Searching for the real impact of the decennial redistricting process is like searching for dark matter: Your instruments tell you it’s there, but it’s not visible to the naked eye.
At least that’s what Republicans hope this year. The redistricting process that will culminate in November’s elections won’t lead to a huge number of seat changes, with notable exceptions in some heavily gerrymandered states. Instead, the real impact will be felt when both sides go looking for competitive seats—and find the number of swing districts has been decreased dramatically.
Republicans hit something close to their high-water mark after the 2010 elections: If the party had the benefit of another wave under the same maps, they wouldn’t have been able to expand much beyond those seats they already won. So instead of focusing on expanding the map, Republicans have drawn maps in key states that create safer districts for incumbent members.
“The redistricting process has taken a lot of seats off the table for Democrats,” said Mike Shields, the National Republican Congressional Committee’s political director.
The NRCC counts a total of 18 seats that will add enough Republican voters to take them off the table, at least in the short run. Redistricting has also helped six Democrats move off the GOP’s target list. And the truly partisan gerrymanders—North Carolina will be the biggest boost to Republicans, Illinois for Democrats—will largely become a wash. (That’s not to dismiss the smaller states, like Utah, Missouri, or Colorado, where one party or another will benefit.)
Historically speaking, as mapping technology and voter data have improved, so have both parties’ skills at limiting their vulnerabilities. That is, as gerrymandering has become more scientific, the number of competitive seats has shrunk. Democratic waves in 2006 and 2008, and the Republican counter-wave in 2010, are anomalies rather than the rule.
In every election between 1900 and 1950, an average of 39 seats changed party hands, punctuated by major turnovers in 1912, 1914, 1920, 1922, 1932, and 1938. Between 1952 and 1978, an average of 21 seats changed hands in every election. And since 1980, only an average of 18 seats have changed hands in each election; not counting the six wave cycles (1980, 1994, and 2010 for Republicans; 1982, 2006, and 2008 for Democrats), only 6.5 seats changed hands in the average election over the past 30 years.
In the days before advanced mapping technology, double-digit gains were the norm: Between 1900 and 1978, there were only seven elections in which the gaining party picked up fewer than a net of 10 seats. But as technology improved, those stalemate elections became more common; nine of the past 13 elections have seen one party gain a net of fewer than 10 seats.
And yet the number of competitive seats could be on the rise, if good-government reformers continue to win hard-fought battles over the next decade. This year, the largest increase in competitive seats will come in California, where an independent panel drew new district lines. Before the panel was created, through voter initiative, the state was so carefully gerrymandered that only one district (out of 53) changed hands in the last decade (in 2006, Democrat Jerry McNerney beat Republican Richard Pombo). This year, both parties believe as many as eight seats are up for grabs, giving both sides opportunities.
Similarly, redistricting processes that are taken out of a partisan legislature’s hands have largely led to more competitive seats. Iowa, Washington, and Arizona, all states that hand the redistricting process to an outside group of one kind or another, will have more competitive seats in 2012 than they did in 2010.
Because of the Republican wave of 2010, commission-led states are helping Democrats this year. In Arizona, the new delegation could include five Democrats and four Republicans; today, Republicans hold a 5-to-3 advantage. A new district drawn in Washington state is likely to elect a Democrat as well (though Republicans could compete for an open seat north of Seattle that is much more competitive than Democrats will admit). A newly competitive Iowa district gives Democrats the chance to oust Rep. Steve King, though a member-versus-member primary in the Des Moines-based district puts Republican Rep. Tom Latham in a strong position to beat longtime Democratic Rep. Leonard Boswell.
More states are headed down the path toward commissions, or at least less-partisan redistricting processes.
“The politics of control couldn’t move voters—physically move voters. So they were hamstrung in their ability to gerrymander,” explained Kelly Ward, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s political director and one of her party’s leading redistricting specialists.
All told, 21 states have commissions that play one role or another, whether advisory or statutory. Over the next decade, more states are likely to give more power to those independent groups, either through the legislature or through citizen-led initiatives. If those commissions act as previous commissions have, they could reverse the decline in competitive seats.
And that, in the end, could make the recent changes in House control as frequent as they have been in the past three cycles.
This article appears in the March 22, 2012, edition of National Journal Daily.