Gerrymandering Isn’t What’s Wrong with Our Politics

by John Sides on February 3, 2013 · 8 comments

in Campaigns and elections,Legislative Politics

The most important influence on how members of Congress vote is not their constituents, but their party.  This makes them out-of-step not only with the average American — the “broad-based public opinion” that Obama mentioned — but also, and ironically, with even their base.  Members are more partisan than even voters in their party.

From my newest post at Wonkblog.  The subject is a reoccurring concern about gerrymandering—that it inhibits compromise by putting members in lopsidedly partisan districts.  This concern not only exaggerates gerrymandering’s role in reducing the competitiveness of House elections, in fomenting partisan polarization, etc.  This concern also conceals what is really a more fundamental problem of representation in our polarized politics.  See the post for more, featuring the research of Simon Jackman, Nolan McCarty, Boris Shor, Joseph Bafumi, and Michael Herron.

{ 8 comments }

Sebastian February 4, 2013 at 1:47 am

while I agree with you that the evidence for the gerrymandering –> polarization hypothesis is weak, the title of the blogpost – i.e. the claim that Gerrymandering isn’t what’s wrong with our politics is a bit odd, especially as it coincides with Sam Wong’s pretty convincing demonstration of the partisan effect of gerrymandering.
I’d say if one party has a consistent 2-3% advantage in house elections that’d be a pretty big problem.

John Sides February 4, 2013 at 10:37 am

Sebastian: I was just using the Wonkblog title, which — it’s true — is probably broader than it should be just to seem grabby. We’ll have more to say about the Wang analysis, I think.

Ben Bishin February 4, 2013 at 2:28 am

Another explanation for why we see this sort of behavior can be found in my theory of subconstituency politics (Bishin 2009), where politicians appeal to intense groups of constituents and in doing so build coalitions that (often) fall along traditional party lines depending on the constellation of intense groups in their states and districts

John Sides February 4, 2013 at 4:16 pm

Ben: Yes, thank you. I have in mind a broader post on representation that gets at your argument, the new Griffin and Newman book, and a couple others.

Simon Jackman February 4, 2013 at 3:35 am

Hi John,

Thanks for using my stuff…

I’d been wanting to update the “ideal point by Obama vote” graph for a while, substituting 2012 Obama vote in district for 2008.

I’ve now done that, using some provisional/incomplete data on Obama 2012 vote by district from the good people at elections.dailykos.com. The new graph is at

http://jackman.stanford.edu/ideal/currentHouse/ObamaVote.pdf

If at all possible, it might great if you could flip the ref in your wonkblog post to this “newer/better” graph.

And for the 112th, see

http://jackman.stanford.edu/ideal/h112/ObamaVote.pdf

where the relationship between Obama vote (2008) and ideal point is stronger, but still, the break by party jumps off the page.

It will be interesting to see how quickly (or indeed if) the h113 picture starts to resemble the h112 graph. We’re only 25 non-unanimous votes into the 113th.

And I’m yet to get the Senate programs up and running for the 113th.

ron glandt February 4, 2013 at 7:34 am

I am not feeling as much conflict among my friends and relatives after the election. I wonder if the media doesn’t have a large responsibility for the political division. I also think the American citizenry is just plain tired of all crap – desensitized.

Joe C February 6, 2013 at 7:06 pm

Hi John,

This post particularly caught my eye because I am doing a research project on gerrymandering and political polarization. While I agree with you that partisan identification has a lot to do with polarization, and that House reps. are arguably more polarized in general than their constituents, I still can’t shake the feeling that gerrymandering doesn’t have something to do with polarization.

Particularly here in PA, the most recent electoral cycle has left us with a group of 18 Reps. 12 Republicans to 6 Democrats. The state itself voted for Obama, 51-52% to Romney’s 49%. I would expect to see a larger number of Democratic reps. The Republicans from these districts essentially have free reign to engage with whatever agenda they wish, as 11/12 of them won with 55% or greater margins. The Democrats’ victories were even more concentrated, with quite a number of 75%+ votes for them. Pretty safe, from my understanding.

I agree that gerrymandering doesn’t cause polarization, but I would wager that certainly enables it. Sorry if I missed a point, but I’d love to hear your thoughts on what the actual cause is. Thanks!

John Sides February 6, 2013 at 9:14 pm

It may be the case that certain gerrymanders don’t do much to mitigate polarization — I say “certain” because not all gerrymanders are partisan — but it’s really a very minor factor at best. You can see the research of Poole, McCarty, and Rosenthal on this. They drew lots of different districts and came away with at best very small decreases in polarization.

http://themonkeycage.org/blog/2012/10/21/zombie-politics-redistricting-and-party-polarization/
http://themonkeycage.org/blog/2012/10/29/dont-blame-gerrymandering-for-polarization-redux/

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