The First Snow of the Winter of Our Discontent Hasn’t Even Fallen Yet

This is going to hurt.

I hope you find House Speaker John Boehner amiable-enough, because I have a feeling he isn’t going anywhere.  Only us full-time political junkies have seen the extent of Republican gains last Election Day.

The 6 Senate seats the Republicans netted then were almost irrelevant by comparison.  (Actually, the partisan turnover there was average for the past 4 national elections, and the Senate Democratic delegation is currently at its second-greatest extent since the 103rd Congress contained 57 Democratic Senators from 1993-1995.)  The Republicans net gained 63 seats in the House of Representatives–their biggest wave in the House since 1938 and their largest House caucus since 1948–but even the extent of that win isn’t necessarily the biggest cause for alarm among Democrats.  On the same day the Republicans made a net gain of 6 governor’s offices.  Relatedly but scarier still, 680 seats in the State legislatures went to Republicans–the largest aggregate partisan swing among state legislatures in the modern era, according to National Journal.  In sum this means a net increase of 11 State legislature majorities with 26 of 50 State legislatures (all but Nebraska’s being bicameral) now having a Republican majority.  And yes, this down-ballot wave came right before the reapportionment of Congressional Districts following the US Census tabulation.

It All Comes Down to Congressional Reapportionment

Reapportionment is an interesting issue because it shows the way economics drives demography, and the way “demography,” as political scientist Samuel Huntington put it in a different context, “is destiny.”  As certain regions of the country have responded too slowly to the decline of certain industries or certain State or local governments failed to maintain the standard of living people expected, populations stagnated relative to the rest, or even declined.  The rapidly-growing populations of areas on the frontier, where there were vast natural resources to tap or trade routes to service, eventually granted those regions of the country greater political weight.  Congressional reapportionment used to be a positive-sum game–until 1920, that is.  A Republican Congress refused to reapportion add Congressional seats past the existing 435 in acknowledgment of of the parts of the country that were growing; this appears to have been a result of their concern that reapportionment would hurt their majority.  In 1929 Congress passed the aptly-named Reapportionment Act of 1929, which capped the number of seats in the United States House of Representatives at 435.  Reapportionment was now a zero-sum game; the States with the fastest-growing populations now couldn’t gain a seat without comparatively-stagnant States losing.  An economically-stagnant or declining region no longer experienced a mere relative loss of political weight, but an absolute one as well.

There were already signs that this absolute loss of Congressional representation (even while populations sometimes increased) would hit the American industrial core of the Northeast and Midwest by 1930, when the first zero-sum reapportionment occurred.  You can follow this on a neat interactive map produced by the US Census Bureau which tracks a century of reapportionments.

By the 1960 reapportionment it was undeniable that the Northeast and Midwest were stagnating in overall population and thus declining in relative influence in national politics, losing 6 and 4 House seats, respectively.  The West again gained 12 House seats in that year–8 of them in California and 3 going to the newest States, Alaska and Hawai’i.  In the 1980 reapportionment, the West picked up another 9 House seats.  The South picked up 8 that time, after netting only 1 in 1970.  1980 was also noteworthy, of course, for Ronald Reagan’s 1980 landslide presidential election win over incumbent President Jimmy Carter.

What made Reagan’s election indicative wasn’t just the scope of this victory–comparable to Johnson’s and Nixon’s crushing defeats of their opponents in 1964 and 1972, respectively–but the fact that Reagan was an ideological Conservative, while Presidents Eisenhower, Nixon and Ford–the only Republicans to become President between 1932 and 1980–were not.  I cannot remember who I first heard say that the post-Civil Rights/Great Society shift to the right in American politics could mainly be explained by how “the Solid (Democratic) South became the Solid (Republican) South,” but that plus the growing Electoral and and Congressional weight of the South is the central component of Republicans’ political successes simultaneous with successive rounds of ideological hardening.

The Night of a Hundred Gerrymanders

Today the shifting weight of reapportionment is familiar in the Northeast and Midwest, but the relative political benefits to the South and the West are reversed: In the post-2010 reapportionment, the Northeast will lose 5 House seats and the Midwest will lose 6.  The South will gain 7 House seats and the West 4–its weakest relative gain in over 100 years.  A testament to the rising cost of living and diminished commercial opportunities in that State, California won’t gain a single House seat from the current reapportionment.

Texas will gain 4.

Of course, the shifting electoral weight of these over-aggregated “regions” isn’t the most-relevant way to conceive of our shifting political winds.  That would be the balance of partisan control during Congressional redistricting. has a helpful map indicating the states that allow the majority parties in each legislative chamber (and the governor) to redraw Congressional districts on a partisan basis.  The Consititution requires near-equality among the populations in Congressional districts (the population norm for a Congressional district drawn after the 2000 Census was about 685,000), but it’s up to the States to decide just who has the power to draw new Congressional districts, and in most places it’s up to the dominant elected partisans.

How’s the outlook for House Democrats for the 2012 elections?  It’s probably bad regardless of political circumstances.  Having net-gained 6 governorships and 11 State legislatures in the last election, the question is how many States will have their redistricting entirely in Republican hands.  Brace yourself.

The Republicans have both a majority in State legislatures and the governor’s office in 21 States–and in North Carolina they have a legislative majority and can pass a redistricting plan without the Democratic governor’s involvement.  4 of these 22 states–the Dakotas, Montana and Wyoming–will continue to have 1 at-large Congressional district, hence no redistricting.  Finally, 3 of the remaining 19 States–Arizona, Maine and Idaho–have non-partisan redistricting commissions.  So, the Republicans will be able to gerrymander the Congressional districts in 16 States to their hearts’ content.

Democrats have both a legislative majority and the governor’s mansion in 12 States–but 2 of those are tiny Vermont and Delaware with 1 at-large House seat each, and 3 (Rhode Island, Washington and Hawai’i) also have non-partisan redistricting commissions, giving the Democrats a free hand to gerrymander Congressional districts to their liking in 7 States.

But where are the biggest opportunities to improve one’s party’s prospects?  It may be counterintuitive, but having control of redistricting in states that are losing House seats can be as fortuitous for your party as having control in a state that is gaining a seat or 2.  Take Ohio, for instance, where Republican Governor John Kasich enjoys a large Republican majority in the legislature.  Ohio is losing 2 seats in the House; legally, there is nothing stopping the Republicans there from re-drawing district lines so that 2 pairs of Democrats must run against each other or else move to another part of the State and run for re-election on someone else’s turf for the good of the Party.

Republicans will completely control redistricting in 5 States which are gaining a total of 9 House seats, as well as in 3 States–Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania–that will lose a combined 4 House seats.  (Much of the population loss in those States has been in more-Democratic parts–such as Detroit or the greater Pittsburgh area–anyway.)  How many States meet such qualifications for the Democrats–as in, where Democrats control redistricting on a partisan basis and the State is either gaining or losing Congressional districts?  There is only 1–Massachusetts–where the delegation is completely-Democratic, and the State is losing 1 seat in the House.

Remember, John Boehner already has the largest Republican majority in the House of Representatives since 1948.  As someone who was very happy with what President Obama was able to accomplish in his first 2 years, I nonetheless have a caution to issue to those, such as economist, author and New York Times op-ed writer Paul Krugman, who urge the President to fight the Republicans rather than take a pragmatic tack and at least try to make deals with them: It is entirely unreasonable for President Obama to act as though he is going to outlast the House Republicans and win back a majority there.  He will not, and so to pass laws and budgets he will have to work with a Republican House of Representatives for the next 6 years.


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