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A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gerrymander

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February 7, 2022 12:21 p.m.

You’ve likely seen from Kate Riga’s reporting that things were trending in this direction. But over the weekend, Dave Wasserman of The Cook Report announced that according to his analysis the Democrats are now the net winners of the 2020–22 redistricting process nationwide.

Take a moment to let that sink in. For much of last year people were assuming that Republican state legislatures were going to use redistricting to engineer a gerrymander that might put the House and thus functional control of the federal government out of the reach of Democrats for the next decade. But that’s not how it’s turned out. Wasserman now thinks Democrats are on track for a net 2–3 seat gain.

Before we go any further there are critical caveats to understand here.

First, this doesn’t mean Democrats are going to hold the House in November or even have a very good shot at it. What we’re talking about here is baseline advantage after you take cycle-to-cycle shifts in public opinion out of the picture. So for example, Democrats only barely held on to the House majority in 2020 with the current districts. They are certainly in a weaker position with public opinion today than they were a year ago. So with President Biden’s popularity in the low 40s, they’d probably lose it today with the current districts.

Second, the current districts also kinda sucked. The current baseline is the 2010 redistricting process which was little short of catastrophic for Democrats. Republicans took possession of state legislatures and aggressively gerrymandered the congressional map to set the stage for their 2010 takeover of the House which lasted through 2018. Indeed, they also gerrymandered those state legislatures in ways that allowed them in some cases to maintain supermajorities at the state level even as the parties maintained rough parity in statewide elections. Wisconsin is one of several examples of this trend.

All that said, far from the doomsaying, it looks like Democrats will basically hold their own and end up with a national map that is slightly more favorable to them than the current one. This is no fluke, of course. It’s the product of an incredible amount of hard work across the country by the people who were saying how bad it might end up. It doesn’t mean the doomsaying was wrong. Kate Riga explained the various factors that went into this outcome in this post from late December. State and federal courts have been a bit less generous with Republican gerrymanders than expected — including racial gerrymanders. Republican states that had opted for commissions or other reforms held to the spirit of those reforms a bit more than expected. Democrats meanwhile pushed their advantage in the few states where they were able. New York is the key example here.

Another overarching trend is that in a number of states Republicans just didn’t quite go for it in the way that some observers expected. They didn’t push for every last advantage. But as Kate notes in that article one key reason is that in purple-trending states those advantages got harder to manage. It became harder to figure out where to put growing numbers of voters of color or white voters who were trending more liberal. This means, if you looked closely, Republicans were using the gerrymandering opportunity less to seek new advantage and more to shore up existing seats. That has led to a new national map which is both better for Democrats and also less competitive overall.

All of this is important information to know and it is likely to shape the next decade of politics. But I note it this morning for a different reason. We are surrounded today by dire predictions about the future. Frankly, for good reasons. Things look dire. But these predictions are often clothed in a “last chance” framework. We are gravitating toward certainty about what comes next, narrow choices which lock in certainties for the future. But you don’t know the future. Neither do I. Neither does anyone else.

One of the greatest weaknesses of human intellection is our propensity to extrapolate the future from the present, to extend the present into the unknown tomorrow and call that assumption knowledge. We don’t know the future. This can be one of the most anxiety-provoking things about our existence. But when times are tough it’s good to remember: you don’t know the future. There are more cards in the deck than you realize.

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