2022 midterms

Democrats Need More Than Redistricting Wins in 2022

Could the House still have a Democratic Speaker next year? Photo: Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

In 2021, as the decennial redistricting process got fully underway, some analysts wondered aloud if Republicans might snare enough seats in redistricting alone to flip control of the House. It’s not like it was a heavy lift. The shocking underperformance of Democrats in 2020 U.S. House races left them with a tiny minority (currently at five seats). And the equally shocking underperformance of Democrats in state legislative contests gave Republicans the upper hand in many states with sizable House delegations where state legislators rather than independent commissions write the maps.

Turns out (so far at least) that Democrats are doing “weirdly well” in redistricting, as my colleague Eric Levitz put it late last year. Thanks to a combination of demographics, protect-the-status-quo conservatism in some Republican gerrymanders, and help from courts, it’s now possible that Democrats rather than Republicans will have achieved a net advantage in U.S. House redistricting when it’s all said and done. Cook Political Report’s David Wasserman proclaimed the news this week:

On Thursday, New York became the 30th state to adopt a new congressional map, and although several states are still subject to court challenge, the redistricting process is now about two-thirds over. And owing to acrobatic gerrymanders in Illinois and New York - as well as favorable court developments in Alabama, Ohio and Pennsylvania — Democrats have taken a small lead in our redistricting projections for the first time all cycle.

Democrats are now on track to net two to three seats from new maps alone — a significant shift.

It ain’t over until it’s over, and there’s already talk that Republicans might retaliate for Democratic success in New York by tilting maps even further red in states like Florida. But all this talk of net gains or losses via redistricting misses a much larger point: The real threat to Democratic control of the House was never redistricting, but rather the normal midterm popular-vote swing against the party controlling the White House. Redistricting was a lagniappe (in New Orleans parlance, “a little something extra”) when it came to 2022 House prospects. Democrats may get to enjoy this cherry on top of their sundae — but only if they’re actually served dessert.

Anyone who takes this redistricting news and extrapolates that Democrats are likely to keep the House in November is really missing most of the trees that make up the forest. People hastily reading Wasserman’s Donkey-rific take on redistricting might have missed this proviso: “A 42 percent President Biden approval rating could still equate to several dozen losses in November, and Republicans remain overall favorites for the House majority.” “Several dozen” is a lot more than the “two to three seats” Democrats are expected to net from redistricting.

Now it’s true that Biden’s job-approval rating could go up by November, with some presidential skill and luck. But there are only a few occasions (the 1998 and 2002 elections) when the president’s party actually gained House seats in the midterms, or even lost fewer than a dozen House seats (as happened in 1954, 1962, 1986). And Biden is an impossibly long way from the over-60 approval ratings (and positive right-track assessments for the direction of the country) that prevailed on those occasions.

Aside from the downward pressure on Democrats exerted by Biden’s relative unpopularity, the consistency of midterm national House popular-vote swings we’ve seen in both directions recently can’t be wished away. Compared with the presidential elections that preceded them, the House popular vote swung toward Democrats by 8 percent in 2018 and 10.6 percent in 2006, the last two times Republicans controlled the White House. When Democrats controlled the White House under Obama, the House popular vote swung toward Republicans by 17.4 percent in 2010 and 7.8 percent in 2014. Anything remotely like these shifting results should be far more than enough to flip the House, as it flipped in 2006, 2010, and 2018. Democrats won the House popular vote by 4.1 percent in 2020. Getting close to that in the current environment would be amazing.

Obviously things could change between now and November, with positive COVID-19 and economic trends benefitting Democrats and adverse developments in the U.S. Supreme Court (notably a potential reversal of Roe v. Wade) and excessive visibility for Donald Trump hurting Republicans. And surprisingly good redistricting results should mitigate Democrats’ 2022 losses, which could matter a lot by putting them in position to reclaim the House in 2024.

But let’s not get carried away and start enthusing about what Biden and a Democratic Congress might be doing a year from now. Democrats holding the House in 2022 is still a long shot, it’s just gotten a little less unlikely thanks to some skillful map-drawing by their allies around the country.

Democrats Need More Than Redistricting Wins in 2022