Gerrymandering (Probably) Won’t Give Republicans the House

The sort of good news about the new Census numbers and recent history shows that performance matters more than map drawing.

Democrats have been terrified that their narrow House majority could vanish after the 2022 midterm elections.

There’s the usual midterm pummeling of a president’s party. And thanks to post-Census gerrymandering and reapportionment of the nation’s House seats. “Democrats face a daunting future of severe Republican gerrymandering that could flip control of the House in 2022,” warned The Atlantic’s Ron Brownstein in February. “ Said The Intercept’s Ryan Grim, in his Bad News newsletter, “blue states are losing seats, and red states are gaining seats. That shift alone could easily wipe out the party’s majority, especially when you add in gerrymandering.”

On Monday, the Census Bureau announced the reapportionment results. And the new maps don’t look all that daunting.

States that lost one House seat were a mix of blue (California, Illinois, and New York), purple (Michigan, Pennsylvania) and red (Ohio, West Virginia.) Similarly, some blue states gained a seat (Colorado, Oregon), as well as purple-ish (Florida, North Carolina) and red (Montana). The still fairly red Texas gained two. (Note that these numbers also change each state’s Electoral College votes; Trump-won states net gained three such votes, though those states may not stay red for long.)

However, you can’t just look at the presidential results to project how a state’s House maps will be redrawn. The Democratic-controlled state governments of New York and Illinois will likely take out their lost seats on Republicans, and could further redraw their lines to deprive Republicans of additional safe seats. West Virginia has an all-Republican congressional delegation, so the GOP is certain to lose a seat there.

Oregon’s Democrats recently agreed to let Republicans have equal representation on the redistricting committee (in exchange for the cessation of dilatory tactics in the state legislature) increasing the chances its new district will lean Republican. Montana has an independent redistricting commission, with a court-appointed chair (and potential tie-breaking vote) who is a woman with a long history in Native American tribal law and who worked with the ACLU of Montana’s Racial Justice Project. (The state GOP chair accused her of having a “blatant partisan past” but she responded, “I do causes more than political parties.”) With Montana’s Democrats concentrated in the western half of the state, the possibility exists for a new district that is at least competitive.

States with no changes to their House seats can also redraw their lines, and Republicans control more state redistricting processes than Democrats.

In some cases, highly partisan, extreme gerrymanders may be pursued—by both parties. But any extreme gerrymander involves risk—spreading your voters too thinly across district lines, and leaving your party’s House members more vulnerable to political and demographic shifts. Instead, parties may prioritize fortifying their incumbents, at the expense of trying to win more seats, by padding existing districts with more reliable partisan voters.

Demographic movement, along with the anomalies of the short-lived Trump Era, will also greatly complicate any gerrymandering attempts. As Politico’s Ally Mutnick and Elena Schneider observed, redistricting politicians won’t be able to easily extrapolate voting patterns from our recent election results: “both parties’ strategists know that if they make bad bets, drawing districts based on elections that were driven more by Trump’s singular personality than by trends that will persist until 2030, those mistakes could swing control of the House against them over the next decade.”

We can’t know exactly what each state will do. But, after accounting for the newly announced reapportionment, Cook Political Report’s Dave Wasserman estimates Republicans will net three or four seats from redistricting (while offering a range of zero to eight.) Real Clear Politics’ Sean Trende similarly estimates a net gain of four from a “normal redistricting,” in which Republicans do not pursue extreme gerrymanders.

A four-seat net gain from reapportionment and redistricting would help Republicans take the House in 2022 but they need to net five seats. (That number could change depending on how the parties fare in upcoming special elections to fill House vacancies. Democrats have two outside chances this year to flip Republican-held seats, in Texas’s sixth district and Ohio’s fifteenth district. Republicans are not expected to win the specials for three Democratic-held vacant seats.)

If Wasserman’s upper bound estimates prove correct, Republicans could gerrymander their way to a House takeover, but such a victory could prove pyrrhic.

In the previous decade, after Republicans took the House in the “Tea Party” wave of 2010, they sought to hold on to their House majority with, as dubbed by Sam Wang of the Princeton Election Consortium, the “Great Gerrymander of 2012.” After that 2012 House election, Democrats were irate because they won a 48.8 percent plurality of the House vote while Republicans snatched 53.8 percent of the House seats.

However, we haven’t experienced a non-majoritarian House result since. When Democrats won control of the House in 2018 and 2020, their share of the popular vote (53.4 percent and 50.3 percent, respectively) was roughly equal to their share of the House seats (54 percent and 51 percent, respectively).

The Democrats won their fair share on those Great Gerrymandered maps. Granted, Democrats were able to undo a few Republican gerrymanders via litigation, netting one Virginia seat in 2016, three Pennsylvania seats in 2018, and two North Carolina seats in 2020. But Democrats broke through in 2018 after net gaining a combined 47 House seats in that election and the one prior—similar to how the Republicans broke through in 2010, before the Great Gerrymander, with a net gain of 63 seats.

In other words, the 2012 lines, like battle lines in war, didn’t hold. People move. Old folks die. Youngsters reach legal voting age. Most importantly, political winds shift. The 2010 and 2018 waves happened largely because of negative public sentiment towards the person in the Oval Office energizing the opposition base, deflating the president’s base and swinging swing voters.

A few gerrymandering knife fights can prove decisive in a narrow election. If Democrats hadn’t undone those six gerrymanders last decade, Republicans would have taken the House in 2020. But the tendency for Democrats to attribute the GOP’s electoral success to gerrymandering is enormously overstated.

None of the above should be taken as an argument against the use of independent redistricting commissions. The case against one party drawing district lines to benefit itself stands on its own merits. But Democrats should not presume gerrymandering has broken democracy to such a degree that Democrats can’t win elections and the popular will cannot be exercised through the ballot box.

Gerrymandering will only impact House elections on the margins. Meanwhile, the midterms will primarily be won or lost based on party performance, perceptions of which will drive partisan turnout and swing voter behavior. That’s what flipped the House in 2010 and 2018, not gerrymandering. So, Democrats, no need to panic over the stalled For the People Act, or HR1, and its national ban on gerrymandering. Delivering economic prosperity should remain the Democrats’ top priority. Cartographers won’t make or break the party.

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Bill Scher

Bill Scher is the host of the history podcast "When America Worked" and the co-host of bipartisan online show and podcast "The DMZ"