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Obama Is Wrong: Gerrymandering Isn't to Blame for the GOP Fever

Chris Buck

Last summer, President Barack Obama expressed the hope that, if he won the upcoming election, "the fever may break"—a reference, of course, to Republican obstructionism in Congress, the House in particular. Obama won the election; the fever did not break. Why not? In an interview with The New Republic last month, Obama argued that gerrymandering was to blame: 

The House Republican majority is made up mostly of members who are in sharply gerrymandered districts that are very safely Republican and may not feel compelled to pay attention to broad-based public opinion, because what they're really concerned about is the opinions of their specific Republican constituencies.

It's not surprising that Obama holds this view, since much of the mainstream media does, too. But the president is wrong: Republicans aren't in safe districts because of gerrymandering; increasing the number of competitive districts wouldn't necessarily make Republicans more likely to support the president's agenda; and it's even possible that the number of moderate Republicans has been inflated by gerrymandering in blue states. 

Republicans reside in safely conservative districts for a simple reason: It's difficult to draw competitive districts in a deeply polarized country. Americans are geographically segregated along a variety of demographic lines, and most demographic groups side decidedly with one party or the other. African Americans, for instance, are heavily concentrated in urban areas, while white evangelical Christians dominate the Southern countryside. Since "fair" congressional districts preserve geographic integrity and tend to promote homogenous districts, even a fair redistricting process would leave Republicans in deeply conservative districts. 

Consider Texas, where every Republican is nestled in a safe district. While one might be tempted to blame gerrymandering, even a Democratic-led gerrymander wouldn't yield competitive districts there. The Lone Star State has 254 counties, 244 of which were won by either Obama or Romney by at least 10 points. Even the competitive counties aren't especially competitive at the precinct level; Obama won Harris County, home to the Houston metropolitan area, by .08 points, but he did so by winning the city of Houston and its diverse inner suburbs by a large margin, while losing by a nearly equal margin in its white and more affluent suburbs. As a result, it's virtually impossible to draw more than a few competitive districts that retain geographic and demographic coherence. In order to make more competitive districts in Texas, one would actually need to gerrymander the state: It would require artificially competitive districts that snake from heavily Democratic cities with large minority populations to the equally conservative countryside and suburbs.

And Texas is not the extreme example you might think; it's actually representative of the South. The combination of de facto segregation, extreme racial polarization, and the Voting Rights Act (which requires the creation of minority-majority districts) ensure that Republicans preside over extraordinarily red districts in the former Confederacy. If anything, Texas is a more favorable example for Democrats than other red states. While a gerrymander to create competitive districts in Texas is highly unlikely—although illegal under the Voting Rights Act—it's at least conceivable on paper. In more homogenous states of the Mountain West and Midwest, no amount of gerrymandering could create many competitive districts. And with more than half of House Republicans hailing from Romney states, more than half of House Republicans are assured to rest in deeply conservative districts, no matter who draws the lines.

Further north, similar but weaker forces reduce the number of competitive districts. Northern suburbs are more politically diverse, so there's room for more competitive districts than in the South. But northern cities are just as Democratic and the white hinterlands are more than conservative enough to be safely Republican. Take the swing state of Pennsylvania, where just 19 percent of voters live in a county where either presidential candidate won by 5 points or less, and just 27 percent live in a county where the margin was less than 10 points. Twenty-seven percent of voters living in marginally competitive counties creates room to craft a certain number of moderate districts in the Philadelphia suburbs or the Lehigh Valley, but the safely conservative countryside would still ensure that a majority of northern Republicans hail from safe districts.

Even if a gerrymander created a modest number of artificially balanced districts, it might not moderate the House Republican caucus. In a useful if underreported piece, John Sides used data from political scientists Simon Jackman and Nolan McCarty to show that there is only a weak relationship between the partisanship of a district and the partisanship of its representative. Put differently: The Republicans from blue states just aren't much more moderate than their peers from blood-red districts. Don't be surprised: Recall that the GOP was all but entirely unified in its opposition to the Affordable Care Act and the Recovery Act. Since even Republicans from competitive districts opposed most of the president's agenda, it's difficult to argue, as Obama has, that general-election pressures are responsible for polarization.

Let's pretend that moderate districts did, in fact, reduce polarization. Even then, gerrymandering might actually increase the number of moderate Republicans. Partisan gerrymandering works by piling your opponent's voters into a small number of deeply partisan districts, and then dividing the rest of the state into a larger number of less partisan districts that lean in the direction of the gerrymandering party. Because the party in charge is spreading its votes over a larger number of districts, their districts are relatively competitive. That's why states like Pennsylvania and Michigan hold a large number of modestly Republican districts.

While these northern Republicans vote with the party, as demonstrated by Jackman and McCarty, they're still a relative force for moderation. In the "fiscal cliff" deal, northern Republicans were far more likely to vote for the Senate compromise—and their ranks had been inflated by GOP-led redistricting efforts in states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Illinois. Pennsylvania's delegation, for instance, voted unanimously for the fiscal cliff deal, and Pennsylvania might be the most gerrymandered state in the union. Without GOP-led redistricting in the blue states, conservative Republicans in red states would constitute an even larger share of the GOP caucus, making it even more difficult to reach compromises like the fiscal cliff deal.

Not that gerrymandering is fruitless. These same blue state Republicans, after all, are part of a GOP majority in the House—which redistricting helped the party keep, even though they lost the House popular vote. But even if redistricting were non-partisan, Republicans would possess a modest advantage in the chamber. Democrats do even better in cities than Republicans do in rural areas, so even a fair process would pack a larger number of Democratic voters into strongly Democratic districts. Philadelphia, for instance, voted 85 percent for Obama, but only a handful of rural counties in Pennsylvania topped 70 percent for Romney. It's not clear that Republicans would lose control of the House under a "fair" redistricting process, but their margin would certainly shrink, perhaps considerably.

Could fairer districts moderate Republicans? Perhaps. The House leadership might be more inclined to compromise if they believed their control was at stake—as it would be without gerrymandering. On the other hand, the loss of moderate northern Republicans would make the House GOP caucus even more conservative. But this isn't the rationale advanced by Obama, or others who blame the Hill's polarization on safe, gerrymandered districts, rather than fingering the real (and simpler) culprit: the wide ideological divide between conservatives and liberals. Maybe that's why the president hasn't been able to break the fever: He's misdiagnosed its cause.

Correction: A previous version of this article confused the Civil Rights Act with the Voting Rights Act.