The 2012 national election continues to be a puzzle. Barack Obama won reelection with a solid 51 percent of the vote, and Democrats picked up 2 Senate seats, expanding their majority to 55-45. Yet the House of Representatives remained in Republican control, 234-201, yielding the divided government we have today.
Liberal analysts tend to blame the Democrats’ minority status in the House on Republican gerrymandering, which is ironic considering how expertly their own politicians have rigged districts when given the chance. Indeed, the Democrats’ redistricting of Texas in the 1990s remains a wonderment. As late as 2000, Republicans could carry 51 percent of the two-party House vote in the Lone Star State and win only 13 of 30 House seats.
Still, liberals have a point. After the 2010 census, the GOP did control redistricting in more states than it has for generations, and the final House results in 2012 were striking: Democrats carried a small plurality of the vote nationwide but won only 201 seats. Yet Republican gerrymanders were not the only element at play.
To begin with, the House favors incumbent parties. The GOP advantage in 2012 was noteworthy because the party lost the popular vote while retaining a majority of seats, but its advantage was no larger than previous majority parties have enjoyed. The Democrats defended a House majority in every election from 1954 through 1994, during which time they won an average of 54 percent of the two-party House vote but 60 percent of the seats. In 2012, the GOP won 48 percent of the vote but 54 percent of the seats.
A more salient point is that the House seems to have developed a structural Republican tilt that has grown in recent cycles. It springs from the way the lower chamber is elected: in geographically based, single-member, winner-take-all districts, favoring coalitions whose votes are broadly distributed and disfavoring constituencies that are concentrated.
Concentrated voters are urban voters, and the shift of Democratic strength from the countryside towards the cities is nothing new. The great political revolution brought about by Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal in 1932 linked the Northern urban centers to the historically Democratic (and rural) South and Mountain West, but the latter have been drifting away from Democrats, even as the former have become more firmly Democratic. Indeed, the trend is discernible as early as 1952 in the presidential vote, and as early as 1937 in the vote for Congress.
This shift has continued over the last quarter-century, as Democrats have done better in the cities, held their own in the suburbs, and fared worse in the small towns and rural places. In 1996, Bill Clinton won 62 percent of the vote in the 20 largest Northern cities, as he was taking 50 percent nationwide. Last year, Barack Obama won 71 percent of the vote in the largest Northern cities, and 51 percent nationwide. Yet Obama did substantially worse than Clinton outside the cities. Clinton carried a swath of states around the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers that are dominated by small towns and rural areas—Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, Tennessee, and West Virginia—with an average of 50 percent of the vote. In these states, Obama took an average of just 39 percent.
Even in the last four years, Democratic weakness in rural areas has grown. In 2008 Obama carried 63 percent of the vote in cities with populations over 50,000 and 45 percent in small towns and rural areas. Four years later, his vote was almost unchanged in the cities, at 62 percent, but it plummeted in the small towns and rural places, to just 39 percent. What this means is that Obama became more polarizing: Strongly Democratic areas stayed with him for a second term, while moderately Republican areas went more heavily against him.
How does all this translate into a structural advantage for Republicans in the House? Simply, Democrats have been winning the cities by large margins for generations, so gains in urban centers yield few new congressional seats. The party’s decline outside the cities, by contrast, has had an enormous effect, all the more since non-urban districts, especially in the South and border states, used to be fairly reliably Democratic. Factor in the decline of ticket-splitting, and down-ballot Democrats in the party’s historic heartland find themselves in trouble.