Is Redistricting Actually Going Better For Democrats Than Expected? A Debate Ensues

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While the stretch between late December and the beginning of January is usually marked by slow news days patched over with pre-written, reflective stories to fill the front pages, there’s been no such lull in the redistricting corner. 

Many states have finished their maps, or are at least far enough along to prompt the inevitable analyses of which party came out on top. And a heated debate has riven online map-lovers as they argue a fundamental question: is redistricting going better for Democrats than expected? 

A much-discussed Data for Progress analysis published last week suggests that yes, surprisingly, it is. The report found that even more seats will have moved to the left of President Joe Biden’s 4.5 point 2020 national margin after this year’s round of redistricting. 

A rebuttal published at the Election Law Blog says not so fast. Using other metrics, Republicans still have the clear edge, and assuming that House Democrats will run with Biden’s lead is folly, since even in the presidential year of 2020 they usually ran a point or two behind him. 

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So…who’s right? The truth is, it’s a complicated picture. And some of the gerrymandering harms are buried a bit deeper than the “which party is winning” story line. 

“There was a lot of ‘the sky is falling’ narrative building that dominated the left a couple months ago, in large part because Republicans have much more control over the process than Democrats,” Dave Wasserman, senior editor of U.S. House coverage at the Cook Political Report, told TPM. “A lot of people translated that into ‘Republicans are going to zoom into the majority because they can gerrymander the maps.’” 

So far — and some states have not finished drawing yet, while others are wrapped up in litigation — that hasn’t happened. Republicans are not poised to scoop up dozens of new seats, to win the 2022 election by a landslide before a single vote is cast. That doesn’t mean that there’s any less voter disenfranchisement going on. 

For one, as Wasserman pointed out, Republicans had a vice-like grip on many states’ redistricting processes during the last cycle in 2010 and 2011 too, so they’ve already had a fairly recent chance to hack the states into congressional districts that serve them best. 

But there’s another factor at play here: the explosive growth of new political powerhouses that the maps of 10 years ago couldn’t have accounted for. 

“The reality is, if you’re a Republican map drawer, you’re scared both of people of color  — especially as they become a bigger part of the electorate in the suburbs — and suburban white voters,” Michael Li, senior counsel at NYU’s Brennan Center for Justice, told TPM. “Your best play is a defensive gerrymander.” 

Instead of going after Democratic seats to flip, Republicans in many states focused on shoring up their districts to neutralize the burgeoning power of these voters. That doesn’t necessarily manifest as a dozen-plus new Republican seats. It manifests as a Trump + 3 seat becoming a Trump + 20. 

That strategy, in addition to Democratic gerrymanders in states like Illinois, has eradicated competitive races across the board. 

“Are the final maps likely to be less biased in Republicans’ favor than the current maps? Yes,” Wasserman said. “Are the final maps less competitive and less responsive to changes in public opinion? Also yes.” 

That comes at a cost. In many states where Republican mapmakers have maximally employed this strategy, it’s with the clear intent to diffuse the power of voters of color. As many of those voters spread to the suburbs from metro areas, and as white, college-educated, suburban women have swung hard toward the Democrats in recent elections, Republicans have gone to work cracking those districts with tricks like attaching them to large swaths of bright red rural areas.   

“The Data for Progress post finds that the gerrymandering effect is netting out, so it’s not so bad for Democrats — that ignores many other dimensions,” Li said. “A state like Texas could turn blue and Republicans would still have a two-to-one advantage in seats. A lot of that gerrymander is accomplished at the expense of communities of color.” 

The redistricting process is ongoing, and some states’ court battles may dramatically affect the landscape. Across Ohio and North Carolina, Democrats could potentially gain five seats if courts nixed the legislatures’ maps and appointed special masters, Wasserman calculated. 

In short, Democrats are not currently facing down a landscape that gives Republicans a massive seat advantage going into the 2022 cycle. But it’s only because Republicans have shifted their vantage point to the future, solidifying their staying power by nullifying the voting power of explosively growing communities of color.

“It was never realistic that Republicans would squeeze three more seats out of Georgia, or four more seats out of Texas, when their incumbents are in such danger from demographic change,” Wasserman said.

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