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Liberals overstate GOP gerrymandering’s role in shutdown

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

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.

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.

Comments (31)

  1. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/07/2013 - 10:11 am.

    Point taken

    that gerrymandering has most of its effect on the election of moderate Republicans.
    However, if the Republicans did not control the House, Tea Party Republicans would have very little impact. It’s all the moderate Republicans letting themselves be bullied by the TP minority that give the TP power.

    • Submitted by Ken Bearman on 10/07/2013 - 11:17 am.


      Those “moderate” Republicans in the U.S. House caucus with the rest of the GOPers, elect the Speaker and other leadership, and don’t vote opposite their caucus instructions. If they had any power in their caucus, wouldn’t they exercise it if they were dissatisfied with the way things are happening?

      To put it another way, doesn’t the way they’re (not) acting suggest that they’re OK with things or, as Mr. Brandon wrote, that they’re intimidated by the TPers and the leadership?

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 10/07/2013 - 10:20 am.

    Maybe so…

    …but you still have to love the blue district at right-center of the Pennsylvania map. Looks like a watershed map of a mountain river rather than being “compact,” as they’re typically expected to be.

    Cohn makes sense, but the “suicide caucus,” regardless of how it came about, could still end up creating a world-wide depression that might even affect some of those southern congressional districts.

  3. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 10/07/2013 - 11:07 am.

    In a “safe” district, how do you differentiate yourself from the other candidates? Especially when there is a whole media structure based on demonizing the opposing party?

    Become more Catholic than the Pope, that’s how.

    Moderation becomes the enemy.

    How does any country tip in extremist rule? By the demonizing of moderates into the enemy.

    I see absolute no inherent contradiction between extremism and “safe” districts. It could work the other way, just as easily, if the drumbeat of media supported extremism wasn’t present.

  4. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 10/07/2013 - 11:38 am.

    Changing Tide

    This suggests that the GOP may well overplay their hand, and in doing so put a significant number of districts in play for 2014. Rather than taking over the Senate, they may lose the House. A look back to 2012 and 2010, when they were “almost certain” to take the Senate shows how predicting these elections months in advance is a humbling undertaking.

    • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 10/07/2013 - 12:52 pm.

      A year from now

      when the elections are held, we will have a year of experience with Obamacare fully implemented. We should hold our predictions until we see whether the democrats are scrambling to defend it or the republicans are successfully saying “I told you so.”

  5. Submitted by Rich Crose on 10/07/2013 - 11:47 am.

    Wingnuts Want to Live Together

    David Brooks from the NY Times noted that we’re also seeing an actual physical migration of the population. Lefties moving to the cities, Righties moving to the suburbs. Country folk no longer have to travel to the big cities when there’s a Walmart in the next town. City people vacation in exurban enclaves of people who agree with them.

    It makes sense. Why would a gay couple move to the Bible Belt? Why would a suburban couple move to the inner city?

    • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 10/07/2013 - 05:26 pm.

      It’s certainly consistent

      with my theory of collectivist behavior versus individualist behavior. The collectivists huddle together for safety, while the individualists just want to be left alone.

      • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 10/08/2013 - 06:02 am.

        A Collectivist

        Is an individualist who needs Medicare. Such as Ayn Rand, who, were she alive in 2009, would have been demanding we to “keep government out of healthcare and don’t touch my Medicare.”

        Anyone with a Medicare card in their pocket is a collectivist.

        • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 10/08/2013 - 10:31 am.

          Medicare is an insurance program

          that people pay for like any other insurance program.

          The reason Medicare isn’t criticized by conservatives is because it’s been voluntary. That’s right, you don’t have to enroll in Medicare at all if you prefer to use private insurance, which removes it from the stigma that exists with other, mandatory government programs. Of course, with Obamacare, that will probably change too.

          • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/08/2013 - 06:29 pm.

            Actually it’s not that simple

            You still must pay for it (at least in part) for Part A — it is not funded solely by employee premiums.
            Part B is supported by a separate trust fund, also supported by a number of sources including both employee and employer contributions.

            You may refuse to accept direct payments from Medicare, but to be cure you would also have to patronize only hospitals and physicians who had NO connection of any sort to Medicare funding. Good luck.

            So, while you might (at considerable cost to your health) refuse to accept Medicare services that you have paid for, if you receive any sort of medical care in the United States you will be involved in some way with Medicare.

            So, if you are paid by the U of M, they are making contributions to Medicare, whether you enroll or not.

      • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/08/2013 - 09:54 am.

        The tragedy of science:

        The death of a beautiful theory at the hands of a cold hard fact.

        And if you vant to be alone, find yourself an island and stop benefiting from the infrastructure that the rest of us are paying for.

        • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 10/08/2013 - 10:33 am.

          You’d have to be out of touch

          with reality if you don’t know that already happens … as scary as that sounds to “some people.”

  6. Submitted by James Hamilton on 10/07/2013 - 12:33 pm.

    How, then, do we explain Minnesota’s 6th District?

    If ever a district were designed to enshrine a conservative Republican seat, this must be it.

    • Submitted by Ken Bearman on 10/07/2013 - 04:21 pm.

      Minnesota wasn’t gerrymandered

      The 6th District wasn’t designed to do anything specific like that. For the last three census-required redistrictings, everything at the state level — including the U.S. House districts — was drawn by the Courts, not the legislators. They had defined criteria to guide them, not partisan desires.

      • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/08/2013 - 09:57 am.

        more or less

        The court commission started with the existing districts and tweaked them to be closer to their criteria.
        There were many more dramatic changes proposed assumed a start ex nihilo.

        • Submitted by Pat Berg since 2011 on 10/09/2013 - 06:32 am.

          History of the 6th

          It would be interesting to see a series of maps illustrating the actual changes to the shape of the 6th district over the years. A quick Google search didn’t yield one, but I’m sure the information is out there for someone with a little time to dig it up (which is not me at the moment).

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/07/2013 - 05:20 pm.

      Michelle Bachmann

      could make any district Democratic 😉

  7. Submitted by Dan Hintz on 10/07/2013 - 12:37 pm.


    It should be beyond dispute that GOP control of the house exists because of Gerrymandering and the shutdown happened because of GOP control of the house. Given that, I don’t know how “liberals” are overstating anything. The “moderate” GOP reps are just as responsible as the teabaggers because they lack the courage to stand up to them.

    Eric, you are trying to hard to appear fair. You of all people know that the fact that there are two sides doesn’t mean the sides are equally right or wrong. Just stick with the truth.

  8. Submitted by Mark Viste on 10/07/2013 - 01:08 pm.

    Math seems off

    The math of the argument seems off to me. True, to gerrymander ideally you want your opponent districts to be 100% opponent voters and your district to be 50% plus a comfortable margin for your voters. But how conservative or liberal the representative selected actually is won’t be decided by that ratio. It will be decided by the group that shows up for the primary, caucus, or what-have-you, which will have a much different makeup.

    I have no idea if that ends up mattering, but it seems to me it’s a necessary part of the analysis.

  9. Submitted by David Frenkel on 10/07/2013 - 06:12 pm.

    outside political influence

    what of the many things that has changed American politics are political lobbying organizations from outside a particular legislative district that influence elections with money. If a moderate Republican speaks his/her mind and offends one of these wealthy and influential political interest groups there is a good chance they will be defeated.

  10. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 10/07/2013 - 06:40 pm.

    My admittedly limited experience with the caucus system provided ample evidence that the people who show up for caucuses, and even for primaries sometimes, are the zealots. They’re the people who think Michele Bachmann would make a good President because she’s always truthful, or that only liberals actually love their children.

    I agree with Mark Viste that the preliminaries ought to be part of the analysis, but when we’re this far out from a presidential year, the word “prediction” needs to be replaced with the word “guess.”

    I also agree with Mr. Tester’s first sentence, though, as is often the case, the remainder of his comment smacks more of hope than reality. If he’s correct, then yes, the Affordable Care Act may end up being an electoral albatross. On the other hand, if the system works as intended once the initial glitches are worked out, and instead of Democrats scrambling to defend the system while Republicans smugly observe “I told you so,” it’s the Republicans scrambling to justify their opposition while Democrats smugly intone “I told you so” while millions of Americans gain access to health care that was unavailable to them previously, it’s Mr. Tester who may have to endure another serving of crow on his plate.

    But it all remains to be seen, as he suggested. Some time will have to pass to see if the law works or not. Of course, the current Republican stance that the law won’t be *allowed* to work because they’ve vowed to destroy the economy before letting the ACA at least try to do what was intended puts more than a thumb on the scale. It’s hard to blame the runner for failing to finish the race when her opponent shoots her in both legs at the starting line.

    I do think Eric’s headline is probably at least close to the truth, and that gerrymandering by Republicans, while certainly partly responsible, doesn’t explain the whole country’s drift to the right over the past generation. A lot of Republican Congressmen and women are in safe districts because most of the population growth over the past half century has been in the suburbs, which are demonstrably more to the right than big cities. I lay much of the blame for that rightward drift directly at the feet of network television executives, whom I hold responsible for the subversion of genuine journalism on TV to the pablum of “infotainment” that makes up local and national newscasts now.

  11. Submitted by Harris Goldstein on 10/07/2013 - 08:26 pm.

    A distinction without a difference

    I fail to see the practical difference between “maximize the number of safe districts” and “maximize the number of districts that are merely safe enough”.

    Further, when you recognize that, in a safe (or safe enough) district, the primary is the election – plus the fact that only the most ardent show up for the primary – you see how we got into this mess. The number of moderate Republicans who tack even further right because of the fear of primary challenge bears this out.

    In another day and age, it was a Democrat issue. Now it’s a Republican issue. The penalties (or rewards) of the 2014 election will prove whether this is a good strategy. Tactically, the Republican House picked the wrong presidential term (2nd, not 1st) to do this.

  12. Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 10/07/2013 - 08:36 pm.

    Nice Try!

    The point is if it didn’t work they wouldn’t do it!

    We are in a red-blue world whether we like it or not, your article/opinion pushes only: red and blue solutions.

    We don’t have the rainbow coalition, or the ability to be other than, and the media continues to hammer that point home, they want a continuing war an epic battle, and recent elections continue to prove that fact: We get polar red or polar blue.

    When was the last time that anyone could discuss any topic form a position of principle or rationale discussion, W/O being branded “Liberal or Conservative” not allowed, as a country we are not allowed to weigh anything on merit only red-blue. It works to very simply answer all questions, i.e red-blue ignorance rules.

  13. Submitted by jason myron on 10/07/2013 - 08:50 pm.

    There is of course,

    one other choice that Mr. Tester conveniently neglected to mention…the distinct possibility that Republicans will be scrambling to take credit for the ACA…”well, it was originally, our idea….”

    • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 10/08/2013 - 11:39 am.

      Don’t hold your breath

      No conservative ever supported mandatory, socialized medicine.

      • Submitted by Ken Bearman on 10/08/2013 - 03:18 pm.

        The ACA is not socialized medicine

        If it were, the doctors, nurses, and other medical providers would be federal government employees — as in the VA medical system. But they aren’t, and the government doesn’t own or control the drug companies either.

        The ACA will put big money into Big Pharma and big health insurance companies — buy UHC and Aetna stock. It won’t add doctors or nurses to the federal payroll. (And neither would universal single payer health insurance, which also ins’t “socialized medicine”.)

        Throwing around the word “socialism” and trying to make it stick to everything has been a bad habit for people like Mr. Tester going back at least to the Red Scare and McCarthyism days. Try facts for a change.

        As for “mandatory”, how about this deal for Americans, Mr. T.: If you don’t have health insurance and you need health care, show them the money at the ER before they’ll treat you? That’s what your position seems to amount to. It might work for wealthy people, but it won’t for middle class people who lost their job or don’t get insurance or a big salary from their employer.

      • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 10/09/2013 - 10:22 am.

        Let go of that notion

        Sooner or later, you will have to admit that Obamacare is the plan originally promoted by the Heritage Foundation.

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