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Debunking the Redistricting Myth

There's no question that Republicans are benefiting from having redistricting occur after the November election and not before it. But there is a difference between being better off and being in good shape.
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As we march closer to a November election that's shaping up to be punishing for Democrats, there's been increasing discussion about a growing redistricting opportunity for the GOP. Many have suggested that if Republicans are able to retake the majority in Congress this fall, they'll be able to maintain that majority over the long-term, largely as a result of a subsequent redistricting process they expect to control. Some have even argued that Republicans could gain the power to draw as many as 25 congressional districts in their favor.

There's no question that Republicans are benefiting from having redistricting occur after the November election and not before it. With a number of prognosticators predicting Republicans to win as many as eight governorships and a dozen state houses around the country, the GOP is all-but-certain to enter the redistricting process stronger than Democrats would have hoped.

But there is a difference between being better off and being in good shape. Things could have been worse for Republicans, to be sure, but even in this environment, the upcoming redistricting is sure to provide a boost, not for Republicans, but for Democrats. A closer look at the data suggests that Republicans will almost certainly find themselves in a worse situation after the 2011 redistricting than they were in after the 2001 redistricting.

The Republican Party was dominant back in 2001; conservatives saw their redistricting opportunity that year as the best in five decades. But in the years since, Democratic party popularity surged: In the last three election cycles Democrats picked up 374 state house seats and 68 state senate seats across the country, moving to a point where the party controlled twice as many state legislatures as Republicans. The GOP will cut into those gains this fall, but it won't come close to fully reversing them. And that, inevitably, will make things far better for Democrats this time around.

How much better? I'm glad you asked.

There are 36 states that participate in a traditional redistricting process, with state legislatures drawing new maps for the governor's approval or veto. The rest of the states either have bipartisan or independent commissions draw new lines, or have such small populations that they have just one at-large congressional seat.

But in terms of understanding the impact of redistricting, we want to look at a more narrow grouping of states than these 36. Many of these states have five congressional districts or fewer, which makes it very difficult for politicians of either party to gerrymander in ways that produce significantly different outcomes.

That leaves us with 23 states that will be at the center of the redistricting battle.

Using Nate Silver's gubernatorial projections and Louis Jacobson's state legislative predictions, we find that Democrats will be in a better position during this redistricting in at least 8 states, and, depending on the outcome in November, could very well be in better shape in as many as 11 states. Republicans, on the other hand, will find themselves in an improved partisan environment in just 6 states. They can get to 8, but only if they win the gubernatorial races in California and Maryland. The rest of the states are expected to have partisan advantages that are more or less the same as they were in 2001.

The states where Republicans are expected to be better positioned (Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, Missouri, Tennessee, and South Carolina) are midsized states, with an average of only about 8 congressional districts each.

The states where Democrats are expected to improve, on the other hand, (Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, Virginia, and Michigan) include a significant number of very large states, with an average of about 17 congressional districts.

This breakdown alone would suggest that Democrats will have the ability to draw a map that is more favorable to them. But that's not the only reason Democrats should be excited about the outcome of redistricting.

Over the last ten years, 80 percent of the population growth in this country has come from minorities, overwhelmingly in metropolitan areas. When states like Texas are awarded new congressional districts (they are expected to get four this cycle), those districts will have to be drawn in the same metropolitan areas where such high minority population growth is occurring. Barack Obama won 80 percent of the minority vote. He won every major city in Texas except Fort Worth. This means that these new districts are going to be drawn in areas that are going to be highly populated with Democrats, ones that are almost certainly going to send Democrats to Congress. This, of course, will play out beyond Texas. In fact, of the 10 new districts expected to be allocated, there is reason to believe that at least 8 of them will end up in Democratic hands.

I don't mean to understate the power of gerrymandering. But even gerrymandering can't solve this problem for the Republican Party. In the middle of last decade, when Tom Delay and state Republican leaders redrew the Texas state map in a way that removed half a dozen Democratic seats, they didn't touch the minority districts already in place. Why? Because they were concerned that doing so would invoke the Voting Rights Act and send the newly drawn map to the courts, where it would likely be redrawn by judges. (If that happened in 2011, Democrats could gain as many as 10 seats in Texas.) During the 2011 redistricting, it won't just be the already existing minority districts that Republicans will have to avoid. It will be the new ones too. With the vast majority of the population growth coming from minorities, the vast majority of the new districts are likely to require minority representation. And for the first time since the Voting Rights Act was passed, the Attorney General in charge of overseeing the process will have been appointed by a Democratic president.

It's worth noting that in addition to having some states gain seats, others, like Ohio and Michigan, are expected to lose seats. But even if taken to the extreme--even if Republicans are able to ensure, in each case, that a Democratic seat gets erased, that still won't do as much for the Republican Party as they think. Such a district is likely to be erased in predominantly white, rural areas, where population has declined over the last decade. That means that the Democratic districts that will be erased are more likely to be moderate ones, the kinds that Blue Dogs represent.

But these disappearing districts are being replaced in parts of the country where population growth is high and minority-driven. That creates a surprisingly beneficial system for Democrats in which we replace a Blue Dog seat in Michigan with a progressive, minority-represented seat in Arizona. By the time redistricting is over, not only will Democrats have secured for themselves a far more favorable map, they will have also gone through a process that will unify their caucus, increasing the number of seats where progressives can win, in exchange for decreasing the number of seats where Blue Dogs can win.

It's a one-two punch for Democrats, and a reason to be optimistic. Republicans can keep beating their redistricting drum. They can keep making the argument that they will once again wield the pen in their favor during redistricting. But, as is so often the case with Republicans, they are wrong, and are peddling nothing more than a myth.


You can see the state-by-state breakdown here. (PDF)

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