Redistricting Holds Key to House Majority

AW
June 24, 2021

It's hard to remember a time when conventional wisdom about the outcome of the midterm elections was this hardened this early in the cycle. Even folks who don't pay particularly close attention to House elections feel comfortable giving Republicans a significant advantage in winning control of the body next year. 

There's good reason to regard Democrats as the underdogs. History alone suggests an uphill battle. Since the end of the Civil War, the party holding the White House has lost House seats in 36 out of the 39 midterm elections. Then there's the fact that midterm elections are almost always referenda on the incumbent president, even more so when a party bears full responsibility for governing. As such, how popular/unpopular the first-term president is at election time is critical. For the last 40 years, only two first-term presidents (George HW and George W. Bush) have been more popular than unpopular in the fall of a midterm election. The others, Presidents Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and Donald Trump had approval ratings in the low to high-40's. 

President Biden's job approval rating at this point sits at 52 percent. The good news for Democrats: he's above water. The bad news for Democrats: this may be his high watermark. Even as Biden has presided over a successful roll-out of the COVID vaccine and a re-opening of the economy, support among independent voters is tepid. At the same time, approval among Republicans is pretty much non-existent. In other words, if this is where Biden's job approval sits when things are going relatively well, and his administration hasn't made obvious fumbles, it's hard to see how his job approval ratings can go much higher in these next few months. Plus, it's easy to see how a mediocre or troublesome next year can easily drag those approval ratings down. 

Then there's the turnout factor. We know that turnout drops in midterm years. And, that usually hurts the party in power. As we saw in the Obama years, Democrats had lots of trouble getting the "Obama coalition" of younger voters and voters of color to show up to vote in years when the president wasn't on the ballot. But, once Trump was in the White House, Democratic enthusiasm went through the roof, while many "Trump Republicans" stayed home. 

Finally, we live in an incredibly turbulent political era, where change in political power in Washington has become the norm, not the outlier. Since 2006, the House has changed hands three times. Few left in Washington remember a time when one party or the other had a firm grip on a majority. 

Of course, living in a turbulent political era means being prepared for the unexpected. While Biden may never hit 60 percent plus job approval ratings of Presidents Bill Clinton in 1998 or George W. Bush in 2002 (the last two times a party holding the White House picked up seats), he may also be able to stay in positive territory through next year. In other words, he could be blessed with a relatively stable environment while also avoiding the kind of political miscalculations that would drag down his political standing. 

And, assumptions about who will and won't turn out to vote in 2022 may also be turned on their head. Over the last few years, Democrats have built up a significant advantage with white, college-educated voters. Biden carried this demographic group by 17-points in 2020. These voters, who were once reliably Republican, are also the least likely to skip a midterm election. Moreover, we have no idea if the surge of voters we saw flood into polling places in 2018 and 2020 will remain engaged in politics now that Donald Trump is no longer on the ballot or in the White House. Moreover, writes demographic guru Ron Brownstein, more Democrats than Republicans turned out to vote in the Trump era, giving Democrats a bigger pool of potential voters to turnout in 2022. "There are nearly 91 million individual Americans who have voted Democratic in at least one of those three elections, according to previously unreported calculations by Michael Podhorzer, the longtime political director of the AFL-CIO, from data collected by Catalist, a Democratic targeting firm." Brownstein writes. "Even with Donald Trump's formidable success at energizing his supporters, that's significantly more than the slightly more than 82 million voters who backed Republicans in at least one of the past three elections, according to Podhorzer's calculations."

But, while all of those are important factors, the most important—and potentially most substantial—is redistricting. The last time we had a midterm and redistricting in the same year was in 2002. Interestingly enough, there's a lot of overlap between Washington's political makeup back in 2001 and today. Back then, a new president came to office with a significant chunk of Americans convinced that he was illegitimate. Republicans had a razor-thin majority on the Hill, with a six-seat majority in the House and a 50-50 Senate (until May of 2001 when GOP Sen. Jim Jeffords became an independent and threw the balance of power to the Democrats).

But, when it came to redistricting, the playing field was much more balanced than it is today. Back in 2001, Democrats controlled the line-drawing process in seven states with 101 congressional districts while Republicans controlled the process in eight states with 98 CDs. The majority of states - 23 - had split control of the process (either one party had control of the legislature while the other held the governor’s office,  or power was divided between state house and senate). Those 23 states contained 195 districts. Another five states (with 34 districts) had independent commissions drawing their maps.

Compare that to today, where Republicans dominate the process and very few states have split control. In 2021, the GOP will control the remapping process in 20 states with 187 districts, while Democrats will be able to draw the map in 8 states with 75 districts. Independent commissions will draw maps in 10 states with 121 districts. Just six states with 46 districts have split control.

The political environment back then was also remarkably different. Politicians were still trying to find their footing in the wake of 9/11, with many wary of traditional political aggression. Combine that with the fact that neither party had much of an advantage in line drawing, and the result was, as the New York Times described in early 2002, maps that had a "cautious tilt toward the status quo." Few states were aggressive in their line drawing. Most were incumbent protection plans. 

Fast forward to today when few states have split control, and Republicans control line drawing in twice as many districts as Democrats. There's also the fact that maps drawn by "independent commissions" like those in Ohio, New York, Utah and Iowa can be overturned by a vote of the state legislature. Only New York has a Democratic-controlled legislature and governor. Thanks to the self-sorting of the parties (Democrats concentrated in urban/suburban cores, and Republicans spread around small-town, and rural areas), it's easier than ever for Republicans to chop up Democratic friendly areas and distribute their voters into more rural/exurban based CDs. Moreover, Democrats are worried that they have 'unilaterally disarmed' by agreeing to independent commissions in key blue states like Colorado and Virginia, and holding themselves to anti-gerrymandering positions. 

In fact, in reading through the excellent state-by-state redistricting analysis done by my colleague David Wasserman, it's easy to see how Republicans come into 2022 with significant advantages in states all across the country. At a time of limited ticket-splitting or incumbent advantage, even small changes to the partisanship of a CD could be enough to put it into danger. 

There's also little doubt that both sides will be aggressive in the courts, which could mean another decade of mid-cycle redraws. 

Traditionally, a midterm election is driven by two major factors — the political environment and opinions about the sitting president. This year, however, it is redistricting that is likely to be the most significant. In fact, until we know what the new lines are going to look like, discussions about Biden's approval ratings, the political climate, or the makeup of the electorate are pointless. 

Image: AP Photo/John Minchillo, File