As deeply unpopular as Congress is, most members of the House of Representatives who stood for re-election last year won their races — some 91 percent of the 390 people who wanted to return to the body. The Wall Street Journal, by way of the non-partisan Cook Political Report, suggested Monday that there are fewer competitive House seats than at any time in recent history. Which prompted Gawker's Hamilton Nolan to rail against gerrymandering, lamenting that "the shit that we tolerate in this country boggles the mind." As is often the case, however, it's not quite that simple. The problem may lie with the voters as much as the elected officials.
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Yes, elected officials — and, moreover, political parties — seek to have congressional districts drawn in a way that minimizes the number of contested races every two years. It's in both parties' self-interest to do so, if not the voters': fewer competitive races mean less fundraising and staff needs. And Cook, which provides regularly-updated analysis of the competitiveness of each House race sees fewer competitive races in 2014 than a decade ago. The Journal:
Of 435 districts in the Republican-controlled House, the nonpartisan Cook Political Report rates only 90 as competitive, meaning those seats have a partisan rating that falls within five points of the national average. The rating measures how each district votes relative to how the country as a whole voted in the most recent presidential election.
The number of competitive districts as at its lowest since Cook first started the partisanship rating in the 1998 election cycle. That year, it rated 164 seats—more than one-third of the House—as "swing" seats that could back either party.
That was a high for the time period, mind you. As a Journal graphic indicates, by 2002, that figure was 111. By 2012, it had only dropped to 99.
It's worth noting that these are just projections. Last year, Cook ranked only 29 races as "toss-ups," by the time the election rolled around. Of those 29, just over half actually were toss-ups, races that were settled within a margin of five percentage points. (We'll note that this percentage marker isn't how Cook evaluates a race's closeness. It evaluates a range of data for its analysis.) Thirty races total — nearly twice as many as those rated "toss-ups" — ended up in that range.
(What's particularly interesting, though, is that Democrats did much better in those toss-up races than did Republicans. Of the 29 seats that Cook labelled as toss-ups, Democrats won 20, by an average margin of 5.69 percent. Republicans won nine, by an average margin of 4.9 percent.)
For the sake of comparison, we looked at how the House elections broke down in 1960. That year, there were more close races — 45 in total. But there were also a staggering number of members of Congress who ran unopposed. Seventy-two — about 17 percent of Congress — saw no opposition at all. Last year? Two did. The average margin of victory in 2012 was just over 30 percent. In 1960, it was 23.8 percent — if you exclude the candidates that ran unopposed. If you grant them 100 percent of the vote — they did run unopposed, after all — the 1960 margin shoots up to 36.4 percent.
The point being: Even before five decades of gerrymandered congressional districts, congressional races weren't as close as Cook might suggest.
In addition to gerrymandered districts, the Journal cites a rationale for the declining number of close races.
Another factor in the declining number of competitive districts is that voters are dividing themselves geographically more than they did 10 or 20 years ago, political observers say. Americans are now more likely to live in communities where their neighbors share their political views. That steady, decades-long shift produces more-partisan congressional seats.
That is mirrored by a study completed after last year's election, by Eric McGhee of The Monkey Cage. After the election, a common complaint among Democrats, echoing Nolan's, was that Democrats won a majority of votes but a minority of seats. Which is true: 48.7 percent of the national House vote was Democratic, versus 47.6 for Republicans.
So McGhee modeled the 2012 race using the previous Congress' districts. (Redistricting generally occurs after each Census, so 2012 used new boundaries nationally.)
Democrats do gain more seats under this simulation—seven more total—but fall far short of matching their predicted vote share. The point should be clear: even under the most generous assumptions, redistricting explains less than half the gap between vote share and seat share this election cycle.
McGhee suggested that Democrats fare worse in part because of geography. "Democrats also do worse because they are more concentrated in urban areas," he wrote. "They 'waste' votes on huge margins there, when the party could put many of those votes to better use in marginal seats." In other words, Democrats move to cities and overwhelmingly vote for Democrats. If Democrats want to re-take the House, they should move to Wyoming.
Nolan raises another idea: take political parties out of the redistricting process.
[H]ave districts drawn by a nonpartisan committee, whose goal is to make them as compact and straightforward as possible and to have them comprise existing communities, so that a single representative can, theoretically, represent a single set of community interests. Alternately, have them drawn by a fucking computer program that knows how to draw rectangles.
California passed a resolution a few years ago that allowed them to do exactly that. The California Citizens Redistricting Commission developed the state's new Congressional boundaries. Four of the state's 53 congressional seats were in the five percentage-point range. The average margin of victory was about 28 points — slightly below the national average.
Image: Party switch in the 112th Congress (2010 elections).