White-Out: Where Democrats Lost the House

In 2009, 76 Democrats represented primarily white working-class congressional districts. Just 15 of them are still in the House today.

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National Journal
Ronald Brownstein
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Ronald Brownstein
Jan. 12, 2015, 11:10 p.m.

Re­pub­lic­ans have surged to their largest ma­jor­ity in the House of Rep­res­ent­at­ives since be­fore the Great De­pres­sion by blunt­ing the Demo­crat­ic ad­vant­age in dis­tricts be­ing re­shaped by grow­ing ra­cial di­versity and con­sol­id­at­ing a de­cis­ive hold over the seats that are not.

Com­pared with 2009 and 2010, when Demo­crats last con­trolled the House, the Re­pub­lic­an ma­jor­ity that takes of­fice this week has es­sen­tially held its ground in dis­tricts where minor­it­ies ex­ceed their share of the na­tion­al pop­u­la­tion, a Next Amer­ica ana­lys­is has found. Aided by their con­trol of re­dis­trict­ing after the 2010 census, Re­pub­lic­ans over the past three elec­tions have sim­ul­tan­eously es­tab­lished an over­whelm­ing 3-1 ad­vant­age in dis­tricts where whites ex­ceed their na­tion­al pres­ence, the ana­lys­is shows. Those white-lean­ing dis­tricts split between the parties al­most equally dur­ing the 111th Con­gress, in 2009-10.

A ma­jor­ity of the GOP gains since then have come from the Demo­crats’ near-total col­lapse in one set of dis­tricts: the largely blue-col­lar places in which the white share of the pop­u­la­tion ex­ceeds the na­tion­al av­er­age, and the por­tion of whites with at least a four-year col­lege de­gree is less that the na­tion­al av­er­age. While Re­pub­lic­ans held a 20-seat lead in the dis­tricts that fit that de­scrip­tion in the 111th Con­gress, the party has swelled that ad­vant­age to a crush­ing 125 seats today. That 105-seat ex­pan­sion of the GOP mar­gin in these dis­tricts by it­self ac­counts for about three-quar­ters of the 136-seat swing from the Demo­crats’ 77-seat ma­jor­ity in 2009 to the 59-seat ma­jor­ity Re­pub­lic­ans en­joy in the Con­gress con­ven­ing now.

The GOP dom­in­ance in these pre­dom­in­antly white work­ing-class dis­tricts un­der­scores the struc­tur­al chal­lenge fa­cing Demo­crats: While the party has re­peatedly cap­tured the White House des­pite big de­fi­cits among the work­ing-class white voters who once anchored its elect­or­al co­ali­tion, these res­ults show how dif­fi­cult it will be to re­cap­ture the House without im­prov­ing on that per­form­ance. “The ques­tion is: Are we at rock bot­tom here?” says Tom Boni­er, CEO of the Demo­crat­ic voter tar­get­ing firm Tar­getS­mart Com­mu­nic­a­tions.

These trends present Re­pub­lic­ans with a mir­ror-im­age chal­lenge. The vast ma­jor­ity of their House mem­bers can thrive without de­vis­ing an agenda on is­sues—such as im­mig­ra­tion re­form—that at­tract the minor­ity voters whose grow­ing num­bers na­tion­ally have helped Demo­crats win the pop­u­lar vote in five of the past six pres­id­en­tial elec­tions. “When you can go out scream­ing ‘am­nesty’ and not get any push­back in your dis­tricts, you are more prone to scream ‘am­nesty,’ ” says vet­er­an GOP poll­ster Whit Ayres. “It leads to an at­ti­tude of: ‘prob­lem, what prob­lem?’ “

To un­der­stand the role of demo­graphy in the House’s shift­ing bal­ance of power, Next Amer­ica has ana­lyzed data from the Census Bur­eau’s Amer­ic­an Com­munity Sur­vey dat­ing back to the 111th Con­gress, the last time the Demo­crats held a ma­jor­ity. To pro­duce a demo­graph­ic por­trait of the dis­tricts rep­res­en­ted by Re­pub­lic­ans and Demo­crats, the ana­lys­is ex­amined the ACS res­ults for the first year of each Con­gress from 2009 to 2013; for 2015, it uses the 2013 ACS, the most re­cent avail­able.

For each Con­gress, the ana­lys­is seg­men­ted House dis­tricts based on wheth­er the share of their non­white pop­u­la­tion ex­ceeded or trailed the na­tion­al av­er­age, and wheth­er the share of their white pop­u­la­tion with at least a four-year col­lege de­gree ex­ceeded or trailed the na­tion­al av­er­age. That ex­er­cise pro­duced what we call the four quad­rants of Con­gress: dis­tricts with high levels of ra­cial di­versity, and high levels of white edu­ca­tion (what we call “hi-hi” dis­tricts); dis­tricts with high levels of ra­cial di­versity and low levels of edu­ca­tion (hi-lo dis­tricts); dis­tricts with low levels of di­versity and high levels of white edu­ca­tion (lo-hi dis­tricts); and dis­tricts with low levels of di­versity and low levels of white edu­ca­tion (lo-lo dis­tricts). (For a more de­tailed de­scrip­tion of these quad­rants, and typ­ic­al mem­bers in each one, look here.)

The num­ber of dis­tricts in each quad­rant has shif­ted from Con­gress to Con­gress, partly be­cause the na­tion­al av­er­ages of di­versity and white edu­ca­tion levels have changed, and also be­cause the 2010 re­dis­trict­ing sub­stan­tially re­dis­trib­uted voters in many states. And be­cause this study used a dif­fer­ent meth­od­o­logy than when Na­tion­al Journ­al first ex­amined these dy­nam­ics in 2009, the dis­tricts in each quad­rant dif­fer slightly from that earli­er as­sess­ment as well.

Over­all, since 2009, the bal­ance of power in Con­gress has rad­ic­ally tilted from the 77-seat Demo­crat­ic ad­vant­age of 256-179 in the 111th Con­gress, to the 59-seat GOP edge of 247-188 in the Con­gress con­ven­ing now.

The story over that peri­od is nu­anced in dis­tricts where minor­it­ies ex­ceed their na­tion­al share of the pop­u­la­tion. (The ana­lys­is looks at the total pop­u­la­tion in each dis­trict; the minor­ity share of the total vote is al­most al­ways lower.)

In 2009, Demo­crats held a 50-seat ad­vant­age (73-23) in the “hi-hi” seats that com­bine lar­ger than av­er­age num­bers of both minor­it­ies and white col­lege gradu­ates—two groups cent­ral to their mod­ern co­ali­tion. After the 2010 re­dis­trict­ing, the num­ber of seats in that quad­rant in­creased, and Demo­crats max­im­ized their edge there with a 64-seat (83-19) ad­vant­age in the 113th Con­gress (2013-14). In Novem­ber, Demo­crats lost three seats in this quad­rant, but they still hold a sol­id 58-seat lead (80-22) there.

Since 2009, Demo­crats have slightly lost ground in the “hi-lo” seats that com­bine a high­er than av­er­age num­ber of minor­it­ies with few­er than av­er­age white col­lege gradu­ates. In these dis­tricts, Demo­crats have slipped mod­estly from a 28-seat (52-24) ad­vant­age in 2009, to an 18-seat (44-26) lead in the new Con­gress. (Demo­crats lost one seat in this quad­rant last Novem­ber.)

Over­all, these res­ults mean the two parties have held their ground in the high-di­versity seats. In 2009, Demo­crats held a 78-seat edge (125-47) in those dis­tricts and con­trolled 73 per­cent of them; in 2015, they hold a 76-seat edge (124-48) and con­trol 72 per­cent of them.

It’s reas­on­able to ar­gue that Re­pub­lic­ans have scored a tac­tic­al vic­tory by pre­vent­ing House Demo­crats from de­riv­ing more be­ne­fit from grow­ing di­versity. The quad­rants are a re­l­at­ive meas­ure tied to the na­tion­al av­er­ages in di­versity and edu­ca­tion, and the ab­so­lute num­bers are stead­ily grow­ing on both fronts: From 2009 through 2013, the cut-off point between the high- and low-di­versity dis­tricts rose from a minor­ity pop­u­la­tion of 35.1 per­cent to 37.6 per­cent. That pop­u­la­tion in­crease should have strengthened Demo­crats not only in the high-di­versity seats but also in places just be­low the na­tion­al av­er­age in minor­ity pop­u­la­tion that we clas­si­fy as low-di­versity.

Yet, as we’ll ex­am­ine in the series’ next in­stall­ment, Re­pub­lic­ans have re­mained sur­pris­ingly com­pet­it­ive in the dis­tricts that are clustered just above and be­low the na­tion­al av­er­age in their minor­ity pop­u­la­tion level. The fail­ure to gen­er­ate more gains from grow­ing di­versity rep­res­ents a crit­ic­al op­por­tun­ity cost for House Demo­crats. “Just be­cause we have demo­graph­ic change is no as­sur­ance that Demo­crats will win everything,” says Ayres.

Still, the GOP’s march to a House ma­jor­ity has come al­most en­tirely through dis­tricts where whites ex­ceed their na­tion­al num­bers.

In 2009, the last Demo­crat­ic ma­jor­ity held a 19-seat ad­vant­age (55-36) in the largely sub­urb­an “lo-hi” dis­tricts with few­er than av­er­age minor­it­ies and more than the na­tion­al share of white col­lege gradu­ates. Re­dis­trict­ing and the wave of 2010 al­lowed Re­pub­lic­ans to in­vert that to a GOP edge of 19 seats in 2011 (54-35). Demo­crats did well here in 2012, re­gain­ing six seats, but gave back two in Novem­ber, and Re­pub­lic­ans now lead in this quad­rant by 10 seats (49-39).

The epi­cen­ter of the earth­quake that has trans­formed the House, though, has been the work­ing-class “lo-lo” dis­tricts with few­er minor­it­ies or col­lege-edu­cated whites. These dis­tricts (as we’ll ex­plore more later in the series) also tend to be older and less af­flu­ent than the na­tion over­all.

In 2009, Re­pub­lic­ans held 96 of these dis­tricts and Demo­crats 76, for a 20-seat GOP edge. As Uni­versity of Cali­for­nia (San Diego) polit­ic­al sci­ent­ist Gary C. Jac­ob­son points out, giv­en the Demo­crats’ dif­fi­culties with work­ing-class white voters at the pres­id­en­tial level dat­ing back to 1968, even that show­ing prob­ably rep­res­en­ted an un­sus­tain­able high point for Demo­crats. It was driv­en, he notes, by the party’s gains in work­ing-class dis­tricts dur­ing the 2006 and 2008 elec­tions held while then-Pres­id­ent George W. Bush’s pop­ular­ity fell to its nadir.

The Demo­crat­ic col­lapse in these dis­tricts since then has been mo­nu­ment­al. The big change came in the 2010 elec­tion, when re­dis­trict­ing and the white work­ing-class re­coil against Pres­id­ent Obama’s first two years hit Demo­crats from these places with gale force: After that elec­tion, Re­pub­lic­ans opened a 90-seat edge (128-38) in these dis­tricts. Strik­ingly, Demo­crats lost fur­ther ground in these dis­tricts even dur­ing Obama’s sol­id reelec­tion vic­tory in 2012 and again last Novem­ber, when they sur­rendered sev­en more seats in this quad­rant. The res­ult has left Re­pub­lic­ans hold­ing 150 of “lo-lo” seats and Demo­crats just 25. From 2009, when Demo­crats held 44 per­cent of the seats in this group­ing, the party’s share has plummeted to just 14 per­cent. That’s a far great­er per­cent­age de­cline than their erosion since then in each of the oth­er three quad­rants.

In a meas­ure of the party’s col­lapse on this ter­rain, of the 76 House Demo­crats who rep­res­en­ted these work­ing-class “lo-lo” dis­tricts in 2009, just 15 re­main in the cham­ber today.

In all, Re­pub­lic­ans now hold an astound­ing 135-seat ad­vant­age (199-64) and fully 76 per­cent of the House seats in which whites ex­ceed their share of the na­tion­al pop­u­la­tion. In 2009, when Demo­crats last con­trolled the House ma­jor­ity, the two parties split such seats al­most ex­actly in half, with Re­pub­lic­ans hold­ing 132 and Demo­crats 131.

Even­tu­ally, the con­tin­ued growth and dis­pers­al of the minor­ity pop­u­la­tion could change the equa­tion for House dom­in­ance. But to win back the House in any near-term fu­ture, these num­bers sug­gest there is no al­tern­at­ive for Demo­crats than to im­prove their per­form­ance among the white voters who have provided Re­pub­lic­an con­gres­sion­al can­did­ates with al­most ex­actly three-fifths of their votes in each of the past three elec­tions.

“Re­ly­ing on demo­graph­ics takes a lot of pa­tience,” says Jac­ob­son. “Even­tu­ally, people will move around and the dis­tricts will be­come more di­verse in states that used to be over­whelm­ingly white. But that’s a very slow pro­cess “… and care­ful ger­ry­man­der­ing can al­low you to hold on for quite a while.”

Next: Demo­graphy Is Not Des­tiny for Demo­crats

Janie Boschma contributed to this article.
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