Gerrymandering still isn’t a very big deal

by Eric McGhee on April 6, 2013 · 3 comments

in Campaigns and elections,Legislative Politics,Public opinion

Noam Scheiber has a recent piece about the Republican party that makes two points.  The first is that Republicans in Congress—especially the House of Representatives—are more out of touch with mainstream political opinion than their Democratic counterparts, and have grown more so recently.  There are a lot of reasons to think this point is sound.  See here, here, and here (though see also here for a different perspective).  At the very least, it’s debatable.  Personally, I tend to agree with Scheiber.

However, I disagree about what Scheiber believes is the cause:

What explains the PR pileup that GOP elders can’t seem to clear to the side of the road? Partly it’s the structural forces at work in American politics…But the more direct and mundane explanation is gerrymandering. Thanks to the way Republican legislatures drew congressional districts in 2000, the median House district leaned Republican by two points over the next decade—a big edge given the tiny margins that frequently decide competitive races. Since 2010, the built-in advantage has grown to three points. The result of all this gerrymandering is to give the Republicans a death grip on the House. In 2012, they won 1.4 million fewer votes than Democrats in all the House districts combined, but still managed a 33-seat majority.

As John and I have argued, the evidence that gerrymandering has given the GOP any sort of grip on the House—death, Vulcan, or whatever—is  weak.  And the connection between the districts (however they ended up that way) and polarization is also pretty feeble.

But what about the median district argument?  The median was +2 Republican before the redistricting, which means it was 2 points more Republican than the mean (given the way the Cook Political Report measures these things).  Then it became +3!  That’s a lot, right?

Maybe.  But let’s put it in context.  The median district has been more Republican than the mean in virtually every House election since 1952.  See the graph below.  In other words, the Republican party had the same advantage in 1952, but was a very different party.  So something else is going on.

Median District 1952-2012

Why is gerrymandering is such a popular explanation for things?  I’d guess it’s because it reeks of corruption and manipulation, so it taints everything it touches.  It’s easier to get mad about something if you can blame it on politicians rigging the game to thwart the will of the people.  If more mundane forces are at work, it becomes harder to get mad, and harder to think of the solution.

I’m not trying to pick on Scheiber here, since I think everyone has a natural tendency to lurch toward these kinds of explanations.  It’s just that sometimes there isn’t much evidence in support.  This is one of those times.


PM April 8, 2013 at 7:41 am

This isn’t trolling, so please imagine this being read in the most civilized, non-snarky voice you can imagine:

If gerrymandering isn’t a big deal, why do parties make such a big deal of it? In particular, why are decennial redistrictings among the few times that political scientists (at least some of them) can really cash out–especially if they know how to use GIS?

Eric McGhee April 8, 2013 at 12:22 pm

It’s an excellent point. A few possible explanations.

First, gerrymandering does, in fact, give a party some advantage. This advantage *can* be large and it *can* last throughout the remaining decade. But that’s not the average effect. The average effect is modest and fades quickly.

Second, there is no national redistricting authority. To have a big national impact, a party needs to squeeze a lot of seats out of a lot of states, and hope that other states don’t squeeze in the opposite direction. On balance, these forces generally wash out.

Finally, there are two things that make a particular intervention attractive to politicians or policymakers: 1) it works; 2) it’s easy to do. Gerrymandering is a pretty easy way to win more seats, at least compared to recruiting strong candidates, waging savvy campaigns, and getting your party to abandon unpopular positions. Even if it usually doesn’t work very well, why not try it? What’s the worst that can happen? I mean, if you’re a party leader, why would you NOT pull every lever available to you?

PM April 8, 2013 at 1:18 pm

OK. So, and again I’m being very civil :) , is the argument not quite that “gerrymandering doesn’t matter” but, rather like the argument about political campaigns, that “both sides’ gerrymandering largely cancels out the other”?

I suspect there is a third option, which might be that this is just incumbent-protection and orthogonal to a partisan process. (Or, perhaps, conditional party governance doesn’t stretch to redistricting committees.)

This is one of the few instances where I find the dominant explanation in the American Politics literature so unequivocally at odds with my experiences that I simply can’t accept that “gerrymandering doesn’t matter,” although I certainly can see “its effects are very small” or “its effects wash out as both sides participate.”

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