The Magazine

Location, Location

The secret to the Republicans' House majority.

Apr 22, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 30 • By JAY COST
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What’s more, this effect has been amplified by the 1982 amendments to the Voting Rights Act. As originally passed in 1965, the Voting Rights Act prohibited the rigging of election rules with the intent to discriminate against minority voters. But with the 1982 amendments, spearheaded by the left and signed into law by Ronald Reagan, “intent” was changed to “effect,” and so was born the federal mandate that, whenever possible, redistricters must pack nonwhite voters into minority-majority districts so as to elect nonwhites to Congress.

Here’s how this plays out. Suppose you are a white Democratic congressman from the South in the 1980s. A majority of your constituents are voting Republican on the presidential level, but you still pull in maybe 40 percent of the white vote based on ancestral ties to your party, your history of district service, a moderate voting record, and so on. You also win 90 percent of the black vote. The two combined put you over the top. Once the amended Voting Rights Act comes into play after the 1990 census, however, redistricting increasingly concentrates black voters in the South (and Latinos in Florida and Texas) in minority-majority districts; and more and more whites are voting Republican down-ballot. So, as a white Democrat, you probably retire or lose in Republican waves like 1994 and 2010. And when your district finally goes Republican, it doesn’t go back.

This has been the most prominent development in House elections over the last generation. As late as 1990, Democrats won 56 percent of the Southern vote for the House and 66 percent of the seats. In 2012, the Democrats won 42 percent of the Southern House vote and a paltry 29 percent of the seats. And all but six of the Southern seats won by Democrats were either minority-majority or “minority-influence” districts (where no single ethnic or racial group is a majority, but non-Hispanic whites are a minority).

Compounding the problem for Democrats is the drift of population away from areas where Democrats dominate—like New England—to the South, where Republicans get to draw district lines. Thus, in 2012, Democrats won 54 percent of the seats from outside the states of the Old Confederacy, which is about the same as in the 1970s or ’80s. But now, winning the North is worth fewer seats than before.

So gerrymandering after 2010 did indeed help the Republicans hold the House last year, but it only amplified existing patterns and trends. The Democratic brand has been improving in places where there are few if any seats to gain, while declining where the party has stood to lose dozens of seats.

This is not to say that House Republicans have a permanent majority—far from it. But it is to say that the party’s minimum number of seats has substantially risen over the past generation, and maybe even since 2010. In 2008, a terrible year for Republicans, the party held 178 House seats, roughly equal to the 182 seats the GOP won in the Reagan landslide of 1984. Similarly, the 234 seats the Republicans won last year (despite losing the popular vote) are more than the party won in 1994 or any other year since 1928, with the exception of 2010.

All this must be kept in mind when liberals trumpet the new Democratic majority they believe emerged in 2006. Even if they are right, it appears to be a presidential-level electoral majority, but not a governing majority. After all, in our system of government, it matters not only how many votes you win, but where those votes are located. And for now, Republican votes appear to be better situated than Democratic ones. 

Jay Cost is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.

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