A Liberal Talking Point Put to Rest

During the second half of the Obama era, it became an article of faith among many Democrats that Republicans had essentially stolen the House of Representatives and polarized the government by nefariously redrawing district lines in their party’s favor. But it was always clear to impartial observers that the impact of gerrymandering had been greatly exaggerated, and that demographic changes in the distribution of the population played a far greater role. A new analysis from the nonpartisan Cook Political Report confirms this:

As it turns out, gerrymandering wasn’t as much of a factor in the House’s polarization as some redistricting reform advocates might argue. Of the 92 “Swing Seats” that have vanished since 1997, 83 percent of the decline has resulted from natural geographic sorting of the electorate from election to election, while only 17 percent of the decline has resulted from changes to district boundaries.

This doesn’t mean that gerrymandering isn’t worth paying attention to. The decline in competitive seats over the last two decades has been significant and regrettable, and even a 17 percent contribution from redistricting chicanery is too high. And because Republicans have more power in the states, recent redistricting has favored the GOP, on the whole: The report estimates that “the number of Republican (R+5 or greater) seats has grown by 14 as the result of changes to district lines, while the number of Democratic (D+5 or greater) seats has increased by just two.”

But however comforting it might be to imagine that Congressional polarization is the result of reversible partisan machinations, the fact is that it has much more to do with broad-based geographical sorting. Democrats trying to break out of their “built-in” disadvantage in the House and state legislatures should spend less time railing against gerrymandering and more time trying to reach voters outside of their dense, hyper-sorted urban strongholds.

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