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Competitive House Districts: A Rarity

districtsChris Cillizza notes Why it’s going to be hard for Democrats to win back the House this decade, in one chart at WaPo‘s The Fix.

Before getting to the chart, let me note that while the story here is being cast in the typical horse-race language of election coverage (and likely reads to many as a partisan lament), the real issues are more profound (and should concern us all).

Ok, so here’s the chart:

So, this says, in basic terms, that only 90 seats (out of 435) are potentially competitive.  Cillizza goes on to note that even that number is far higher than reality this election:

And, the PVI numbers may actually undersell the true lack of competitiveness.  A look at Cook’s list of most competitive races shows only 43 — 23 Democratic-held, 20 Republican-held — seats rated as either toss-ups or leaning to one side or the other. The Rothenberg Political report rates only 36 races as toss ups or leans.

This is troubling, and it should be regardless of one’s partisan preferences, because this lack of competition means, among other things, that general elections really do not matter.  Safe districts means that the real choices are being made in the primary elections.  This should be concerning because primary elections are driven by very small percentages of voters—and voters who are often not even representative of the dominate party in the given district (let alone of the district in question).  It is simply not a good thing for US governance that a large number of members of the House are effectively being chosen by voter pools that are not representative of their parties, let alone of their districts.  In this way, primary elections (which are theoretically a democratized method to select candidates) can actually damage the democratic quality of elections.

Of course, beyond primaries, single member districts are a major problem here as well, as they narrow competition as well.

Think about that for a moment: the system we currently have is not geared towards doing a very good job of representing the constituents in districts designed to select members to the House of Representatives.  This is problematic if one thinks that Congress ought to actually represent the interests of the public.

Also it is worth pointing out that lack of competitiveness means that it is impossible for the public to effectively let the House know when it is unhappy (or happy for that matter).  As I have noted before, there is clearly something wrong with our system when the Congress can have approval ratings in  the teens, but reelection rates can be in the 90% range.

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About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is Professor and Chair of Political Science at Troy University. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. He is the author of Voting Amid Violence: Electoral Democracy in Colombia and is currently working on a comparative study of the US to 29 other democracies. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging at PoliBlog since 2003. Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. Dave Schuler says:

    Sadly, the only solutions to this problem require constitutional amendment or insurrection or, said another way, we’re unlikely to see them happen. The incentives just work too strongly in favor of maintaining non-competitive districts.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  2. superdestroyer says:

    This will go on until about 2020 when the Democrats will have won control of enough state house to redistrict the Republicans out of existence. Of course, that will not make the general more relevant but will just move many of the district from swing to blue and move from districts from red to swing.

    Given all of the demographic changes in the U.S., there is no way that there will be 186 district that will reliability vote for Republicans but there will be many more than 159 districts that reliability vote for Democrats.

    Politics will be very boring when more than 250 districts vote reliability for the Democrats and the general election for the House and Senate is irrelevant. Image all of the people wanting to be campaign managers in the future when there will be so few competitive elections.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 14

  3. gVOR08 says:

    @superdestroyer: Disappointing SD. I expected less than ten minutes before you explained how a preponderance of safe Republican seats proved one party Dem rule.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 12 Thumb down 0

  4. OzarkHillbilly says:

    I wish I had the words with which to express my disgust with our present system.

    correction: I wish I had the printable words with which to express my disgust with our present system.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  5. @Dave Schuler: On balance, you are correct. I am of the opinion, however, that at least getting people to think and talk about it is useful. On balance it is quite clear that most people do not understand the situation (and that includes many in the media and the preponderance of educated citizens).

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 1

  6. Dave Schuler says:

    Something to keep in mind is that our system of non-competitive districts is intended to protect incumbents of both parties, not merely to convey a partisan advantage to whichever party controls any given state’s legislature when redistricting occurs. That is, not only does it control how many districts each party receives, it controls who within the parties will be elected.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  7. Matt Bernius says:

    @Dave Schuler:
    This is particularly astute — though recent history also demonstrates how this focus on protecting incumbents has also left them vulnerable to primary challenges. When the majority of party members assume that the outcome is a foregone conclusion primary particular decreases. And that decrease allows vocal minorities the ability to ouster the incumbent (as we’ve seen in a number of high profile cases).

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  8. Scott says:

    This depressing state of our politics leads to the most pernicious element: the depressed voter turnout because people perceived that it just doesn’t matter.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  9. stonetools says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    While I think you point to a serious problem, I think the deeper problem is the “two visions” issue. Put simply, there really is a Blue America and a red America and they have radically different visions of America. The reason why incumbents face primary challenges from radicals is precisely because the radicals can appeal to representing a purer version of the “red America” vision. They can say, “The incumbent is a sell out. I represent the pure anti-government, anti-immigrant, pro-gun rights, true back to the real ‘Merica vision.” As long as the red America vision retains credibility, the problem of radical right wing primary challenge will remain.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  10. superdestroyer says:

    @Matt Bernius:

    How many of those 159 safely blue district have seen a safe incumbent challenged from the left. I think you would have to go back to 2008 to find a single Democratic Party incumbent who lost in the Democratic Party primary by having someone run to the left of the incumbent.

    You are describing what is happening in the Republican Primaries in the fight between the cheap labor establishment Republicans and the Tea Party types. However, in the long run, such disputes will be irrelevant. The more significant model is the re-election of Democratic Party incumbents with no real challengers and with open seats being won by establishment chosen candidates. See the Maryland governors race as a good model for the future.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 4

  11. Just Me says:

    I know in previous discussions on this issue the idea of adding more House seats was brought up.

    One huge problem with congressional seats is of course gerrymandering-which tends to create districts that are utterly uncompetitive. But I am curious how many competitive seats there were before states were required to create majority minority districts (this requirement seems to have made gerrymandering worse and some of the congressional district lines are weird snaking things that make little geographical sense).

    Competitive seats would be nice-I live in a state with only 2 congress members and the seats are overall competitive (even if at a specific time it may not be). I have had 3 different representatives in 10 years-several other districts have had the same representative for 20 plus years. I think Rangel has been in congress as long as I have been alive or pretty darn close.

    I get that some districts like their congress members, but career congress members IMO leads to complacency and corruption.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  12. PJ says:

    @Just Me:

    several other districts have had the same representative for 20 plus years.

    Currently, 68 members of the House have served uninterruptedly for 20 or more years. That’s 15.6%.

    About 48% have only served since 2008 or later.
    About 69% have only served from 2003 or later.

    I really can’t see that as an issue that needs to fixed with term limits.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  13. The easy solution is to make the house much bigger. More smaller districts are harder to Gerrymander than fewer big districts.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  14. Dave Schuler says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    I think that’s right, Stormy. It would change the incentives both by making the task harder and rendering each district less valuable. That’s why I can’t imagine it happening.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  15. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Dave Schuler:

    That’s why I can’t imagine it happening.

    Indeed.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  16. SKI says:

    @Dave Schuler:

    Sadly, the only solutions to this problem require constitutional amendment or insurrection or, said another way, we’re unlikely to see them happen.

    Not true. The most likely solutions are legislative (number of Congress critters, requirements for legislative district drawing), not Constitutional.

    Of course, getting a legislative solution through is unlikely but possible whereas a Constitutional Amendment is incredibly unrealistic.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  17. Scott F. says:

    @Dave Schuler:

    We have a system of predominately non-competitive districts, yet ALL congress critters feel compelled to spend an inordinate amount of their day fundraising. The system’s broken through and through.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  18. Trumwill says:

    I’m not a big fan of state referenda, but I do appreciate how they can be used to combat gerrymandering.

    @Stormy Dragon: I don’t think that’s actually true. Computers can sift through a lot of data. Also, there’d likely be more naturally partisan districts. So you might get less gerrymandering, but mostly because less gerrymandering is required.

    @Matt Bernius According to Vox, the primarying trend may not exist.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  19. Dave Schuler says:

    @SKI:

    “Time inconsistency” means policy-makers doing different things at different times given the same conditions and incentives. I think you’re assuming time inconsistency for Congressmen.

    To the contrary, I think that the Congress will do what it has done because that’s what it has done in the past. The Congress has been the size that it is now for more than a century. Left to their own devices, sitting Congressmen will not change that and we know that because they have not done so for a century.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  20. Bokonon says:

    @Trumwill: Ask Eric Cantor or Richard Lugar if the primarying trend exists. Or look at the GOP’s turn-around on doing immigration law reforms over the last few years …

    Hint – it does exist. It is a major force in the GOP’s abandonment of its own former positions, and its clear rightward march. Let’s not waste space on contrarian arguments.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 2

  21. John O says:

    Ideally, redistricting law would require the use of townships where they exist (and create similar grid structures in states where they don’t) as the basis for forming congressional districts. Allow for the bifurcation of townships numbering one less than the number if districts per state, i.e. if a state has 10 congressional seats, it can divide only 9 townships to create 10 districts. This would end egregious gerrymandering abuses, create more geographically contiguous districts, restrict the scope of political calculations used in drawing district boundaries and lead to more competitive elections while (properly) allowing for state legislatures to retain final say over boundaries.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  22. Rick DeMent says:

    In 1800 representatives had a constituency base of around 30 to 60k (the slave 3/5th thing makes the math harder in the south). If you take the larger number (oh hell round it up to 100K), we would need well over 3000 today. To get to the point where all representatives have the same number as the lowest population state (Wyoming Pop 582K) you would need to bump the number to 546. Other than the fact that no one could get that passed, ever, it’s a modest bump for currently underrepresented states.

    I would propose an idea where you abolish all the rules about primary voting and allow each individual to vote in all contested primaries. Many of the current dynamics would be in play, voter turn out would be key. But at least it would blunt some of the ideologically driven passion. It would also be way more entertaining then what we have now.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  23. @Rick DeMent:

    I would propose an idea where you abolish all the rules about primary voting and allow each individual to vote in all contested primaries. Many of the current dynamics would be in play, voter turn out would be key. But at least it would blunt some of the ideologically driven passion. It would also be way more entertaining then what we have now.

    The problem with that is that we would still have crazy low turnout for primaries and the same small segment of the population would be driving the content of the House.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  24. Andre Kenji says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: Yes, that´s the big attractive of the IRV. But I really like the Louisiana´s Jungle Primary.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  25. Trumwill says:

    @Bokonon: Prokop’s and Boatwright’s argument may be contrarian, but it’s also backed with statistics. Fear of getting primaried may be playing a role in party trajectory, but the actual numbers of incumbents taken down remain statistically scarce.

    The fact that we can name them is indicative of this. We’re less likely to be able to name those that were taken down by the opposing party, because they aren’t so scarce.

    Where the Tea Party is making most of its impact in winning elections is winning primaries for no-incumbent primaries like Missouri, Nevada, Delaware, etc.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  26. ernieyeball says:

    @PJ: I really can’t see that as an issue that needs to fixed with term limits.

    The way some people talk about term limits one could conclude that they will cure all political ills and the common cold.
    AZ, AR, CA, CO, FL, LA, ME, MI, MO, MT, NE, NV, OH, OK and SD are 15 states that currently have legislative term limits of varying durations.
    If anyone can demonstrate that the bills passed through these chambers are measurably wiser and more efficient than the work of the 35 other states I will consider they might be useful at the Federal level.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  27. Pinky says:

    I’ve been thinking about this. People tend to move to areas where people have similar thinking. People in an area have the same exposure, and that tends to reinforce the common thinking. That’s fairly a rule of nature. So why should we get upset that, on an ideological scale of 0-10, congressional districts tend to be dominated by 3’s or 7’s? It’d be weird if it didn’t happen. I live in Twoville. An 8 is never going to get elected. There may be a primary between a 2 and a 3, and the winner goes on to a general election against an 8.5. Well, considering the majority of voters in Twoville share the general beliefs of both primary candidates, it’s only right that the primary would determine the final outcome more than the general. An outsider is going to look at our district and say, “I wish they’d elected a 7″. Doesn’t matter – we don’t wish we’d elected a 7.

    I think the problem, if there is one, is that the parties have become more uniform in recent decades. It makes it harder for the parties to run Blue Dogs and RINO’s, the 4-6 zone. If the other party insists on running an 8.5 in my district every time, they’re going to lose every time.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  28. Matt Bernius says:

    @Trumwill:

    @Matt Bernius According to Vox, the primarying trend may not exist.

    Depends on how you look at the data.

    Clearly there have been an increase in successful *house* challenges since 2004/06. However, since we only have data for those two years (2008/10 — and the Tea Party only came into existence in 2010 — I’m not sure we have enough information to see if there is really a trend.

    I’d love to see that chart for 2008/10 broken out by party, as I suspect that will also provide a more accurate representation of the data. Currently there isn’t the same sustained internal insurgency effort in the Democratic party. Hence that stability tends to suppress some of the numbers.

    Likewise, since this only looks at incumbent positions, the data doesn’t account for 2010’s primaries where a number of Tea Party candidates beat establishment candidates in races to compete for a House seat held by Democrats.

    On thing I should have been clear on, I think the House is the only place where you’ll find any sustained Incumbent vulnerability to challenges from the more extreme wings of the parties.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  29. Matt Bernius says:

    @Pinky:

    I’ve been thinking about this. People tend to move to areas where people have similar thinking. People in an area have the same exposure, and that tends to reinforce the common thinking.

    This is a point that sometimes gets lost in the redistricting discussions. The fact is that we do, generally speaking, tend to geographically group along ideological lines. Hence why, for example, there are consistently safe Senate seats divided up along party lines in many states.

    The problem is that party-drawn district lines exacerbate the geographic similarities by literally cutting out potentially moderating voices. The net result, using your terminology, is that 4-6 zone is largely eliminated from the process because outliers on the opposite side are removed from the equation entirely.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  30. @Matt Bernius: But, of course, a problem still persist with single seat districts that not 100% of a given slice of real estate is populated by folks with the same interest.

    This is why, if I was starting from scratch, I would prefer a system with a proportional element that would allow for a true sampling of the interests of citizens. As I have noted before, I would prefer MMP (as used, e.g., in Germany and New Zealand) which has both individual districts, but the overall seat allocation is based on a national vote. At some point I need to write a post on that subject specifically.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  31. Ron Beasley says:

    In my state of Oregon they would have to do some major Gerrymandering to make competitive districts because of demographics.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  32. Pinky says:

    @Matt Bernius: Agreed. But it’s important to remember that the system is failing only to the extent that it distorts people’s wishes. The fact of high incumbency rates isn’t enough to make that argument. (I’m very bad with names, but for some reason I’m associating Chris Cillizza with superficial analysis that misses the point. This seems to be a case of it.)

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  33. Matt Bernius says:

    @Pinky:

    But it’s important to remember that the system is failing only to the extent that it distorts people’s wishes.

    While I agree with this general statement, I think the phrasing tends to minimize how *badly* the current system is “distorting” people’s wishes.

    Given the extremely low approval ratings for Congress, I think a credible argument can be made that most people consider said level of distortion to be pretty bad.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  34. Matt Bernius says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:
    Fair points. And perhaps a proportional element would better balance interests. But at some point, it seems to me that minority voices will always be supressed/ignored in any electoral system.

    Put a different way (and pushing on this a bit): Alabama currently has 7 House delegates. 6 of the Representatives are Republicans, 1 is a Democrat. Do you think said a state-wide proportional system would change that mix?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  35. @Matt Bernius: That requires a far more detailed response than I can give right now. Maybe soon ;)

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  36. Pinky says:

    @Matt Bernius: I don’t think that Congressional disapproval ratings are a good proxy for what you’re trying to measure. My bet is, people in Wyoming don’t approve of Congress. My bet is nobody approves of Congress. Seriously, who is going to answer that question in a positive way? We’re supposed to not approve of Congress. Everyone knows that all the cool kids disapprove of Congress. A few people on this site refuse to refer to members of Congress as human. It means nothing to say you disapprove of Congress, particularly when one-third of those who disapprove want to see a lot more government involvement, one-third want to see much less, and one-third wants both.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  37. Trumwill says:

    @Matt Bernius: There’s been an uptick in challenges, and it’s become increasingly on an ideological basis, but the actual vulnerability does not seem to historically strange. A lot of sound and fury, lending mostly the significance the media has decided to give it*.

    Likewise, since this only looks at incumbent positions, the data doesn’t account for 2010′s primaries where a number of Tea Party candidates beat establishment candidates in races to compete for a House seat held by Democrats.

    This is true. For open seats as well which is where a lot of the Tea Party successes have been. However, except in safely Republican districts, this is a product of something other than gerrymandering. There is a better argument to be made that “If you’re a House member and you want to be in the Senate, you’d better be hard right if you want to survive the primary” than “If you don’t vote hard right, you’ll be vulnerable in the primaries.”

    I’m not sure you’re right about the House and Senate, though. The numbers are more limited there, but Lugar did lose and Cochran almost did. So there does seem to be a little vulnerability there, which is about how much I estimate there actually being in the House.

    Though I would agree that the fear of it is influential, or seems to be. That has its limits, though. Eventually they do seem to realize that they have a greater threat from Democrats (in their own seats, sometimes, but even if not then for their chairmanships) than they do the off-chance that they’ll get knocked off in a primary. (I wish it could be impressed upon them that most of the candidates who lost in the primaries had other problems, in addition to the oft-given one of ideological non-conformity.)

    * – Everybody important benefits from the Tea Party insurgency, or the illusion of one. It’s kind of weird that way. Democrats benefit because they can portray the Republicans as being captive. Establishment Republicans benefit because they have an excuse to be weak. The media benefits because conflict. The only losers, really, are non-establishment moderate Republicans and reformocons.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  38. Matt Bernius says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:
    I hope you get the chance to write that response!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  39. Grewgills says:

    @Pinky:

    I live in Twoville. An 8 is never going to get elected. There may be a primary between a 2 and a 3, and the winner goes on to a general election against an 8.5.

    The problem is 4ville where the primaries give us a 2 and a 7, then 4ville is regularly represented by a 2 rather than a 4 or even a 3.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0