Democrats Are Doing Weirdly Well in Redistricting

Now, Democrats will have a chance to lose the 2022 midterms, fair and square. Photo: Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The Democratic House majority was supposed to die in redistricting. For months now, pundits and political forecasters have predicted that Republicans could win back the House next year without flipping a single voter. After all, the GOP controls far more state governments than the Democrats, and this is a post-Census year, when states redraw their congressional maps. Republicans boast sole authority over the boundaries of 193 congressional districts, while Democrats command just 94. Given the slimness of Nancy Pelosi’s majority, several analyses projected that GOP cartographers would generate enough new, safe “red” seats to retake the House through gerrymandering alone.

This has been a foundational premise of much of my own commentary. And it’s an assumption that’s animated the progressive movement’s push for a package of democracy reforms that would, among other things, forbid partisan redistricting.

But it’s starting to look wrong.

The new House map is more than half finished. And in many states where maps haven’t been finalized, the broad outlines are already visible. Taken together, the emerging picture is far more favorable for Democrats than most anticipated. As of this writing, it looks like the new House map will be much less biased in the GOP’s favor than the old one. And according to at least one analyst, there is actually an outside chance that the final map will be tilted, ever so slightly, in the Democrats’ favor.

For proponents of equal representation, the key criterion for congressional maps is partisan fairness: Is each party’s share of a state’s congressional delegation roughly proportional to its share of the statewide vote? Right now, in many closely divided states, it isn’t. And typically, Republicans mine disproportional representation from the inequities. For example, in 2020, Joe Biden won more than 50 percent of the two-party vote in Wisconsin — but Democrats claimed just 37.5 percent of the state’s House seats. That discrepancy did not reflect widespread ticket-splitting but rather, the concentration of Democratic voters within three heavily urban congressional districts.

On a national level, a fair congressional map would be one in which the “tipping point” congressional seat — the one that puts either party over the top in assembling a majority — has a partisan lean roughly similar to that of the nation. In 2020, Joe Biden won the popular vote by about 4.5 points. Thus, on a fair map, about half of all House districts would have voted for Biden by more than 4.5 points, while the other half would have either given him a smaller margin than that, or else gone for Trump.

In a recent analysis for the progressive think tank Data for Progress, Joel Wertheimer applied this criterion to the 25 states that had finalized their House maps. In the chart below, a House district “leans Democratic” if its voters supported Biden by more than 4.5 percent in 2020 and “leans Republican” if Biden’s margin was smaller than that (or nonexistent). Across all the revised maps, the number of seats to the left of the nation as a whole increased by 16.

Graphic: Data for Progress

In the days since Wertheimer’s post, two more states have finalized maps. In New Jersey, Democrats won the tie-breaking vote on the state’s redistricting commission. As a result, the partisan breakdown on the Garden State’s House map remained constant, at least by Wertheimer’s criterion: On both the new and old maps, nine of the state’s districts are more Democratic than America writ large, while three are less so. (That said, New Jersey currently has ten Democratic House members and two Republican ones, and under the new map, one Democrat-held district gets redder, so the party will probably lose a seat from the changes.) In Arizona, meanwhile, a supposedly nonpartisan commission process has ultimately produced a 6-3 Republican gerrymander. Add those to the pile, and the 2022 map still has 14 more “left of the country” seats than the 2020 map did.

Now, just because the emerging map is an improvement on the old one doesn’t mean that Republicans won’t still boast a structural advantage. After all, the existing House map was drawn in the aftermath of the 2010 “Tea Party” wave. In 2011, Republicans had sole discretion over the borders of 219 House districts, while Democrats dictated those of just 44. An unanticipated leftward drift among suburban voters mitigated the severity of the 2011 map’s biases by decade’s end. But it remains a very pro-Republican baseline. In all probability, the new House map will still favor the GOP.

Nevertheless, the new map is going to favor Republicans by less than the old one, which wasn’t a given. From the beginning, it was clear that Democrats would have more input into redistricting in 2021 than they’d had in 2011. But the GOP was still poised to dominate the process, and had an opportunity to adjust their old gerrymanders to better fit their new, post-Trump coalition.

There are a few reasons why things didn’t work out as progressive pessimists had feared. One is that — contrary to partisan stereotypes — Democratic trifectas have arguably mustered more ruthless party discipline in redistricting than Republicans have. Illinois, Oregon, and New York have all pursued aggressive partisan gerrymanders that have subordinated the job security of some incumbents to maximizing the overall number of Democratic-leaning seats. By contrast, Texas Republicans took the opposite approach, opting to fortify their incumbents’ hold on power, at the cost of leaving 13 Democratic-leaning seats on the map. Meanwhile, many red states have no room to improve on existing gerrymanders.

To be sure, blue states have probably left more gerrymander-able seats on the table than red ones, simply because some of the nation’s most Democratic states have outsourced redistricting authority to independent commissions. Fortunately for Team Blue, California’s nonpartisan commission is poised to finalize a quite pro-Democratic map. As of this writing, California’s House map is likely to feature 44 seats to the left of the country, and eight to its right. If Democrats boasted full control over California redistricting, they probably could have produced a 50-to-2 Democratic gerrymander. But still, not a bad haul.

There are two big wild cards left in the redistricting fight: Ohio and North Carolina. In both those states, Republican trifectas have prepared extreme partisan gerrymanders that are currently facing legal challenge. North Carolina’s Supreme Court has a 4-3 Democratic majority. Ohio’s has a 4-3 Republican majority, but one of the GOP justices is a relative moderate. And at oral arguments, the Ohio justices seemed displeased that the Republican map blatantly ignored the state’s constitutional amendment against gerrymandering.

According to Wertheimer’s calculations, if both of those gerrymanders are rolled back, then it is actually possible that the “tipping point” seat in the final, nationwide map will be one that was slightly more Democratic than the nation as a whole in 2020. Which is to say: The House map could end up having a tiny pro-Democratic bias.

This is by no means the likely outcome. But its plausibility underscores a basic fact: The biggest threat to the Democrats’ House majority in 2022 is no longer Republican gerrymandering but rather, the combination of the opposition party’s inherent turnout advantage in midterms and Joe Biden’s dismal poll numbers.

Democrats Are Doing Weirdly Well in Redistricting