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Want A Democratic House Majority? Then Spread Out Of The Cities

January 31, 2014

While it’s easy to blame gerrymandering (partisan state legislatures drawing congressional district borders benefiting the ruling majority party) for  the Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives, new research by Jowei Chen, assistant professor of political science at the University of Michigan, and Jonathan Rodden, professor of political science at Stanford University and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, shows the real problem may be Democrats are too densely populated for their own good.

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A recent study shows it’s not gerrymandered districts that put the Republicans into the majority in the U.S. House of Representative, but the concentration of Democrats in urban areas.

Republican control of the House of Representatives is only through the folly of gerrymandering, say critics, because the Republicans won a majority of House seats while gaining only a minority of the popular vote in the 2012 presidential election.  The GOP controls the majority of state legislatures and had the keys to the redistricting process after the 2010 Census.

In “Don’t Blame the Maps,” their January 26, 2014 op-ed piece in the New York Times, the professors lay out their case for disproving the GOP redistricting conspiracy.  Using advanced computer algorithms, the duo ran thousands of redistricting scenarios and inserted the voting patterns of the 2008 election.  In such states as Indiana and Missouri, ones with Republican controlled legislatures that were battlegrounds for the Obama-McCain contest, there were 17 House races, only four went Democratic, not surprisingly in the cities of St. Louis, Kansas City, Gary and Indianapolis.  But additional simulated less partisan mapping produced an extra Dem victory only in St. Louis and Indy, and not in all of the scenarios.

In real life, ruling parties, both Democratic and Republican, employ sophisticated computer mapping to create some Swiss cheese-like districts, snaking around to include pockets of strength.  Critics point to North Carolina, Florida, Pennsylvania, Texas and Michigan as states that gained Republican seats through advanced cartography techniques.  But this works both ways, with Maryland, California and my home state of Illinois adding Democratic-held seats by drawing districts with meandering lines.  In Illinois, this was ostensibly done to create a Hispanic seat, but several Republican-held districts from 2008 were sliced and diced for the 2012 contest.  Again, this works both ways – several decades earlier when the Republicans briefly held a majority in the Illinois General Assembly, my hometown of Oak Park, IL, a suburban Chicago liberal Democratic enclave of 50,000 people with perfect rectangular geographic borders, was represented by no less than three different congressmen.

The 2010 Illinois governor’s race showed how population distribution is the real determining factor of elections.  Of the 102 Illinois counties, GOP gubernatorial candidate Bill Brady won 101, yet Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn (an incumbent only because he was lieutenant governor and ascended when former Gov. Rod Blagojevich was impeached and later convicted of attempting to sell Barack Obama’s newly vacated U.S. Senate seat), emerged victorious by winning a super-majority of votes in Cook County, home to the heavily Democratic enclave of Chicago and a host of Dem suburbs, including Oak Park.

While many congressional districts across the country are considered “safe” for the ruling party, there’s always the opportunity for a bright young challenger from the opposition party to push and probe an incumbent’s weak spots and emerge as the underdog surprise victor in November.  It takes the rare perfect convergence of timing, luck and yes, money, to make it happen, but history has shown time and again that upsets are possible on both sides of the fence.

For more information on Chen and Rodden’s work, click here

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