Confusion Over “Partisan Gerrymandering”

After days and days of MSM analysts blaming the government shutdown on “partisan gerrymandering” by Republicans that insulated their House members from public opinion, somebody had to point out the rampant confusion about what partisanship in redistricting involves, and TNR’s Nate Cohn was up to the task:

[T]he fact that gerrymandering boosted the total number of House Republicans does not mean that gerrymandering made the GOP more likely to support extreme positions or shutdown the government. In fact, partisan gerrymandering usually reduces the number of extremely red districts. Why? Because the point of partisan gerrymandering isn’t to try and maximize the number of safe districts. The goal is to maximize the number of districts that are merely safe enough by packing as many of your opponents’ voters as you can into a small number of extremely partisan districts while safely distributing the rest throughout your own districts. In this way, gerrymandering may actually increase the number of moderate Republicans.

While Nate’s basically right, there are, in fact, different kinds of “partisanship gerrymandering,” some done for the benefit of incumbents and some for the party as a whole. The bigger problem with blaming polarization on gerrymandering is that the evidence is at best mixed that Republicans in safer seats are more conservative than those in relatively competitive seats. In fact, competitive-seat Republicans sometimes have a very practical incentive to go wingnutty: it’s good for volunteer recruitment and small-donor fundraising.

In any event, polarization of the population, which reduces the number of “median voters” on which the ancient “median voter” theory of centripetal pressure on the parties is based, may be as big or bigger a factor as anything mechanical–or fixable–like gerrymandering in creating the kind of atmosphere we have in Washington today.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.