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It's Not Just Partisanship That Divides Congress It's Not Just Partisanship That Divides Congress

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Magazine / POLITICS

It's Not Just Partisanship That Divides Congress

The same demographic trends that helped the GOP keep the House will hurt their shot at the presidency. And the trends that propelled Obama to reelection will impede Democrats from retaking the House.

Members of the 113th Congress, many accompanied by family members, take the oath of office in the House of Representatives chamber on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 3, 2013. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)  

January 10, 2013

The House of Representatives is not just divided between the red and the blue. It also fractures along lines of white, black, and brown.

Four-fifths of the House Republicans in the new Congress represent districts in which the white share of the voting-age population exceeds the national average, according to a new National Journal analysis. In a near-mirror image, almost two-thirds of House Democrats represent districts in which the minority share of the voting-age population exceeds the national average, the analysis found.

For each party, these stark patterns bring opportunities and challenges. The GOP’s strength in these preponderantly white districts helped sustain its House majority in a year when overwhelming minority support powered President Obama to a comfortable reelection. But the party’s disproportionate reliance on whites also means that few House Republicans have much experience in courting nonwhite voters—or much electoral incentive to do so.


That dynamic will likely make it tougher for the party to formulate an agenda, on issues from immigration to health care, that attracts more of the minority support it will almost certainly need to reclaim the White House in 2016 or beyond. “If we are going to become a national governing party again, the first thing we need to do is accept the reality of America as it is today, and these reapportioned districts work against that completely,” says veteran GOP strategist John Weaver. “While I don’t want to lose House seats, I would much rather be entrusted with governing the country than having a permanent House majority that is out of touch with the rest of the country.”

Conversely, the tilt toward minority districts among Democrats reflects both the party’s gains in heavily diverse areas and its systemic decline in the mostly white districts once represented by centrist Democratic Blue Dogs.

Those twin trends could make it easier for the party to coalesce around common positions on issues that have long divided it, such as immigration and gun control. But with Republicans holding such a commanding advantage in heavily white districts—which still significantly outnumber the diverse districts—it also means that Democrats will struggle to regain a House majority until changing demography brings more seats within their reach.

Above all, these divergent patterns of support threaten to deepen the national polarization so evident in the standoff over the fiscal cliff. In Congress, as in the presidential race, the two parties are supported by electoral coalitions increasingly divided not only by ideology but also by race. Each side’s congressional caucus is now rooted in places that differ enormously from the other side’s, in their demographic composition, cultural values, and attitudes toward government. It’s becoming more difficult to bridge those differences. “It’s a problem for the country,” says Tom Davis, the former Republican representative from Virginia and chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. “You hate to have any society ethnically divided. But that’s what we are becoming.”



Compared with the wave elections of 2006, 2008, and 2010, the 2012 campaign produced only modest change in the House’s partisan balance, with Democrats adding eight seats. But beneath the surface, a demographic riptide pushed the two parties further apart. Despite their losses, Republicans increased their share of districts that are whiter than the national average; the Democratic gains came entirely from districts that lean toward minorities.

For this analysis, National Journal used 2010 census data to rank the 435 House districts based on the share of their voting-age population represented by whites. NJ then compared the districts with the national white share of the voting-age population—which stands at almost exactly two-thirds, or 67 percent, according to the latest census calculations. The voting-age population figure includes residents who are not citizens or are in the U.S. illegally, so it does not measure the share of eligible voters in each district. But it still provides a useful gauge of the demographic bent in the House’s districts—and a clear dividing line in the fortunes of each party.

In districts where the white share of the voting-age population exceeds the national average, Republicans in November captured nine Democratic-held seats and lost seven of their own, for a net gain of two. In seats where the minority share of the voting-age population exceeds the national average, Democrats gained 11 and lost just one, for a net gain of 10. (The calculations are somewhat complicated by the redistricting that occurred after the 2010 census; this tally allocated new seats created by redistricting to one or the other party based on the district’s Partisan Voting Index, a measure of political leaning calculated by The Cook Political Report.)

Among the Democratic losers in the heavily white districts were several of the last remaining Blue Dogs—moderate Democrats who represented predominantly white, often rural, seats. These included Democrats Mark Critz of Pennsylvania, Ben Chandler of Kentucky, and Leonard Boswell of Iowa, all of whom lost reelection bids; and Oklahoma’s Dan Boren, North Carolina’s Heath Shuler, and Arkansas’s Mike Ross, whose seats flipped to the GOP after they retired.

The Republican losers in the diverse districts prominently included three California incumbents defeated in redrawn seats with substantial Hispanic populations: Mary Bono Mack, Dan Lungren, and Brian Bilbray. Another loser was Rep. Francisco Canseco of Texas, who was ousted by Democrat Pete Gallego in a majority Hispanic district. At the Republican National Convention last summer, NRCC Executive Director Guy Harrison heaped scorn on the suggestion that Canseco could lose. Democrats “believe that a 67 percent Hispanic seat should never vote for a Republican,” Harrison told The Dallas Morning News then. It’s not quite a hard-and-fast rule, but Canseco’s defeat is one of several last year demonstrating how close that sentiment is to becoming a reality.

After this reshuffling, the parties glare across a deep racial chasm in the House. That’s evident most visibly in the composition of each party in the 113th Congress. White men will still constitute 88 percent of House Republicans, while, for the first time ever, they will represent a minority of the House Democratic Caucus, in which women and minority members are now the majority.

Even more important is the divergence in the voters each side represents. Republicans now hold 187 of the 259 districts (72 percent) in which whites exceed their national share of the voting-age population. Democrats hold 129 of the 176 seats (73 percent) in which minorities exceed their national share of the voting-age population. From another angle, 80 percent of Republicans represent districts more heavily white than the national average; 64 percent of House Democrats represent seats more heavily nonwhite than the national average.

Looking solely at Hispanics, the differences are even more striking: 68 House Democrats, about one-third of the total, hold districts in which Hispanics constitute at least one-fifth of the voting-age population. That’s true for just 28, or 12 percent, of House Republicans. Conversely, 165 House Republicans, or just over 70 percent, represent districts in which Hispanics make up no more than 10 percent of the voting-age population; that’s true for only 81 Democrats (or two-fifths of their caucus).

Whatever the vantage point, in the House, Democrats now hold a clear edge in the portions of America being reshaped by diversity, while Republicans dominate the portions that remain largely untouched by it.


The biggest question these patterns raise for the GOP is whether it is possible to align the interests of House Republicans and the national party on issues that the growing nonwhite population cares most about.

For many Republican strategists, the clear message of the 2012 election was that the party will struggle to win the White House until it gains support among minorities. The numbers left little room for debate: According to the Election Day exit poll, Mitt Romney carried 59 percent of white voters—the same percentage George H.W. Bush did in his resounding 1988 victory. Yet Romney was soundly defeated because Obama won 80 percent of all nonwhite voters, who increased their share of the electorate to a record 28 percent.

Obama not only captured more than nine in 10 African-Americans but also soared past 70 percent with both Hispanics and Asian-Americans after a campaign in which Romney championed “self-deportation” for illegal immigrants. “The national numbers … were a wake-up call,” says Jennifer Korn, executive director of the center-right Hispanic Leadership Network. “Republicans need to look at how they talk to these different demographics without pandering to them. On the immigration thing, it didn’t just affect Hispanics.”

But even some House Republicans from racially diverse districts worry that many of their colleagues representing more monolithically white areas aren’t doing enough to court minorities. “Honestly, I don’t believe they are,” says Rep. Joe Heck, who won reelection in a diverse district outside Las Vegas.

Heck says he’s established beachheads among minority voters by working first with ethnic chambers of commerce. “For me, meeting with the members of the chamber was a door to building relationships with members of those communities,” he says. Then he hired aides to coordinate outreach to Hispanic and Asian constituents; during his campaign, he organized coalitions in those communities. “When I’m home in the district, we would do entire outreach days, visiting multiple Hispanic businesses, even ones outside of my district.”

Rep. Scott Rigell, R-Va., also won reelection last fall in a racially diverse Newport Beach-area district. He says that access and attention have been the keys to his success. “I see a Democrat of any hue as a prospect” for future support, he says. “Your calendar has to reflect that. I’ve spent time in the African-American community. The Latino community: I bring them in.” Rigell says that building bridges to minorities also has required sensitivity to subtle cultural differences invisible to many of his colleagues. For instance, he says he never refers to the president’s health care reform as “Obamacare,” because when “you refer to a sitting president by last name only, some will be offended by it, and some will see it as disrespect to a person of color.”


In districts where the white share of the voting population exceeds the national average, the GOP captured nine Democratic seats.

Both Rigell and Heck believe that the rising tide of diversity could submerge the GOP unless the party attracts more minorities. Heck says that his colleagues in areas largely untouched by racial change “need to look past their own political future and their own district. While they may be in a safe district or a nonminority district, for the party to be sustainable into the future we’ve got to think about things at national scale.… The Republican Party is, I think, at risk of fading away into insignificance as the minority population grows in the U.S.”

Rigell holds similar concerns. “We as Republicans have one of two choices,” he says. “You can either see this as some ominous disheartening trend causing you to hunker down and lament the long-term future of America—or, alternately, the only appropriate response [is to say], ‘Hey, no problem. Our ideas are better, our values are best for all Americans, people of color, people who aren’t.’ ”

Both men argue that the GOP’s disconnect with minority voters springs from tone rather than agenda. Certainly, House Republicans from diverse districts reflect that belief in their voting records. According to the latest National Journal vote ratings, Republicans from more-diverse seats have voting records no less conservative than their colleagues from more heavily white areas. (By contrast, Democrats from predominantly white districts vote to the right of those from more diverse places.)

But polling evidence suggests that, on several fronts, the conservative agenda popular in the vast majority of Republican-leaning House districts could collide with the party’s national goal of improving its minority performance. Surveys, including the Election Day exit poll, consistently show that most minority voters support more government activism than Republicans prefer. In particular, while retrenching or repealing Obama’s health care reform may be popular in GOP districts, the law wins much more support among Hispanics, nearly one-third of whom lack health insurance. Raising taxes on the highest earners also draws overwhelming minority support.

Immigration looms as the sharpest conflict between the needs of the national party and those of a House GOP majority with very few members representing large Hispanic constituencies. Polls show that most minority voters, especially Hispanics, support comprehensive immigration reform that includes a pathway to citizenship for those here illegally.

Obama’s signal that he will make a major push for immigration reform in 2013 could place House Republicans in an excruciating spot. Virtually all of them oppose a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, and many fear that supporting the idea might expose them to a primary challenge from the right. Yet a scenario in which House Republicans block immigration reform (especially if a comprehensive plan clears the Senate) could accelerate the party’s losses among Hispanic voters.

“That’s the worst possible outcome,” says Weaver, a senior strategist for Sen. John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign. “We just got 27 percent [among Hispanic voters in the presidential race], and the trend lines are down everywhere. If we block immigration reform, what is going to happen? We should not only help pass it, we need to embrace it; and then we need to communicate other policies, particularly on the economic side, that can target [Hispanic voters].”


Obama’s focus on immigration reform shows how these patterns of House support are affecting the Democratic Party. One reason he downplayed the issue during his first term was concern among the Blue Dogs that a reform push could hurt them politically. (The same dynamic has discouraged Democratic action on gun control.) But even with that issue shelved, those Blue Dog Democrats suffered sweeping losses in 2010 and further erosion in 2012. In the next Congress, Democrats will hold just 31 of the 143 seats in which whites constitute at least 80 percent of the voting-age population.

That weakness in the most heavily white seats complicates Democratic hopes of regaining the House majority. But with fewer Democratic members relying on conservative whites to win, the party has more freedom to advance issues, such as immigration reform, that it muted for fear of alienating those voters.

Rep. Xavier Becerra of California, the recently elected House Democratic Caucus chairman, says he believes that the freshman members rooted in these diverse districts will coalesce more closely, even on issues such as health care and immigration that previously divided the party. Members who previously were “spooked by the Republican attacks” on those subjects “today are solid,” he says. “The conversation we’re having about immigration reform is dramatically different.”

The change Becerra describes is a congressional analogue to the process Obama went through at the national level over the past year. On issues from gay marriage to contraception coverage to immigration reform, Obama embraced positions that mobilized elements of the new Democratic coalition (young people, socially liberal women, minorities) even at the price of further antagonizing culturally conservative, older, and blue-collar whites.

In November, Obama emphatically demonstrated that his formula could produce a national majority. But the calculus is more complex for House Democrats. While minority voters are dispersing, they remain heavily concentrated around big cities. That means the changing demography is reshaping the congressional battlefield more slowly than the presidential landscape. The 259 districts in which whites represent at least two-thirds of the voting-age population is down from 304 in 2000, but they remain a solid majority of House seats; the Republicans’ hold on 187 of those districts provides the GOP a structural advantage in the battle for a majority (just as the Democrats’ advantage in the most diverse states gives them a structural advantage in the Electoral College).

All of this presents Democrats with a mirror image of the Republican conundrum. Although Becerra says that it is critical to deliver on issues such as immigration reform to convince the party’s national coalition that “there is a reason for the faith that they have in voting,” those same initiatives could make it tougher for Democrats to capture the heavily white districts that undergird the GOP House majority.

That could require a shift in the party’s electoral strategy. In 2006, then-Rep. Rahm Emanuel, who chaired the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, regained the House majority largely by recruiting culturally conservative candidates who won those white districts. But with Obama committed to a more culturally liberal agenda on everything from gay marriage to gun control, Democrats may find it more profitable to focus on capturing more of the 22 Republican-held districts in which minorities represent at least 40 percent of the voting-age population, or the 38 where minorities constitute between 30 and 40 percent.

For now, the DCCC is determined to split the difference. In the next midterm election, when minority turnout traditionally declines, the committee plans to focus largely on the sort of heavily white seats that Emanuel targeted in 2006, officials there say. In 2016, when the presidential race could again swell minority turnout, it will intensify its efforts in the diverse Republican-held districts.

Any “diverse” path toward a Democratic majority will require the party to expand on the three Republican seats it captured last November in California and the one it took in Texas. Democrats have greater near-term opportunities in California (including the districts now held by Republicans Gary Miller, David Valadao, and Jeff Denham), but Texas could prove even more critical to their long-term hopes.

There, the Republicans who controlled redistricting fragmented the rapidly growing population of Hispanics and African-Americans across a large number of districts, usually leaving enough white voters for GOP candidates to maintain an advantage. As a result, 19 Texas Republicans in the House hold seats in which minorities represent at least 29 percent of the voting-age population. Few of those members look vulnerable today, but that could change as the minority population’s growth continues over the decade—particularly if Democrats seriously invest in registering some of the state’s 2.2 million eligible but unregistered Hispanics. “If your rule is to keep [the minority population] in the mid-30s and spread it out over four or six districts, that’s not something you can sustain,” says Jacob Limon, the deputy executive director of the Texas Democratic Party. “Eventually those start turning into 40 percent-plus [minority] districts … and you’re building a coalition that can win those districts.”

Ultimate Democratic gains in racially diverse Texas districts would fit a larger pattern. As fewer voters split their ballots in this highly polarized era, each party now primarily holds House districts populated by the same sort of voters it attracts in the presidential contest. For Republicans, that means a caucus centered on whiter districts, many of them blue collar, and the vast majority culturally conservative. For Democrats, that translates into reliance on mostly diverse districts, supplemented by socially liberal white-collar suburban seats. Outliers who defy these trends, such as Republican former Rep. Christopher Shays of Connecticut, or rural Democratic former Reps. Ike Skelton of Missouri and John Spratt of South Carolina, are dwindling on either side.

This tightening alignment in national and congressional elections promises more unity within each party on most issues. But it could make it even more daunting to forge common purpose between them.

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