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.
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.