Redistricting and the “Natural” Republican Bias of the House

As I noted in the Lunch Buffet, there’s been a simmering argument going on for a good while about the relative contribution of redistricting to the advantage Republicans appear to have in the fight for control of the U.S. House (viz. the inability of Democrats to make major gains in 2012 despite winning a plurality of the national House popular vote). Nate Cohn is the latest of many analysts and political scientists to argue that it’s the “clustering” of Democratic votes in big cites that’s most responsible for the “inefficiency” of their House votes, with redistricting playing a real but decidedly less important role.

Slate‘s Dave Weigel responds today with what is in my mind a convincing demonstration that there’s nothing automatic or even “normal” about “clustered” votes in heavily Democratic urban districts. As Maryland’s Democratic redistricting plan illustrated in spreading votes from large and heavily Democratic Montgomery County, it would be entirely possible to achieve very different results in states like Pennsylvania if not for Republican control of state government.

At Ten Miles Square, Jonathan Bernstein concedes Weigel has a point, but argues that local political factors are always going to make the kind of highly sophisticated gerrymander pulled off by Maryland Democrats unusual.

Here’s what I’d add in support of Weigel’s side of this argument. What haunts this discussion is not only the ghost of an “ideal” or “natural” map for this or that state, but also the ghost of some uniform pattern for redistricting that inhibits this or that gerrymandering strategy. It’s pretty clear to me that state legislators learn from their mistakes and adjust their redistricting strategies. In the 1990s cycle, for example, African-American Democrats often cooperated with Republicans in “packing” black voters into urban districts where black House incumbents could be made perfectly safe–at the expense of Democratic prospects in the districts thereby “bleached.” In the next decennial redistricting cycle, black and white Democrats tended to work together more effectively on redistricting, and Democratic incumbents were less selfish in trying to maximize their own margins.

Meanwhile, in the 00s redistricting cycle Republicans gambled by aiming at making the maximum number of districts competitive in many states where they controlled the process, which paid off temporarily in 2002 and 2004. But by failing to protect enough incumbents, GOPers helped make the Democratic sweep of 2006 possible. In this latest round of redistricting, Republicans focused far more on shoring up vulnerable incumbents, which has limited GOP gains but made them more durable.

The point is that the ingenuity of gerrymandering is limited more by imagination than by any “natural” strategies or even by candidate selfishness. Give Democrats a very strong majority of state governments in 2020, and I strongly suspect they’ll cooperate to deal with the “clustering” problem much as Marylanders did in 2011.

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.