Redistricting: Fact and Fiction

REDISTRICTING: FACT AND FICTION….Is gerrymandering responsible for the fact that it’s virtually impossible nowadays to defeat an incumbent in the House of Representatives? Reporters and pundits seem to accept this without question, but academic research suggests otherwise. For example, Alan Abramowitz, an Emory political science professor who’s studied the decline in competitive seats, recently published a paper concluding that redistricting has had “little to do with the recent decline in competition in House elections. Other developments, such as the growing financial advantage of incumbents and increasing partisanship in the electorate, appear to be more responsible.” He figures that only 12% of the decline in marginal districts has been a result of redistricting.

Still, 12% is 12%, and when the House is split as evenly as it is now that can make the difference between being in the majority and being in the minority ? something that Republicans seem to understand better than Democrats. In “The Race to Gerrymander,” in our November issue, Rachel Morris provides a fascinating 20-year history of Republican efforts to gain control of state legislatures in 1990 and again in 2000 so that they’d be the ones in control of redistricting:

Republicans prepared earlier and poured money into the 2000 legislative elections in critical states like Pennsylvania. Some Democrats, particularly [Martin] Frost, advocated a similarly ambitious approach, but the 1994 wipeout had thrown the party into something of a tailspin, and for the next few years presidential contests consumed much of its energy and money. Eventually Democrats did devote considerable attention to state elections and preparing for the census, but they had already lost valuable time.

After 2000, Democrats found themselves entirely locked out of redistricting in four large swing states where Republicans had won all three branches of government: Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida. ?In those states we got hammered,? one Democratic redistricting operative said.

It may be that Republican gerrymandering has produced a net gain of no more than 20 seats for the GOP over the past couple of decades. Still, that’s enough, and it’s one of the reasons I think Howard Dean’s focus on rebuilding state party infrastructure is so pivotal. When 2010 rolls around Democrats need to be in a position to compete in every state, either to gain control of the redistricting process outright or to at least win enough control to prevent Republicans from dominating the process the way they have for the past two cycles. 2004 was none too soon to start working on that.

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