Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


Liberals overstate GOP gerrymandering’s role in shutdown

Nate Cohn of The New Republic argues the fact that gerrymandering boosted the total of House Republicans does not mean it made them more likely to support extreme positions. 

In Pennsylvania, a highly successful Republican-led gerrymander has given the blue state’s congressional delegation a 13-5 Republican-tilt.
Wikimedia Commons

Gerrymandering is among the weak spots in our constitutional system of government.

Although it wasn’t intended or foreseen by the Framers of the Constitution, it popped up pretty early. In fact the process of manipulating the drawing of U.S. House district boundaries for partisan advantage is named for Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts, who actually attended the constitutional convention (although he was one of three who was present at the end but declined to sign the draft).

Anyway, skipping ahead two centuries, Democrats are understandably annoyed that despite the fact that Dem House candidates nationally received more aggregate votes than Repub candidates, the Republicans maintained a solid 234-201 majority.

Successful Republican gerrymandering had something to do with it, but I have previously argued that the gerrymandering was not only or primarily in producing that result is often overstated.

Article continues after advertisement

During the current shutdown mess, some liberals have embraced a second, related theory suggesting that not only did the Republican gerrymanderers manage to cobble together a majority of House seats out of a minority of House votes, but they also managed to create a large number of safe red districts packed with voters who are so far right that they produce congressmen who are either right-wing crazies or have to act like they are to fend off a Tea Party primary challenge.

This addition to the perceived woes of gerrymandering is not only overdone, it is more wrong than right, as Nate Cohn of The New Republic recently explained. From Cohn’s piece:

The fact that gerrymandering boosted the total number of House Republicans does not mean that gerrymandering made the GOP more likely to support extreme positions or shutdown the government. In fact, partisan gerrymandering usually reduces the number of extremely red districts. Why? Because the point of partisan gerrymandering isn’t to try and maximize the number of safe districts. The goal is to maximize the number of districts that are merely safe enough by packing as many of your opponents’ voters as you can into a small number of extremely partisan districts while safely distributing the rest throughout your own districts. In this way, gerrymandering may actually increase the number of moderate Republicans.

You can see this in Pennsylvania, where a highly successful Republican-led gerrymander has given the blue state’s congressional delegation a 13-5 Republican-tilt. One place where gerrymandering is most obvious is in the Philadelphia suburbs, which lean Democratic but are mainly represented by heavily gerrymandered Republican districts. In the current arrangement, Republicans packed many of the heavily Democratic inner suburbs into two Philadelphia-based districts and the 13th district, and then constructed snaking districts linking competitive suburbs with the more conservative countryside. But those additional Republican districts are still relatively moderate. And indeed, these GOP-leaning districts in the Philadelphia suburbs have elected some of the most moderate Republicans in the House, like Jim Gerlach, Michael Fitzpatrick, and Pat Meehan. All three support a clean CR. And most of the supporters of a clean CR hail from blue or purple states with Republican-led redistricting efforts.

So there’s a problem in believing that gerrymandering inflated the number of House Republicans, while also thinking that gerrymandering increased the number of ultraconservative, Tea Party Republicans. That may seem surprising, but it shouldn’t be. In many respects, the GOP’s divide between relative moderates and ultraconservatives also cuts across geographic and partisan lines. In the “fiscal cliff” deal, for instance, northern, blue state Republicans were far more likely to vote for the Senate compromise than their red state, Southern counterparts. And the number of northern Republicans has been meaningfully inflated by GOP-led redistricting efforts in states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Virginia, and Ohio. Without GOP-led redistricting in those blue or purple states, the inevitably conservative Republicans in red states, locked into ultraconservative districts by racial polarization and the Voting Rights Act, would constitute an even larger share of a somewhat smaller GOP caucus, making it even more difficult to reach compromises like the fiscal cliff deal. It would be more difficult to resolve the government shutdown or debt ceiling debacle.