The Gerrymander Did it

A report from the Republican State Leadership Committee is quite candid in its assessment of the success of House Republicans in the 2012 election:

Farther down-ballot, aggregated numbers show voters pulled the lever for Republicans only 49 percent of the time in congressional races, suggesting that 2012 could have been a repeat of 2008, when voters gave control of the White House and both chambers of Congress to Democrats.

But, as we see today, that was not the case.  Instead, Republicans enjoy a 33-seat margin in the U.S. House seated yesterday in the 113th Congress, having endured Democratic successes atop the ticket and over one million more votes cast for Democratic House candidates than Republicans.


However, all components of a successful congressional race, including recruitment, message development and resource allocation, rest on the congressional district lines, and this was an area where Republicans had an unquestioned advantage.

Today, nearly two months after Election Day, and one day after the 113th United States Congress took the Oath of Office on Capitol Hill, the Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC) is releasing this review of its strategy and execution of its efforts in the 2010 election cycle to erect a Republican firewall through the redistricting process that paved the way to Republicans retaining a U.S. House majority in 2012.

In other words, the main reason that the Republicans were as successful as they were is not because they were able to persuade more voters to vote for them, it is because state legislatures were able to draw lines on the map that created built in advantages for the party.

Ask yourself, regardless of one’s partisan preferences:  is that really the way we want our system to work?

And yes, I recognize that gerrymandering of this type is nothing new and that, indeed, both sides have done it.  However, that is not a defense of the practice.  Moreover, this cycle is especially egregious because it meant a party losing the aggregate vote and still winning the majority of the seats in the chamber.

The amazing thing is, the general consensus in the population is “meh” at best.

And yet:  we do like to talk about how we are the greatest democracy in the world!

Seriously, there is something rather wrong with this picture.

FILED UNDER: Democracy, US Politics, , ,
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. Ed in NJ says:

    Now they move on to reapportioning the electoral votes in purple states with red administrations. Yet the complicit media acts as though the Republican party is still a legitimate party.

  2. Brett says:

    I’d love to see gerrymandering bumped out of the control of state legislatures, and into California-style bodies. It’s always struck me as crazy that legislators get to draw their own district lines, and there’s a long, long history of it being abused. In fact, it used to be much worse – before Baker vs Carr in the 1960s, there were states where rural areas were hugely over-represented because district boundaries hadn’t been re-drawn in decades (similar to the “rotten boroughs” in pre-19th century England).

    As a Democrat, I’d be perfectly fine if this also meant that more “safe” Democratic seats were opened up to competition in the process. In fact, I’d love to do another reform that would break the back of partisan extremism in primaries: open, non-partisan primaries for every election.

  3. Mikey says:

    I recognize that gerrymandering of this type is nothing new

    Being as it’s named for one of the Founding Fathers, and all…

  4. mattb (who is in favor of enhanced gun regulation) says:

    I have nothing to add on the core topic. @Stephen, you’ve pretty much said it all. So instead I’ll point out this great bit of what sounds like an Onion headline turning out to be true…

    GOP to discuss minority outreach at ‘Burwell Plantation’ room

  5. Argon says:

    Both sides do it?

  6. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    Ask yourself, regardless of one’s partisan preferences: is that really the way we want our system to work?

    The amazing thing is, the general consensus in the population is “meh” at best.

    It seems as if you’ve answered your own question…

  7. Xenos says:


    Being as it’s named for one of the Founding Fathers, and all…

    If you look at a map of ‘Gerry’s Salamander’ it does not even look thqt bad compared to modern practices of redistricting.

  8. superdestroyer says:

    Of course, the idea that the Republicans are helped in the gerrymandering by the requirement to pack blacks and Hispanics into majority-minority districts. The Democrats cannot pack their most loyal voters into CBC and CHC district and then remain competitive in all other districts.

    The Democrats would win more elections is they were willing to break up the CBC and CHC districts.

  9. @Mikey: Indeed, the basic practice is quite old. Of course, the current sophistication far outstrips anything ol’ Elbridge could have conceived of.

    @Just ‘nutha ig’rant cracker: In many ways, you are sadly correct. I do think that a major part of the problem is that we, as a country, are so convinced of the superior nature of our democracy that we have blinders to any of its flaws.

    @superdestroyer: As usual, your rather simplistic view of the world gets in the way of actual understanding.

  10. george says:

    @Ed in NJ:

    Now they move on to reapportioning the electoral votes in purple states with red administrations. Yet the complicit media acts as though the Republican party is still a legitimate party.

    That’s definitely what they’re doing.

    But I always find it odd that both sides blame the media, as if one party had a monopoly on it (both parties claim the other party controls the media, whereas I would argue that the media isn’t anything close to be being homogenous in its support of either side), and that the voters would support their side if only they knew what was happening (again, the assumption being that the voters are also homogenous in their beliefs and its only ignorance which keeps both sides around the 50% mark in elections).

    There’s also an assumption in there that the mass media has this amazing ability to control people’s thoughts, when right now it looks like most of the media is struggling to survive financially – if they really had the power to shape opinion, you’d expect them to shape public opinion towards supporting them financially.

    My feeling is that both sides use the media as an excuse – we’d have won, if only the media wasn’t against us. Sort of like sports teams consistently blaming the referees. Gets tiring after awhile.

  11. george says:

    Meaning, yes gerrymandering is going on, currently the GOP are the main beneficiaries, but its not exactly a secret, and just about everyone knows about it (ie its not a media hidden conspiracy, any more than Benghazi was covered up by a media conspiracy. Its just that most people’s reaction (to both in fact) is roughly “meh”.

  12. superdestroyer says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Are you really going to argue that Alabama would not have more than one Democrat congressperson, currently Terri Sewell, if it did not draw the district lines to pack as many blacks as possible into her district? That Georgia would have more Democrat representatives if it did not pack so many blacks into the CBC districts?

    How do the Democrats compete in all districts when there are many districts that vote 80%plus for Democrats but there are almost no districts that vote 80% plus for Republicans.

    Discussions of gerrymandering without discussions of the Voting Rights Act or majority-minority district are actually very simplistic. Modeling political behavior as if everyone is a middle class white employed in the private sector is just as foolish as modeling a farm by assuming that all of the chickens are perfectly spherical.

  13. Andre Kenji says:

    SD is not wrong. These minority-majority districts are a horrible thing for Democrats. Even Cynthia Tucker said that she was wrong to support the creation of these districts. Even Al Jazeera English pointed that:

  14. @superdestroyer: If you look at the last time the Democrats had the chance to redistrict (after the 2000 census) you will see that they diluted the racial makeup of District 7 and attempted to make both District 2 and 3 more competitive in the hopes of winning additional seats. It actually helped District 2 go to a Democrat in 2008 (but only for one term). But, of course, you knew all of that because you are an expert on such things.

    @Andre Kenji: I am more than happy to discuss the issue of majority-minority districts, but that isn’t his claim. He is making a claim that this is a major factor in the process, because he thinks that race is the key variable in all of politics.

  15. @george:

    but its not exactly a secret,

    Indeed, but I don;t think it is truly understood.

    If one of the college football conferences was asserting power over the NCAA to guarantee that some conferences were getting into the BCS with weak teams so that strong teams from other conferences would win, there would be outrage. Screw around with democratic competition, and the reaction is, sadly, meh.

  16. john personna says:

    Replace it all with an open source algorithmic allocatior. The districts it generates would be good enough, and no overt cheats would be possible.

    On pass one accumulate contiguous households into cells of 1000. On pass two accumulate contiguous cells into districts. Here or there a farm might be stuck in a city district, or a suburban street into a farm district, but that’s really no big deal.

  17. Rob in CT says:

    I’m not sure the reaction is “meh” exactly. Whats the verbalization of a frustrated hopelessness? A sigh, perhaps?

    Does “non-partisan” redistricting work well (or at least better than the status quo)? If so, I’m for it. Where it exists, how/why did it come about? Referrendum?

  18. @Rob in CT: In honesty, I think that the reaction is: “we have the best democracy, so it can’t be broken and surely there is therefore never anything to fix. So, it is really the politicians’ fault.”

  19. Rob in CT says:

    @john personna:

    Open source algorithm… the idea being that if somebody programs the thing to benefit one side, it will be obvious (to the group of people qualified to notice)?

  20. John H says:

    @Rob in CT:

    I doubt that there is a way to make anything obvious to the unqualified. All systems can be manipulated, but transparency is a strong component of a defense against shenanigans. Of course, if Steven is correct about the prevailing attitude, that game has already been lost.

  21. @Brett: And therein lies the difference between liberals and conservatives. It’s not even a Republican vs. Democrat difference, it’s a difference in the mindsets.

    The liberal mindset is one of experimentation, even if it means a bit of sacrifice to see how it works. It’s generally an open minded thought process.

    The conservative mindset is “keep your eyes on the prize”. Everything you talked about, and that I repeat, is minutia, minor details to be handled by someone else. The only thing that matters is winning; everything else comes second.

    This tends to make liberals better at governing (for the most part). But it also makes them less likely to win elections. Their general mindset isn’t ruthless enough.

  22. sam says:

    Someone mentioned California upthread. Here’s a rundown of how California redistricts now:
    California Citizens Redistricting Commission

  23. john personna says:

    @Rob in CT:

    Yes, the idea is that no “overt” gambit would pass public review.

  24. Andre Kenji says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    He is making a claim that this is a major factor in the process, because he thinks that race is the key variable in all of politics.

    It´s a major factor in the process, specially considering the size of the average district. Not because of race, but because of political preferences. In fact, in many majority minority district the only thing in common that the voters have is race, because creating a district with 700 thousand people that elects minorities requires three, four or more pieces of different communities.

  25. george says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Maybe not “meh”, but something like “that’s politcs for you” is pretty much what I hear. Which means, I disagree with your statement:

    In honesty, I think that the reaction is: “we have the best democracy, so it can’t be broken and surely there is therefore never anything to fix. So, it is really the politicians’ fault.”

    I don’t think I know anyone who believes anything close to that. My impression is that the level of cynicism wrt politics is very high, and that extends to our system – and to the chances of fixing it. Perhaps “better the devil we know” covers it? “It’s broken, so don’t fiddle with it, or it’ll collapse”?

    And I agree that if it were a sporting event, people would be much more outraged, perhaps because people still expect more from sports. Though things like the PED usage in sports is doing its best to change that.

  26. Bob Beller says:

    Look at Illinois. We lost house seats for the same reason as the GOP kept them in many states.

  27. rodney dill says:

    @Argon: The right is just apparently better at it.

  28. stonetools says:

    I do think that now the public is beginning to realize the threat to democracy posed by gerrymandering. At this point, the public is getting fed up with the Tea Party crazies but is slowly coming to realize that they can’t vote them out, and why that’s so.

    I think we’ll see a big push to eliminate gerrymandering as the public grows frustrated with the government dysfunction.

  29. rudderpedals says:

    @Andre Kenji: I think this is right. Florida citizens passed a pair of initiatives to mandate compactness. Challenging the initiative was the GOP along with most of the Democrats elected out of minority districts.

    The challengers lost the first round but there’s still this unresolved tension between the current officeholders and the electorate.

  30. superdestroyer says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    IN 2010, a year of big election wins for the Republicans, Terri Sewell won with 77% of the vote. The only Republican candidates in Alabama who receive that level of the general election vote were those running unopposed. The highest percentage of the vote that any Republican candidates in Alabama is 59% when they faced a Democratic Party candidate.

    The original post noted that the Republicans receive only 49% of the vote for House seats but hold more than 50% of the seats. One has to realize that when a significant portion of the 51% that the Democrats receive in House election comes from districts like Rep. Terri Sewell’s where the Democrats win by 70% whereas few Republicans win races against Democrats with 70% of the vote.

    All one has to do is look at the 3-D maps of presidental election results, there are counties that the Democrats win with a margin of more than 500K but the Republicans do not win any county in the U.S. with a margin of 500K. All one has to do is look at the margin of victories for Democrats to see how Democrats are winning the demographics competition with Republicans.