Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


Did GOP gerrymander its way to controlling U.S. House?

REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
Republicans greatly increased their leverage over the round of decennial redistricting that occurred in 2011.

Here’s a case where three true things seem to point to a fourth thing, which is much less true, even though I find that many politically active liberals believe it to be true (and sort of want it to be true).

Let me start with the last thing, the one that isn’t quite true. In the circles in which I travel, a lot of liberals state plainly that the Republicans retained majority control of the U.S. House in 2012 only or primarily because they out-gerrymandered the Democrats in the latest drawing of the district boundaries. This is more false than true, especially if you take seriously the “only or primarily” part.

Here is the first of the three true things: Republicans lost seats in 2012 but maintained control of the House, even though if you moosh together all the votes in all the House races in the country, Democrats got more votes by more than a million.

If we had a system in our country, as exists in some other countries, in which people cast a vote directly indicating which party they support, and if the votes on that basis were apportioned so that each party got a share of seats equal to its share of the national vote, and if we assume that everyone who voted for a specific Democratic candidate in the House elections would have voted for the Democrats to control the House, the Democrats would indeed control the House and the prospects for several bills favored by President Obama and Dems generally would be brighter than they are under our actual system. But all those “ifs” add up to not much.

Some examples

Here’s the second thing that is true: 2010 was a near-landslide year for Republicans, in which they picked up six seats in the U.S. Senate, took control of the House and also gained several governorships and control of legislative houses around the country. In doing so, Republicans greatly increased their leverage over the round of decennial redistricting that occurred in 2011. In several states — including some relatively big ones like Michigan, Virginia. Pennsylvania  and Wisconsin — Republicans captured complete control of the state governments.

That should lend credence to the gerrymander-power theory. The Repubs managed to get control of the map-drawing just in time for the 2012 House elections in which they “mysteriously” managed to win a majority of the seats without winning a majority of the overall votes.

And here’s the third thing that is true: Without question, throughout history, each party seeks to use its leverage over the drawing of the new districts to maximize its party’s net of U.S. House seats. This is a pretty unappealing aspect of our system. And some states – California, for example – have set up a relatively non-partisan commission to draw the district maps no matter which party controls the Legislature at the time. And, in many states – Minnesota, for example, which in 2010 had a Republican governor and DFL majorities in the Legislature – control of the levers of state power was divided across party lines.

But just looking at some of the states in which Republicans did win control of the whole mechanism in 2010, when I compare the outcomes of U.S. House elections under the old maps compared with the new, it contributes little to the theory of Republican gerrymandering run amok.

Wisconsin, for example, had the all-Republican lineup in 2010, but its House elections in 2012 yielded the same 5-3 Republican split as the previous election. Virginia had the all-Republican lineup and got the same 8-3 Republican split of House races in 2010 and 2012. But in Illinois, a state where Democrats had complete control of the redrawing of the map, the new map turned a House delegation that had been 11 Repubs and eight Dems heading into 2012 to a smashing reversal in favor of the Dems, who now hold a 12-6 advantage. The Democrats who drew the new map could not have been disappointed with that result.

You couldn’t attribute the huge Dem gain in Illinois entirely to the success of the gerrymanderers without further study, but it at least gets in the way of a simple-minded assumption about the national Republican success being about the map surgeons.

I reached out to U of M political scientist and Congress-expert Kathryn Pearson to see what scholars have figured out about the power of the map-drawers. She confirmed most of what this post says above. Power over the map is considerable, but not enough to single-handedly turn the Republicans’ slight minority total national vote in House races into their current 54-46 percent majority of the seats.

“Redistricting matters, but a lot of other things matter too,” Pearson said.

The other biggest factor may be patterns of where people live. The fact that Democrats tend to be concentrated in urban areas makes it somewhat natural and normal for urban districts to be more heavily Democratic than rural districts are Republican.

Comments (12)

  1. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 02/19/2013 - 09:35 am.

    The key word is ONLY

    When there are two possible explanations for human action, the answer to the question ‘which one is correct’ is often BOTH.
    Gerry Mander was certainly not the only factor in the results of the 2012 election, but it was certainly -A- factor.

  2. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 02/19/2013 - 09:50 am.

    Gerrymandering’s Impact

    The biggest effect of control of redistricting may not be an immediate shift in the partisan balance of Congress. The biggest impact may be that the balance that is there now is less likely to change. Redistricting has created more safe seats than before, and the impact of that may not be apparent for some years.

    The unfortunate effect of more safe seats is that representatives has less incentive to ignore party discipline and go their own way. In a swing district, or a district that is not a lock for either party, there is no reason to try to find common ground with the other side.

    The other negative impact of gerrymandering is the dishonor to the memory of Elbridge Gerry, but that’s another matter.

    • Submitted by David Mensing on 02/19/2013 - 10:40 pm.

      Gerrymandering is bad government

      No matter who does it, gerrymandering is bad government. As noted above, when politicians gerrymander they most often “look out for number one”, meaning safe and uncompetitive seats, which narrows the playing field and leads to ideologues sitting in those safe seats. The fringes get the members and there is less and less likelihood of compromise.

  3. Submitted by Ed Felien on 02/19/2013 - 11:36 am.


    The huge DFL majorities in the 4th and 5th Districts don’t represent “packing?” Doesn’t that make it easier for Paulsen, Bachmann and Kline?

  4. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 02/19/2013 - 01:55 pm.


    …to Paul Brandon. Redistricting may not be the ONLY factor at work, but it’s certainly “A” factor, at least at the national level. RB Holbrook’s point is also well-taken, no matter which of the two current national parties is under discussion. “Safe” seats are not always in the public interest.

  5. Submitted by David Mensing on 02/19/2013 - 02:17 pm.

    Gerrymander is the #1 reason

    There are other reasons why the Republicans maintained control of the US House, two of which are incumbency and money, which often go hand in hand. However, the primary reason Republicans hold the majority in the House is gerrymandering. The evidence is very apparent–if Democrats won half the seats in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Virginia and Florida, they would be in the majority. All of these states have Republican “trifectas” as a result of the 2010 landslide, also all of these states were carried in both 2008 and 2012 by Obama. Add one more state–North Carolina–which went to Romney after Obama carried it in ’08–and the margin would be even greater.

    Mr. Black’s comment about the density of the Democratic vote isn’t nonsense–it does make it harder to gerrymander, but a fair map can be drawn. Witness Minnesota, where the Democratic Twin Cities are counterbalanced by an outstate that is more conservative. Illinois shows that Democrats can gerrymander, too. Again, there is a Demcratic metropolis and a Republican outstate, and yet the Illinois legislature managed to move the lines much to their favor.

    While I believe what Republicans did was legal, fair lines would have served the people more and represented their will. This tactic, plus the various other plans to tip the scale in their favor, is unethical should be punished by the electorate, in my humble opinion.

  6. Submitted by Michael Fleming on 02/19/2013 - 03:39 pm.

    Let’s revisit the idea of districting in the first place…

    Eric — Your earlier column discussed how the idea of congressional districts is not even part of the constitution but is rather a later-added statutory thing (that could be wiped away with just another statute)(not that this Congress is likely to ever do that…).

    I’m curious — If we’d not done the ‘whole country’ count like you did above (where Dems outnumbered Reps), but instead did it at a state-by-state level (as opposed to the district-by-district level we have now), would the results have turned? Did anybody do that analysis?

  7. Submitted by Harris Goldstein on 02/19/2013 - 08:32 pm.


    Good article on this recently:

    Republicans have been better at this; due in part to their control of more state legislatures. The shape of some of these districts are amazing.

  8. Submitted by Peder DeFor on 02/20/2013 - 08:48 am.

    A Few Notes

    It’s a bit problematic to look at nationwide percentages. If someone runs unopposed they don’t bother counting the votes. In 2012 there were 9 Republicans like this and 3 Democratics. That certainly closes the gap.
    Also, the California rules resulted in lots of districts that were D vs D and R vs R. This certainly produced a different result than if voters were voting for which party they wanted to control the House. (For those that are interested Dems got 61% of the House votes there and won 38 of the 53 spots.)
    I don’t mean to excuse Republicans on this. NC in particular. Gerrymandering is a BAD thing and it should be stopped. Iowa has been a leader on this subject. There are other approaches too. If we changed from mapped out districts and apportioned House seats by statewide percentage of votes, we would eliminate even the possibility of gerrymandering.
    I will say that Dems and libs would have a bit more credibility on this if they’d complained about it before it bit them in 2012. And also if they took some steps to correct the deep blue states. Otherwise it looks like they only care about gerrymandering when they can’t fix the results their way.

  9. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 02/20/2013 - 08:59 am.

    Tony Petrangelo makes mincemeat of Eric’s argument:

    • Submitted by Ian C on 02/20/2013 - 01:28 pm.

      “Looking At It The Wrong Way”

      “The evidence that Mr. Black cites as evidence that gerrymandering didn’t really help Republicans, is in fact exactly the evidence that shows that gerrymandering really helped Republicans. Mr. Black is just looking at it in the wrong way.”

      I giggled just a bit at that last sentence. You can look at this thing whatever way you want, and you’ll see it whatever way you want. Repubs want to see it as fair. Dems and folks like Petrangelo want to see it is as a gerrymander. Mr. Black wants to see it as a wash.

      I happen to think of it as a bummer that the Dems didn’t pick up more seats, but I’m also not entirely sold on the evidence of outright gerrymandering, especially when the crux of the Gerrymander-gate argument seems to hinge on the the fact that the President won the state THEREFORE their congressional delegation should also be Democratic. It’s a simplistic idea that seems to be completely agnostic toward the idea of split tickets, which are far more common – and quite frustrating, I imagine – than purists on each side of the spectrum would like to recognize.

      Mr. Petrangelo’s argument hardly makes “mincemeat” of Mr. Black’s argument. He’s clearly just looking at it the wrong way.

      • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 02/20/2013 - 06:59 pm.

        The giveaway

        is the fact that he starts with the infamous ‘red map’, which shows that most of the land in the United States votes Republican. If you looked at a map in which the area of each state was proportional to its population the results would look quite different. And people vote, not acres.
        There’s an example at

Leave a Reply