Throughout the latter half of the Obama era, many Democrats have pointed to GOP-led gerrymandering to explain their party’s weakness in state legislatures and the House of Representatives. And not without reason: Because Republicans won big in 2010, the decennial redistricting produced lines that favored Republican candidates in some states.
But the most important stumbling block to Democratic legislative power is geography, not gerrymandering. In Governing magazine, Alan Greenblatt takes a look at Iowa, a state where Democrats have been wiped out despite a “scrupulously nonpartisan” redistricting process:
A couple of decades ago, half the Democrats in the Iowa Senate represented rural areas. By the time the last session got underway, there were only two Democrats left from the mostly sparsely populated counties west of Interstate 35. Now, there are none. The inability of Iowa Democrats to compete throughout an entire half of the state is a big reason why the GOP took over the state Senate in November.
All over the country, Democrats have a similar geography problem. With an overwhelming share of their voters living within a limited number of metropolitan districts, it’s hard for them to compete in broad swaths of territory elsewhere. This handicap, which has made the U.S. House into something resembling a fortress for Republicans, is making it increasingly difficult for Democrats to win legislative chambers.
As Greenblatt notes, 1990s-era Democrats still had a strong presence in rural areas. But as the party moved to accommodate a more urban and liberal electoral base, its support outside of major metropolitan areas faded, especially during the Obama years.
Territorial representation penalizes parties for failing to build geographically broad political coalitions. So matter how lopsided a majority the Democrats can build in places like Des Moines, they will always be hamstrung if they can’t win compete less-densely populated areas as well.
While Democrats are right to demand fair redistricting procedures, the case of Iowa is a reminder that their problems go much deeper. The path out of the wilderness doesn’t just involve fighting gerrymandering; it also involves winning back voters who are not sold on the kind of liberal cosmopolitanism that is popular in big cities and university towns.