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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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  • Andrew Allison

    The big (really big) problem with gerymandering is the decline in competitive seats referred to. Far too many seats (on both sides) are non-competitive, which means that their occupants can afford to be less responsive to the needs of their constituencies (and more partisan).

    • William

      “… less responsive to the needs of their constituencies (and more partisan).” Strange statement, the constituents desire, need extreme partisanship and is the reason their representative continually is reelected.

      • Andrew Allison

        Nope. The boundaries are drawn to include a majority of voters who vote one way or the other regardless of how partisan they are.

    • rheddles

      shhhhh! Don’t mention majority minority districts so we have diversity.

  • ——————————

    “And because Republicans have more power in the states, recent redistricting has favored the GOP, on the whole:”

    The Dems control the media and Hollywood, so….

  • Suzy Dixon

    We can talk about gerrymandering after the voter rolls are cleaned up.

  • Angel Martin

    A liberal talking point…” ?

    Phil Burton was the father of all this, and liberals loved it as long as it benefitted them.

  • William

    The Democrats controlled the House of Representatives from 1955 – 1995, forty years. Did Democrats complain about gerrymandering during though 40 years or was the reason for the success due to policy? The Republicans controlled the House of Representatives from 1995 – 2007 then from 2011 – present. Insignificant relative time for complaining about gerrymandering compared to Democrat time of control. Clearly from the Democrat viewpoint, when they are in power for enormous time periods the reason is policy; when Republicans are in power for relatively minor periods the reason is gerrymandering.

    The Democrat Left which refuses to be self critical for its severe political failure will some join the Whigs in America’s dustbin of history. (e.g. blaming their failure on gerrymandering and other nefarious Republican fascist tricks).

  • New Commenter

    A number of other researchers have pointed this out for years. Here’s one from the NY Times in 2014

  • gabrielsyme

    Another, more scientific study, found that the Republicans gained ~5 seats in states they controlled through gerrymandering, the Democrats gained ~3 seats from gerrymandering the states they controlled, and Democrats gained ~2 seats through pre-clearance requirements for minority-majority districts. Another false Democratic talking point:

  • Yellow Car

    Good, but I still think we need redistricting reform:

    “After Congress has assigned each State the correct number of seats for the House of Representatives based on the Census, the Legislators of each State shall determine the boundaries for their Congressional Districts. The boundaries of each District must be contiguous. Race, ethnicity, age, and income cannot be used to determine District boundaries. The widest gap between the least populous District and the most populous District in each State shall be one thousand people.”

    – A New Constitution For A Free People

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