and personal political talent of the candidates, which is not measurable but certainly can offset some built-in partisan advantage in a particular district.
There’s the direction of the prevailing political winds in a given year (and we seem to be still quite confused about which party will have the wind at its back this November).
And there’s the effect on turnout of other races and issues on the ballot (and those can, of course, be spun either way, although 2012 is a presidential election year, which always means higher turnout and higher turnout often favors the Dems).
Zach Rodvald, top political staff person for the DFL House Caucus, agrees that the map is good for his side, but says the biggest reason he believes the DFL will regain control of the Legislature is “because the Republicans decided to shut down the state government” last year.
Likewise, although the new boundaries will remain in effect until 2020, Republican consultant Greg Peppin said “anyone who thinks the map guarantees them any particular result over the next 10 years is just nuts.” Peppin was a long-time legislative staff member for Repubs. He recalled the day in 1992 when the caucus members learned that Gov. Arne Carlson had “messed up” and failed to deliver on time his veto of the map that had been drawn by the DFL majority.
“Everyone was saying, ‘With this map, the Democrats will be in the majority through the remainder of the decade,’” Peppin said. But the Repubs took over the majority (in the House) in 1998, based on that bad map. In 2002, Peppin said, the conventional wisdom was that the new map in was a big coup for the Republicans, who started out with control of the House. But in 2004, the DFL cut into the Repubs’ majority and in 2006, based on the same map, the DFL won a humongous majority. In 2010 — still the same map — the Repubs regained control, Peppin said.
In general, a lot of Repubs were grousing in the days after the latest map was released. But Peppin, who seems to have been designated by the party to speak for them on the redistricting, says that “on a bad day, the map is at worst a wash for the Republicans. On the best day for the Democrats, it gives them maybe a chance to pick up one or two seats. I understand that they are feeling optimistic. They are in the minority so they want a change from the status quo. But in the end, this map isn’t going to be that big a change from the status quo.”
I guess we’ll see.
(This post has been corrected: The original version had some wrong numbers about the relative sizes of the various majorities in the decade that began with a new map in 2002. The numbers are right now. But the point that Greg Peppin was making didn’t change, which is that anyone who thinks a map advantage guarantees any particular advantage for 10 years in “nuts.”