The GOP’s Control of Congress Is Only Getting Stronger

Changing demographics may give Democrats an edge in presidential contests, but the floor is falling out from under the party in many congressional districts.

Members of the House of Representatives meet on Capitol Hill January 6, 2015 in Washington, DC. The 114th Congress convened with Republicans taking majority control of both the Senate and House of Representatives.
Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images
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Janie Boschma and Ronald Brownstein
Jan. 8, 2015, 9:40 a.m.

Where the House Was LostThe new Con­gress con­venes as a House di­vided, with Demo­crats and Re­pub­lic­ans rep­res­ent­ing dis­tricts marked by tower­ing con­trasts along lines of race, edu­ca­tion, and age, a Next Amer­ica ana­lys­is shows.

Us­ing census data, the ana­lys­is found that Re­pub­lic­ans have con­sol­id­ated a com­mand­ing ad­vant­age in dis­tricts where whites ex­ceed their share of the na­tion­al pop­u­la­tion—es­pe­cially in those places where few­er whites than the na­tion­al av­er­age hold at least a four-year col­lege de­gree.

House Demo­crats, mean­while, re­main com­pet­it­ive in dis­tricts with lar­ger than av­er­age num­bers of col­lege-edu­cated whites and still con­trol most dis­tricts where minor­it­ies ex­ceed their share of the na­tion­al pop­u­la­tion.

The cu­mu­lat­ive ef­fect of these pat­terns is to pro­duce a map of con­gres­sion­al strength that largely tracks each party’s ad­vant­ages and weak­nesses at the pres­id­en­tial level. Re­pub­lic­ans now con­trol the vast ma­jor­ity of House dis­tricts filled with the same white voters—par­tic­u­larly blue-col­lar and older whites—that un­der­pin their pres­id­en­tial-level co­ali­tion. Demo­crats, in turn, de­pend on dis­tricts that re­volve around the same di­verse, young­er, and bet­ter-edu­cated voters that drive their mod­ern pres­id­en­tial co­ali­tion. “I don’t think there is any ques­tion that our polit­ics are be­com­ing more na­tion­al­ized, at least for fed­er­al of­fices,” says long­time Re­pub­lic­an poll­ster Whit Ayres.

The chal­lenge for House Demo­crats is that their while their voter co­ali­tion has proved large enough to carry the pop­u­lar vote in five of the past six pres­id­en­tial elec­tions, it re­mains in­tensely con­cen­trated, mostly in urb­an areas. That con­cen­tra­tion provides a sys­tem­at­ic ad­vant­age to Re­pub­lic­ans in the struggle for the House—even be­fore con­sid­er­ing the GOP’s edge in con­trol of re­dis­trict­ing after the 2010 census.

The new ana­lys­is shows that whites ex­ceed their share of the na­tion­al pop­u­la­tion in 263 House dis­tricts—fully three-fifths of the total num­ber of seats. And Re­pub­lic­ans now hold a crush­ing 199 of those 263 white-lean­ing seats, put­ting them on the brink of a House ma­jor­ity be­fore they even be­gin com­pet­ing for more di­verse seats. The Re­pub­lic­an lead is nearly as great in the 245 dis­tricts where few­er than av­er­age whites hold a col­lege de­gree.

“Re­pub­lic­ans are go­ing to have a struc­tur­al ad­vant­age be­cause their votes are dis­trib­uted more ef­fi­ciently across more dis­tricts than Demo­crat­ic voters are, even without ger­ry­man­der­ing,” says polit­ic­al sci­ent­ist Gary C. Jac­ob­son, an ex­pert on con­gres­sion­al polit­ics at the Uni­versity of Cali­for­nia (San Diego). “For a long time, Demo­crats have been overrep­res­en­ted in big cit­ies, where there are minor­it­ies and lib­er­als and col­lege-edu­cated people and gays, and un­der­rep­res­en­ted every­where else. That’s not go­ing to change.”

These trends have pro­found im­plic­a­tions not only for the parties’ elect­or­al pro­spects, but also for how they in­ter­act in of­fice. The num­bers un­der­score the ex­tent to which the two parties now rep­res­ent two Amer­icas: While 81 per­cent of the House Re­pub­lic­ans in the new Con­gress hold dis­tricts that are more white than the na­tion­al av­er­age, 66 per­cent of House Demo­crats rep­res­ent dis­tricts in which minor­it­ies ex­ceed their na­tion­al pres­ence. And while 63 per­cent of House Demo­crats hold dis­tricts in which the share of col­lege-edu­cated whites ex­ceeds the na­tion­al av­er­age, 71 per­cent of House Re­pub­lic­ans hold dis­tricts with a few­er than av­er­age pro­por­tion of such people. “It means the gulf between the polit­ic­al per­spect­ive of the Demo­crat­ic and Re­pub­lic­an caucus in the House is widen­ing with every elec­tion,” Ayres says. “The com­mon ground between those two caucuses is be­com­ing less and less, and the chal­lenge of for­ging bi­par­tis­an co­ali­tions for any of our prob­lems is be­com­ing great­er and great­er.”

To un­der­stand the im­pact of demo­graphy on the House, the Next Amer­ica ana­lys­is ex­amined data from the Census Bur­eau’s 2013 Amer­ic­an Com­munity Sur­vey. The ana­lys­is seg­men­ted House dis­tricts based on two factors: wheth­er the share of their non­white pop­u­la­tion ex­ceeded or trailed the na­tion­al av­er­age of 37.6 per­cent, and wheth­er the share of their white pop­u­la­tion with at least a four-year col­lege de­gree ex­ceeded or trailed the na­tion­al av­er­age of 33.08 per­cent. The num­bers re­flect the res­ults for each dis­trict’s en­tire pop­u­la­tion. The minor­ity share typ­ic­ally will be lower among eli­gible voters, and lower still among re­gistered and ac­tu­al voters. The ana­lys­is fo­cused on the edu­ca­tion level among whites, not the en­tire pop­u­la­tion, be­cause edu­ca­tion is a much more sig­ni­fic­ant di­vid­ing line in the polit­ic­al be­ha­vi­or of whites than of minor­it­ies.

Sort­ing con­gres­sion­al dis­tricts by these two vari­ables of race and edu­ca­tion pro­duces what we have pre­vi­ously called 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 white 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).

In ad­di­tion, the Next Amer­ica ana­lys­is stud­ied the pat­terns of age, in­come, and pres­id­en­tial vot­ing across House dis­tricts. The ana­lys­is of­fers a new lens to un­der­stand how Re­pub­lic­ans have es­tab­lished their biggest ad­vant­age in the House since be­fore the Great De­pres­sion; why the growth and dis­pers­al of the minor­ity pop­u­la­tion hasn’t be­nefited Demo­crats more polit­ic­ally; and how the nature of the ter­rain that each party rep­res­ents in the House con­founds con­ven­tion­al as­sump­tions about their elect­or­al co­ali­tion. Next Amer­ica will re­port on the res­ults of this study in a series of stor­ies over the next week.

Each of the four quad­rants of Con­gress dis­plays a dis­tinct polit­ic­al per­son­al­ity. At both the pres­id­en­tial and con­gres­sion­al level, exit polls show that Demo­crats now run much more strongly among minor­it­ies than whites; and among whites, Demo­crats per­form bet­ter with those who hold at least a four-year col­lege de­gree than those who do not. For in­stance, the 2014 exit poll con­duc­ted by Edis­on Re­search found that in House races na­tion­wide, Demo­crats car­ried 89 per­cent of Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans and 62 per­cent of Lati­nos, com­pared with just 38 per­cent of whites; the party’s can­did­ates also ran 7 per­cent­age points bet­ter among col­lege-edu­cated whites, many of whom are drawn to the party on so­cial is­sues, than with more cul­tur­ally con­ser­vat­ive non­col­lege whites.

As a res­ult, the “hi-hi” dis­tricts that bring to­geth­er lar­ger than av­er­age num­bers of both minor­it­ies and col­lege-edu­cated whites rep­res­ent the party’s found­a­tion in the House. Des­pite their losses else­where, Demo­crats will still con­trol 80 of the 102 high di­versity-high edu­ca­tion dis­tricts in the 114th Con­gress that con­vened this week. These in­clude the pro­to­typ­ic­ally di­verse urb­an and in­ner-sub­urb­an dis­tricts rep­res­en­ted by Demo­crats such as Gerry Con­nolly and Don Bey­er in North­ern Vir­gin­ia; Di­ana De­Gette from Den­ver; Tammy Duck­worth and Lu­is Gu­ti­er­rez around Chica­go; Charles Ran­gel and Eli­ot En­gel in New York; and a long list of Cali­for­nia Demo­crats in­clud­ing Zoe Lof­gren, Anna Eshoo, Judy Chu, and Nancy Pelosi. This ter­rain elects many of the party’s minor­ity mem­bers and is solidly Demo­crat­ic: in 2012, Pres­id­ent Obama car­ried 85 of these dis­tricts and a com­bined 65 per­cent of their votes.

In the new Con­gress, Demo­crats will also con­trol 44 of the 70 dis­tricts with high levels of di­versity but low levels of white edu­ca­tion. These in­clude some solidly Demo­crat­ic dis­tricts, such as the minor­ity-heavy seats held by Bobby Rush in Chica­go, Jose Ser­rano in New York City, and John Con­yers in De­troit. But they also in­clude some more closely con­tested ter­rain, such as the seats held by Demo­crats Ann Kirk­patrick in Ari­zona, Raul Ruiz in Cali­for­nia, and the sub­urb­an Las Ve­gas dis­trict that Steven Horsford lost to Re­pub­lic­an Cresent Hardy last Novem­ber. Obama in 2012 won 47 of these dis­tricts and a com­bined 58 per­cent of their votes.

The Demo­crat­ic share of the com­bined seats in these two quad­rants has changed little since the 111th Con­gress in 2009-10, the last time the party held the House ma­jor­ity. But in seats where whites ex­ceed their na­tion­al share of the pop­u­la­tion, the floor has fallen out for House Demo­crats.

In the new Con­gress, Re­pub­lic­ans will hold 49 of the 88 dis­tricts with low levels of di­versity and high levels of white edu­ca­tion. That’s a sig­ni­fic­ant im­prove­ment for the GOP since 2009 in these dis­tricts, but this heav­ily sub­urb­an ter­rain re­mains the quad­rant most closely di­vided between the parties. It’s also the most com­pet­it­ive quad­rant at the pres­id­en­tial level: Against Mitt Rom­ney, Obama car­ried a slim 51 per­cent ma­jor­ity of its total votes, but only 43 of the 88 dis­tricts.

This quad­rant in­cludes many Demo­crats in so­cially lib­er­al white-col­lar sub­urb­an dis­tricts, such as Jim Himes in Con­necti­c­ut, Niki Tson­gas in Mas­sachu­setts, and Jared Pol­is in Col­or­ado. The Re­pub­lic­ans in this quad­rant in­clude con­ser­vat­ives such as New Jer­sey’s Scott Gar­rett, Texas’s Lamar Smith, and newly elec­ted Vir­gin­ia Reps. Dave Brat and Bar­bara Com­stock, but also a dis­pro­por­tion­ate por­tion of the party’s mod­er­ates such as New Jer­sey’s Le­onard Lance and Rod­ney Frel­inghuysen, and Patrick Mee­han from Pennsylvania.

The core of the GOP ma­jor­ity is the party’s crush­ing ad­vant­age in the fi­nal quad­rant: “the lo-lo” seats where both the minor­ity pop­u­la­tion and the share of col­lege-edu­cated whites trail the na­tion­al av­er­age. In the new Con­gress, Re­pub­lic­ans will hold 150 of the seats in this quad­rant, com­pared with just 25 for Demo­crats, an ad­vant­age of fully 6-to-1. These in­clude a broad swath of dis­tricts ex­tend­ing from sub­ur­bia in­to rur­al areas across the South (such as those rep­res­en­ted by Ren­ee Ellmers and Vir­gin­ia Foxx in North Car­o­lina, Lynn West­mo­re­land and Doug Collins in Geor­gia, and Mick Mul­vaney and Tom Rice in South Car­o­lina); much of the Re­pub­lic­an strength in bor­der states (such as the seats held by Har­old Ro­gers and Ed Whit­field in Ken­tucky, Sam Graves and Blaine Luetke­mey­er in Mis­souri, and Mar­sha Black­burn and Steph­en Finch­er in Ten­ness­ee); as well as places out­side the urb­an core in Rust-Belt states such as Iowa (Steve King), Wis­con­sin (Paul Ry­an), and Michigan (Fred Up­ton and Dan Ben­ishek).

As we’ll dis­cuss fur­ther in this series’ next piece, noth­ing has done more to power Re­pub­lic­ans’ as­cend­ance in the House since 2010 than their suc­cess in rout­ing Demo­crats across these work­ing-class, cul­tur­ally con­ser­vat­ive, of­ten ex­urb­an and rur­al dis­tricts—many of which once served as the strong­holds for the mod­er­ate House Demo­crat­ic “blue dogs.” Re­pub­lic­ans have now hunted those blue dogs nearly to ex­tinc­tion, and stamped this ter­rain as deeply, per­haps ir­re­vers­ibly, red.

In 2012, Obama won just 34 of the 175 dis­tricts in this quad­rant and cap­tured only a com­bined 42 per­cent of their votes. That was a sharp de­cline from the com­bined 49 per­cent of the vote Obama cap­tured in the lo-lo dis­tricts against John Mc­Cain in 2008. That’s partly be­cause after the last re­dis­trict­ing, the dis­tricts now fol­low dif­fer­ent bound­ar­ies than they did then. But the change is also re­lated to the con­tin­ued erosion of sup­port among work­ing-class and older white voters that once again proved an in­sur­mount­able obstacle for many Demo­crat­ic House and Sen­ate can­did­ates in 2014.

“It will be very dif­fi­cult for dis­tricts like the one I used to rep­res­ent to be cap­tured by the Demo­crat­ic caucus mes­sage,” says former Demo­crat­ic Rep. John Tan­ner of Ten­ness­ee, who served as a lead­er among the blue dogs while serving in the House from 1989 through 2010. “In rur­al areas—not only in the South, but across the coun­try—the people don’t view the gov­ern­ment the way [the gen­er­a­tion] com­ing out of the De­pres­sion did. The idea of less gov­ern­ment and less taxes is very ap­peal­ing to them.”

The ef­fect of these trends is vis­ible in the fore­bod­ing bot­tom line fa­cing House Demo­crats. Powered primar­ily by their pre­pon­der­ant ad­vant­age in the dis­tricts low in both di­versity and white edu­ca­tion levels, Re­pub­lic­ans have con­sol­id­ated a crush­ing hold on 76 per­cent of the 263 dis­tricts where whites ex­ceed their share of the na­tion­al pop­u­la­tion, and 72 per­cent of the 245 dis­tricts(many of them over­lap­ping) with a smal­ler than av­er­age share of white col­lege gradu­ates.

House Demo­crats still con­trol a sol­id 72 per­cent of the 172 seats that are more di­verse than the na­tion­al av­er­age, and 63 per­cent of the 190 seats with a lar­ger than av­er­age num­ber of white col­lege gradu­ates. But, in each case, those group­ings rep­res­ent a dis­tinct minor­ity of all dis­tricts.

That trend to­ward con­cen­tra­tion among their best groups sug­gests how dif­fi­cult it will be for Demo­crats to re­cap­ture the House while re­ly­ing solely on the young­er, di­verse, and so­cially lib­er­al “co­ali­tion of the as­cend­ant” that has powered their vic­tor­ies in the pres­id­en­tial pop­u­lar vote since 1992. While Obama has twice proven that Demo­crats can cap­ture the White House while los­ing a clear ma­jor­ity of whites, the pat­terns of sup­port across the four quad­rants sig­nal that House Demo­crats can’t ex­pect to con­sist­ently hold a ma­jor­ity any time soon without im­prov­ing on that per­form­ance. “My view for 10 years down the road is that Demo­crats are still a ma­jor­ity party at the pres­id­en­tial level and they may be­come in­creas­ingly so be­cause of demo­graph­ic shifts,” says Jac­ob­son. “But it will be a very long time be­fore the Re­pub­lic­an struc­tur­al ad­vant­age won’t make it dif­fi­cult for Demo­crats to win the House.”

Next: Where the House was lost.

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