What If the Great Gerrymander of 2012 Wasn’t So Great?

by John Sides on February 17, 2013 · 5 comments

in Campaigns and elections,Legislative Politics

That’s the question Eric McGhee and I address at Wonkblog today, building on some previous posts of his and mine on this blog. Here’s a sample quote:

The analysis above does not confirm the worst fears about the “great gerrymander” of 2012. But given the challenge of answering “compared to what?”, we would not argue that the 2011 redistricting gave the GOP no advantage whatsoever.  Political science research on redistricting has confirmed that control of the line-drawing process does yield some benefits. The challenge is in estimating what those benefits are. We have tried to show that the answer is far more complicated, and that the magnitude of the redistricting effect is probably smaller than many have assumed.

The whole post is here.

{ 5 comments }

Josh R. February 17, 2013 at 4:19 pm

One question, I suppose: does it matter if gerrymandering was actually to ‘blame’ if elites think it was (i.e.: http://tpmdc.talkingpointsmemo.com/2013/01/gop-memo-gerrymandering-house-majority.php)?

John Sides February 18, 2013 at 12:59 pm

Josh: In a sense, no, it doesn’t matter. Elites’ perceptions are important no matter what the evidence says. The question to me is whether their perceptions really change anything. It seems to me that elites always treat gerrymandering as a high-stakes enterprise, no matter what. If 2012 did anything, it may have only reinforced that perception, rather than changing anyone’s mind. (And, of course, I hold out little hope that the rejoinders I’ve been writing or helping to write will actually change minds.)

DavidT February 18, 2013 at 12:28 pm

The thing that amuses me the most is when some people say “it was really no worse for the Democrats than the districting for the previous decade.” As if *that* wasn’t gerrymandered too–the GOP in 2001-2 had full control in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Florida, and later in the decade they gained control in Georgia and Texas and proceeded to re-redistrict there. (They also had favorable redistricting in Illinois–Mayor Daley was willing to sacrifice a downstate Democratic seat and to strengthen the GOP hold over a couple of suburban seats in return for preserving all the Chicago Democrats’ seats.) California didn’t offset this advantage as much as one might think, because Nancy Pelosi in 2001 decided on a “protect all incumbents” gerrymander for the state rather than a “maximize Democratic strength” gerrymander.

It is true that some of these gerrymanders failed in 2006 and 2008 but all that proves is that gerrymandering won’t work in a “wave” year for the other party.

I agree that compactness by itself would favor the GOP if you took only that into account in redistricting. But that deliberate gerrymandering played a role, both in the 2000′s and in 2012 seems to me undeniable. (At least in 2012 the Democrats controlled Illinois, and the independent commission in California turned out to draw a more Democrat-friendly map than the Democrats had drawn a decade earlier. But North Carolina by itself was almost enough to counterbalance the very few states where the Democrats had the advantage.)

Matthew Shugart February 18, 2013 at 4:40 pm

As John and Eric note, a big problem for Democrats is that single-seat districts waste a lot of votes, and thus will hurt a party that has more ultra-safe districts.

The kernel density plots of winning candidate vote percentage by party in 2008 and 2010 show the pattern pretty clearly. I haven’t yet made one for 2012.

MTNance February 19, 2013 at 2:04 pm

I’m a little surprised that there’s not more discussion of public perception, legitimacy, and democratic theory in all of this. John and Josh above address elite opinions, but I have to believe that public perception of gerrymandering is fairly damaging to the public’s (remaining) faith in the democratic process. Any research on that I’m missing? Or general thoughts?

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