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

A lot of liberals state plainly that the Republicans retained control only or primarily because they out-gerrymandered the Democrats.

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

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.

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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.