Is there a “Blue Wall” of Democratic states that stands between Republicans and the presidency? How much has gerrymandering contributed to the disappearance of white Protestant southern Democrats from Congress? And is there anything practical that can be done to wean Washington away from its gridlock addiction?
Martin Frost, a former moderate Democratic congressman from Texas and co-author (with former moderate Republican congressman Tom Davis) of a book about the breakdown of bipartisanship in Congress, spoke at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey school Tuesday and touched on the three matters above. The first two were hardly his main points, but I found them intriguing. The gridlock/reform stuff is a major interest of mine and I’ll summarize his prescriptions at the bottom.
In passing, Frost mentioned that there are hardly any white Democrats representing the South in the U.S. House anymore. Basically, he said, “the only kind of seats you have in the South are seats that are safe for black Democrats and seats that are safe for Republicans.”
Although I’m aware of the issue, his statement seemed a little strong to me, so I did some counting on a map, and his slight overstatement is more true than false.
Frost also said that the Republican plan to use their power over the district maps to create safe seats for black Democrats was assisted — in some, not all, southern states — by the black politicians themselves.
First the numbers: If you look at the 12 states that made up the Confederacy, from Virginia down to Florida and west to Texas, they are currently represented by 138 members of the U.S. House (that’s 32 percent of the total House, by the way). Among those states (all of which were, for about a century after the Civil War, almost entirely dominated by Democrats), there are now 101 Republicans versus 37 Democrats.
Of the 101 Republican members of Congress from those states, 96 are white, four are Latino (all of those from Texas and Florida) and one is black (also Texans). Texas and Florida are the biggest states in the South, but also the least typical of the region demographically, with more whites and Latinos and fewer blacks. So, if for the sake of Frost’s main point, you remove them from the analysis, all of the Republican House members from the more typical southern states are white.
Of the 37 Democratic congressmen and women from the South, 18 are black, 15 are white and four are Latino (all Texans). There is at least one black Democrat in the House delegation of 10 of the 12 states (and one of those states, Arkansas, has no Democrats at all).
Frost mentioned that even among those few southern white Democrats, five are Jewish (four from Florida), which further differentiates the current makeup of southern House members from the old days when almost all were white, male, Protestant Democrats.
This giant partisan and demographic change from the old days reflects first the transfer of the whole region from Democratic to Republican domination, and the great increase in political possibilities for African-Americans and Latinos — and women and Jews, too — from the first two centuries of U.S. history when few members of any of those groups served in Congress.
But it also reflects, Frost said, a conscious plan by southern Republicans as they took over control of the legislatures in those states and thereby took over the control of the decennial drawing of the district maps.
Without question, Republicans were anxious to use that control to increase their share of overall seats in Congress. But I was struck by Frost’s statement that black politicians collaborated in the process, and I followed up with him to inquire about how that happened.
Frost said that the big change happened before Republican control of the southern legislatures was complete. As they came closer to majorities, Republicans approached their black Democratic colleagues and suggested that if they worked together and drew a few supermajority black districts, the new map would produce far more Republicans on net but also far more black members of Congress.
Although black representation in the legislatures was growing, white legislators who had previously controlled the maps had gone out of their way to avoid drawing majority-black congressional districts precisely to keep blacks from being elected from states that had long been dominated by white Democrats. Some black legislators resented that mightily and were open to cooperating with the idea of gerrymandering some districts to increase the number of black members of Congress.
Frost, who explained all this to me during our follow-up phone interview, said that this collaboration was controversial within the black community. John Lewis, the great civil rights leader who had worked closely with Dr. Martin Luther King, urged southern blacks not to make this bargain. But it nonetheless was made, and it ended up leading to Lewis himself being elected to Congress from an overwhelmingly black Georgia district in 1986, a district from which he has been reelected 14 times, surpassing 70 percent of the total vote in all but one of those campaigns. Now 76, Lewis is still in Congress and ranks 13th from the top of the House in seniority.
By the way, to tie all that into Frost’s theme of gridlock and its causes, the successful gerrymandering has contributed to a House map that is so favorable to Republicans that, in 2014, Republicans got 52 percent of all the votes cast in House races, but ended up with a strong 57 percent of House seats.
In 2012, Democrats actually got more total votes in House races than Republicans did but Republicans nonetheless won a substantial 54 percent majority of seats. If this seems like an outrage against a properly functioning democracy, and it probably is, bear in mind that the difference in total votes cast to House seats won is not all about gerrymandering. But it is surely a factor.
The ‘Blue Wall’
On an almost completely unrelated matter, Frost brought up the “Blue Wall” as a factor in presidential elections. I’ve heard of it before, but haven’t made up my mind how much I subscribe to it.
Over the last six presidential races from 1992 to 2012, Frost said, there are 18 states — including such giants as California and New York — that have gone blue all six times. Those states have a current combined total of 242 electoral votes. The Republican Party, by contrast, has won just 13 states in each of the last six election cycles, totaling 102 electoral votes.
It takes 270 votes to win the presidency, so if you assume that the Dem ticket starts out with 242, the Repubs practically have to run the table of remaining states to win.
The math is correct, but before you take it too seriously, consider at least these two things:
Thing One: Notwithstanding the Blue Wall, Republicans won two of those six elections (2000 and 2004), and they won in 2000 despite losing the popular vote. (Yes, I recall, the U.S. Supreme Court cast the final votes.) But it nonetheless suggests that the power of the Blue Wall is something less than a guaranteed lease on the Oval Office.
Thing Two: The blue side carried those 18 states six straight times, and sometimes by margins so wide that you would have to assume the Dems start out with a big advantage going forward. But some of those state races were squeakers. When Party A barely wins a state, Party B spends the next four years targeting it with a very real chance that they might take it the next time. The bad news on Thing Two for the Repubs is that the biggest two components of the Blue Wall — California and New York — have not been squeakers for a long time.
And the biggest reason to be skeptical of the Blue Wall, for political junkies like me and maybe you, too, is that Nate Silver — the guru of gurus on political math over recent cycles — doesn’t believe in it and wrote a piece headlined “There Is No ‘Blue Wall.’”
Silver notes that in the six elections ending in 1988 (in other words, just before the election that started the run of the Blue Wall), there were 21 states — including California — that had gone Republican six times in a row, and the Repubs had won five of those six elections. Then, starting in 1992, oops.
Congress in crisis
Third and final topic, which former Rep. Frost would probably have put first because it is the theme of his book and the cause for which crusades: Congress is broken. His book is titled “The Partisan Divide: Congress in Crisis.”
According to this analysis, with which I agree, our system is breaking down because the two parties have lost the ability to compromise. How did that happen? Frost and Davis start their analysis with the lack of competitive seats in the U.S. House. From the book:
Fully 80 percent of House districts are safe. We know which party is going to win in November. That means members worry about their primary election. That’s their concern. November is just a constitutional formality. They devote all of their attention, their votes, their rhetoric, to their primary voters who are narrow, thin ideological slice of the electorate and they act accordingly when they get to Congress.
To close, if all the big theories in this piece are correct, we have a system that is all but rigged to create a Republican-dominated House of Representatives that will be unsympathetic to the policies of a Blue-Wall-elected Democratic president. Some of those House members might be inclined to seek common ground in the middle, or to seek trades of things they favor for things the Democratic president favors. But if they want to keep their red-district seats, they don’t really have to worry about running against a Democrat who will accuse them of accomplishing nothing and shutting down the government. They have to worry about a Tea Party challenger in the primary who will accuse them of caving in to the socialist in the White House.
After listening to Frost’s lecture and interviewing him over the phone, our last exchange was by email. I asked him for the most concrete suggestions of things that can be done, shy of a constitutional amendment, to improve this situation. His reply:
“Legislation passed by Congress requiring all states to use non-partisan commissions when drawing Congressional districts and legislation by Congress requiring all organizations like 501(c)(4)s to report all donors by name and amount to the FEC when these organizations purchase any ads mentioning a federal candidate by name, a rule adopted by the FEC better defining what constitutes coordination between a candidate and a candidate specific SuperPAC.”
By the way, Frost’s own career in Congress ended in 2004 as the result of an aggressive redrawing of his district by Texas Republicans.