The Most Troubling Number from Last Night: 51

I heard James Thurber (University Distinguished Professor of Government and Founder (1979) and Director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University) on the Diane Rehm show this morning and he noted that only 51 (fifty-freaking-one!) of the 435 House races were competitive yesterday.  That’s only 11.7% of the races.  This is an astounding lack of competition for what is supposed to be the most representative institution in our government.  (This is not surprising to anyone who pays any attention to such things, although I suspect most people assume that there is a lot more competition than there is*).

Granted, some of this is simply because given regions are fairly homogenous ideologically speaking.  However, a major problem is that a large number of districts are gerrymandered to be safe as safe can be.   Of course, fundamentally this is a result of single seat district electoral system and is exacerbated by the fact that the House is too small relative to the population.  Primaries play a major role as well, as they severely undercut the incentives for serious third party development.  (There is a lot in this paragraph that would require many pages to fully explain, so I will just leave them hanging for the moment).

It is difficult to state, I would argue, that the House is especially representative if in the context of extremely low approval only 11.7% of its seats are actually up for grabs.

Of course, if getting a serious conversation started about electoral college reform is near impossible, discussion of electoral reform vis-a-vis the Congress is beyond impossible.

As a side note, this should give pause to all those who think that going to a district-based system (a la Maine and Nebraska) would improve the electoral college.  God help those who live in a swing district in that alternative reality!

*This is another thing, by the way, that the Framers got profoundly wrong.  Part of the rationale for having the Senate (and for much of its design) was predicated on the notion that the House, being the people’s house, and prone to the passions of the masses, might change membership frequently and dramatically.  Oops.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2012, Quick Takes, 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

Comments

  1. Rob in CT says:

    Did the Founders have any way of anticipating the gerrymandering we now engage in?

    Perhaps, given the example of rotten boroughs in Parliament. Surely they were aware of them.

    I’m inclined to cut them some slack on the matter anyway.

  2. @Rob in CT: Well, “gerrymandering” is named after Elbridge Gerry who was one of the Framers 🙂

  3. David M says:

    Pennsylvania is one of the better examples of the problem in the House, as Obama can carry the state while the House delegation is 13 Republicans and 5 Democrats.

  4. Ben Wolf says:

    The Founder’s weren’t inspired by god and Americans should stop pretending so. They were a group of bright people who made some mistakes and a few major screwups.

    We need to stop treating the electoral college like the mandate of heaven and design a system which fits the post-modern world, not the 18th Century.

  5. @Ben Wolf: Agreed all around,

  6. george says:

    Here’s an interesting point of view I heard from one person – gerry mandering is just a way of introducing proportional representation, as they have in Germany and a few other countries. (Yes, I know its not really).

  7. James Joyner says:

    I largely agree that the system as it is doesn’t work. It’s also strangely unrepresentative in another way: I am now in Jim Moran’s district, a safe Democratic seat, after years of being in one of the most competitive districts in the country. I have not moved; the lines did. I didn’t even realize I’d switched districts until I went to vote Friday!

    I will say, though, that the House is subject to massive waves (1994 and 2010, most notably) in a way the Senate isn’t. But they’re rare.

  8. Jen says:

    I think the gerrymandering plays an enormous role in how polarized the electorate has become. In my humble opinion, the best thing in the world would be to have a majority of the House races competitive, because we wouldn’t have the effect that we’ve seen in some districts where when the only real contest is the primary, the more extreme candidate wins. Not always, of course, but it seems to be happening more often. More extreme candidates mean more extreme members, and thus the entrenchment we see on issues. Will reform there ever happen? Is there any chance of a legitimate challenge that could get to the Supreme Court that would somehow require more logically drawn lines?

  9. Just Me says:

    Guess there is something positive about living in a small state. The house races are almost always competitive and our district actually swings a lot.

    I have my 4th different representative since moving here about 11 years ago. Well actually it is the third since Bass was my representative, lost to Hodes, won his seat back, and then lost again.

    I don’t expect Ms. Kuster to have her seat for the next 20 years either. Unlike some districts, a US representative from NH shouldn’t make plans on this being their career.

    I am also not convinced just using a non gerrymandered formula would help. Several states don’t really have a viable republican party-look at Mass as an example-the GOP just isn’t competitive there even when they put a left leaning republican on the ticket the democrat is likely going to win. They only very occasionally elect a GOP governor to work with their veto proof democratic legislature.

    Mass is probably a good example of why the GOP just turning themselves into democrat lite is unlikely going to get the party competitive on a national basis.

  10. ernieyeball says:

    The Congress, whenever two thirds of both Houses shall deem it necessary, shall propose Amendments to this Constitution, OR, on the Application of the Legislatures of two thirds of the several States, shall call a Convention for proposing Amendments, which, in either Case, shall be valid to all Intents and Purposes, as part of this Constitution, when ratified by the Legislatures of three fourths of the several States, or by Conventions in three fourths thereof, as the one or the other Mode of Ratification may be proposed by the Congress; USCon Art. V

    So where do we start? What can I do today to (1) figure out which process will amend the Constitution in my life time (I will be 65 Jan. 3, 2013) and (2) come up with an amendment that will actually be “…ratified by the Legislatures of three fourths of the several States, or by Conventions in three fourths thereof,..”

  11. superdestroyer says:

    Image how few competitive elections there will be when the Republican Party completes is collapse and the real election for the House seats occurs in the Democratic Party primary (or top two primary). Also, a couple of the competitive districts were two Democrats or two Repulblicans competing for one seat in California.

    The real long term lesson is that the general election is going to become moot in the U.S. and the real election will be the Democratic Party primary.

  12. ernieyeball says:

    I was responding to Mr. Wolf’s observation: “We need to stop treating the electoral college like the mandate of heaven and design a system which fits the post-modern world, not the 18th Century.”

    Term limits have often been touted as an elixer for what ails us. I suspect limiting terms of the US Congress would also require amending the US Constitution.

    (Why do I remember some folks wanting to repeal term limits on the Presidency so Ronald Reagan could run for a third time?)

  13. ernieyeball says:

    While we are at it we might as well Amend the Constitution to outlaw the Republican Party to facilitate Mr. Dragon’s vision of the future.

  14. ernieyeball says:

    @ernieyeball: OOPs! That would be Mr. Destroyer!

  15. James Joyner says:

    @superdestroyer: Seriously, I implore you to stop with the “one party” trope. You’ve made the same argument hundreds of times now on dozens of threads. It’s beyond tiresome; it’s a parody. Get some new material or take it elsewhere.

  16. superdestroyer says:

    @James Joyner:

    OK, What happens to politics when one party is totally dominate and the other party is an afterthought. You live close enough to dc to see what happens when the general election is an after thought and the Democratic primary is the real election.

    I would suggests more posts about the direction of entitlement spending, regulatory burden, or even the cost of living in a good neighborhood with good schools.

    Of maybe there should be a discussion how many many of the Republcian representaitves won their districts by a few percent but how many Democrats won their districts by 50% plus.

    Of maybe there should be a discussion on the type of people who are going to want to go into poltiics at a time of $4 trillion dollar budgets, higher taxes, and $1 trillion dollar deficits. What people are excited about getting a degree from the Kennedy school of government just to be the tax collector for the entitlement state.

  17. MstrB says:

    Depending how some races turn out, we may see how a one party with complete control turns out.

  18. MstrB says:

    @MstrB: (In California)

  19. LB says:

    I just did a quick calculation of two different fractional methods that use the EC as a template. Data is based on Google results when Obama total equals 60,459,974 and Romney 57,653,982. Scenario 1 is 2 votes for the winner of the state plus the fraction of congressional seats based on vote totals, e.g. AlabamaRomney = 2+.607*7 = 6.249, AlabamaObama = .384*7 = 2.688. Scenario 2 is fraction of the vote times state’s EC vote, e.g. AlabamaRomney = .607*9 = 5.463, AlabamaObama = .384*9 = 3.456. The totals would be:

    Scenario 1: Obama — 272.307, Romney — 258.688, Remainder Candidates — 7.005
    Scenario 2: Obama — 269.387, Romney — 259.770, Remainder Candidates — 8.843

    At least the numbers make it look like the close election that it was, rather than the 332-206 EC number.

  20. mantis says:

    @superdestroyer:

    Go start your own blog and write about whatever you want, moron. Why do you insist on spending all day telling the OTB bloggers what to write about?

  21. Just Me says:

    OK, What happens to politics when one party is totally dominate and the other party is an afterthought.

    My guess is if it gets to the point where there is one party controlling everything you will end up with a new opposition party emerging.

    While a state like Mass where the GOP can barely compete, there is still a GOP presence at the state level-even if it is a small minority.

    I don’t particularly see one party rule being a reality at the Federal level, so that is just plain hyperbole.

    That said, I would like to see house seats more competitive and less “career congressmen” out there, but I am not convinced in large states you can create the districts such that they are always competitive-the districts are just too small and in large city too many like minded people clustered together.

  22. Graham says:

    @superdestroyer: Do you realize the rest of us don’t even read your comments anymore?

  23. LC says:

    I have wondered about the ratio of representatives to citizens which must be not only a whole lot lower than in 1776 but is also so low that even in a well-drawn, ideologically uniform district, makes it pretty much impossible for a House Rep to be, well, representative.

    But I also cannot imagine a House that consisted of, say, 800 or 1000 members. Each member might be more responsive to his/her constituency, but no elective body of that size could be managed.

    I do not have an answer but I saw today that the Dems. in the House represent more citizens than the Republicans in the House. When you add in the Senate and the Senate rules and the Electoral College – well, the entire combination seems to me to swing way too far in the direction of giving minority views dominance.

    Note: I am not opposed in principle to some kind of balance between population and state representation. If everything were based on population, citizens of the smaller states would feel permanently disenfranchised, and I suspect that those are precisely the kinds of states where there is a larger than average degree of homogeneity. But we seem to have developed a method of governance that often disenfranchises huge numbers and groups of citizens who have the misfortune to live in the larger states.

  24. PJ says:

    @Steve Taylor:

    I just listened to a This American Life piece about the New Hampshire House of Representatives.

    Before the 2010 election there were 216 Democratic, 174 Republican, and 10 vacant members of the House, after the 2010 election there were 102 Democratic and 298 Republican members, and after yesterday there’s 217 Democrats, 177 Republicans, and 6 seats still to be determined.

    A lot less safe seats and definitely not a House that’s too small relative to the population…

  25. mattb says:

    Norm Ornstien brought up similiar points on Fresh Air tonight. Really good interview that’s worth checking out.

    I think one of the consequences of gerrymandering is that it’s going to greatly retard the evolution of the Republican party. Given the recent attention Republicans have paid to statewide elections, they’ve overseen the redrawing of district lines in a lot of states. That’s going to make it very difficult for Democrats to take back the House in the foreseeable future.

    The net result of that is that the Republican party — as is — can remain in control of half of Congress while running party insiders and the occasional Tea Party insurgency candidates. The Democrat’s best hope is districts where the two split the vote in a given race (though that typically means what the Dem who wins will most likely be voted out on the next cycle).

    One the other hand, I think that outside of reliably, cross the board red states, we’re going to continue to see Republicans continue to lose control of the Senate. And unless Obama screws things up royally (and I’m talking another 2008 crash), it’s going to be very difficult for Republicans to take back the presidency without numerous policy changes. If the economy recovers in the next few years, it will be damn near impossible.

  26. superdestroyer says:

    @Just Me:

    So Mass., Maryland, and California are not too big to big entities dominated by one poltical party but somehow the U.S. is too big for one dominate party. Given all of the demographic changes in the U.S., the Democrats are really going to have to screw up to not become the one dominate political party. The idea that there are people inside the Republican Party who are smarter than David Axelrod is laughable. Axelrod and company have already figured out how to keep the Democratic Party together: just spread around enough government money to keep more than 50% happy.

  27. superdestroyer says:

    @mattb:

    I guess it makes sense that NPR and Fresh Aire would want to reduce the competitiveness of Republicans in Congressional districits but did Fresh Aire say anything about the majority -minority districts where the Republicans cannot even find candidates to run. My guess is that the writers and editors do not care about the districts that are overwhelmingly Democratic but just want there to be fewer Republican districts.

  28. @mattb: I heard that interview teased this morning and I want to listen to it. Ornstein is quite smart and understands these institutional dynamics quite well.

  29. LB says:

    @LC

    According to the formulation on this page http://aceproject.org/main/english/es/esc03.htm , the US House should be 777-778 members (depending on rounding) based on an 18+ population of approx. 235,113,731 according to the census. Unless the math is unsound, this model minimizes the amount of communication channels that exists between representative and constituents and between representative and representative.

    New Hampshire’s assembly could be pared down to 127-128 from its current 400.

  30. @PJ: I need to download that and give it a listen.

    One that that is quite striking: that’s a 400 seat chamber for the state of NH, with a population of 1.3 million. The US House has only 35 more seats with a population of over 300 million.

  31. @LB: Institutionalists often point to the cub law as a good way to determine the size of chambers, so that’s about right (and yes, NH’s legislature is over-sized for its population.

  32. mattb says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:
    The show is archived here (it’s a ~38 minute interview) –
    http://www.npr.org/templates/rundowns/rundown.php?prgId=13&prgDate=11-07-2012

    I didn’t hear much of it, but the bit I did was quite good and dealt with the issues of having state control of the administration of Federal Elections. Ornstien rightly points out how problematic it is to have one of the two major political parties controlling each state’s elections (and how we’re the only country that does it this way). And he teased out the conditions under which this system evolved (which to Ben’s point, had to do with the short sightedness of the Founding Fathers on certain issues).

  33. superdestroyer says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Don’t you think that if the U.S. House had over 700 members, the executive branch would just be more powerful. The executive branch would feel free to ignore most of the individual congressmen,

    If you want to reform congress, wouldn’t changing the senior rules have a bigger impact than changing the filibuster rule. The senior rule encourages voters to keep re-electing politicians so that they become more powerful. And politicians that have been in DC for decades will see all issues as something that the federal government needs to involved in.

  34. @superdestroyer:

    Don’t you think that if the U.S. House had over 700 members, the executive branch would just be more powerful. The executive branch would feel free to ignore most of the individual congressmen,

    No, because the fundamental dynamic of having to build a majority to pass legislation remains the same.

    But yes: changing the filibuster rule would have a large impact, as at the moment we have one chamber that functions by super-majority rules.

  35. mattb says:

    @superdestroyer:

    If you want to reform congress, wouldn’t changing the senior rules have a bigger impact than changing the filibuster rule. The senior rule encourages voters to keep re-electing politicians so that they become more powerful. And politicians that have been in DC for decades will see all issues as something that the federal government needs to involved in.

    i guess it depends on how you are suggesting seniority rules would be changed. It’s hard to imagine a system that wouldn’t favor incumbents — unless you are suggesting that everyone keep rotating committee positions or that they are randomly assigned and term limited.

    From my perspective, revising the filibuster would have far larger effects.

  36. Whitfield says:

    @Ben Wolf: Maybe they weren’t inspired by God, but all of the signers of the Declaration were members of Christian churches.

  37. mattb says:

    @Whitfield:
    Um… i think many modern Christians would take issue with calling Deists like John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin as “Christians” (if you are using the common evangelical definition of Christian as believing in the Trinity and the Divinity of Christ).

    see:
    http://www.adherents.com/gov/Founding_Fathers_Religion.html#Declaration
    and
    http://www.jameswatkins.com/foundingfathers.htm

  38. LB says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Even more egregious are the representation numbers for the CA and TX Senate assemblies. In 2011, a CA Senator represented on average 943,000 residents and a TX Senator 828,000, both bigger than the 716,000 average for US House reps. The CC model would predict assembly sizes of 385 and 335 for CA and TX, respectively (meaning that the assemblies are about 10% of what they “should” be).

  39. Just Me says:

    I do not have an answer but I saw today that the Dems. in the House represent more citizens than the Republicans in the House. When you add in the Senate and the Senate rules and the Electoral College – well, the entire combination seems to me to swing way too far in the direction of giving minority views dominance.

    I am not really convinced this is a bad thing. I think that presidential politics and the senate at the federal level are controlled far more by the urban populations anyway, which tend to run overwhelmingly democratic.

    Also, the house of representatives is based on population and geography. I think it is important that constituents who don’t live in large urban centers have some voice in congress.

    I actually think worse than uncompetitive rural districts which almost always at least have candidates from at least the two major parties running are the urban centers where there is often not even a candidate, much less a viable one for the GOP.

    Also, another note on the NH state house. In NH state house members do not get paid much money. There are some long time representatives, but none of them see their service as their career.

    Also, while the house may be on the large side for the population, one thing that I find nice is that I can personally talk to my actual representative. I see them around town, my kids go to school with their kids and there is a comfort level that I imagine many other states do not have. If I have a concern and write a letter-I get a personal letter and sometimes a phone call back-there isn’t an aide i the front office who reads my letter, pens the answer and then stamps the representatives signature at the bottom.

  40. superdestroyer says:

    @mattb:

    the chaning demographics will take care of the filibuster rule in the future. However, with the Democrats becoming the one dominate party, the senior rules become even more important. When virtually all Congressman and Senators are from the same party, voting will become unimportant since congress will just be rubber stamping whatever the leadership wants. The issue will be the massive power that will go to the senior members of Congress who control the committee and really control the legislative process.

  41. @Just Me:

    the house of representatives is based on population and geography

    But only based on geography insofar as each states gets one representative. The entire foundation of the House is that it would represent the states based on population.

  42. ernieyeball says:

    @Whitfield: but all of the signers of the Declaration were members of Christian churches.

    Good for them…but when the Great Charter they produced was ratified it contained a Supremacy clause that declared “This Constitution,..(not your Holy Book)…shall be the supreme Law of the Land;..”