Did Republican gerrymandering cause the government shutdown?

October 9, 2013

On Tuesday, President Obama blamed the current situation in which Washington finds itself at least in part on the way Congressional districts are drawn once every decade.


"A big chunk of the Republican Party right now is -- are in gerrymandered districts where there's no competition and those folks are much more worried about a tea party challenger than they are about a general election where they've got to complete against a Democrat or go after independent votes," Obama said. "And in that environment, it's a lot harder for them to compromise."

Is President Obama right?  Are Republican districts drawn by Republican lawmakers the reason that compromise is such a dirty word these days? We put that to the Post's Aaron Blake and Paul Kane, who disagreed on the answer. Their conversation -- conducted via email -- is below.

Aaron Blake: Our country is so polarized that there would still be this group of cast-iron [conservatives] who would be driving this debate. That fact that their districts are a few points redder doesn’t mean anything.

In fact, gerrymandering likely creates more marginally conservative districts than heavily conservative ones, because Republicans want to create as many that lean red as possible. So there are a lot more 55 percent [to] 60 percent Romney districts than there otherwise would be.

Some media outlets -- and Fix Original Recipe -- keep pushing this idea that gerrymandering is the cause of all this gridlock. But the fact is that our country gerrymanders itself, with liberals living in the city and conservatives living in rural areas.

Can you tell I feel strongly?

Paul Kane:  But gerrymandering does delete the influence of 50 percent [to] 55 percent districts. I grew up in Montgomery County, PA, which for the entire 1990s was almost entirely one district, Pennsylvania's 13th. In 1992 Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky won it narrowly with 49 percent, in ’94 she lost it to Jon Fox narrowly, in ’96 Fox won re-election with less than 100 votes to spare and in ’98 Fox lost by about five percent.

Now, MontCo has been split into six different districts. [Rep. Alyson] Schwartz [the 13th district] won with 69 percent, [Jim] Gerlach [6th district] won with 57%, [Patrick] Meehan [7th district] won with 59 percent, and the other three districts that touch MontCo were similar routes.

In his first four races for Congress, Gerlach reached 52 percent just once; in the wave of 2010, he hit 57 percent, and how he’s seemingly perfectly safe for life.

AB: Fair point. But I would say that Philly 'burbs are one of the most fungible areas in the country. Most areas you just don’t have that kind of latitude to really make a difference.

I just think the difference between gerrymandering and no gerrymandering these days is you’d have about 65-70 competitive districts without it and you have about 50 with it.

There’s still the vast majority of members who don’t/wouldn’t have to cater to a swing electorate and only have to worry about the base.

PK: My counter to this is the impact that it has on the leaders. John Boehner and [Eric] Cantor aren’t worried about losing the majority at this point, and that’s why they are constantly tending to their base inside the Republican Study Committee. They don’t believe the majority is at stake, so they worry more about their internal standing in HC5. That’s where you see the impact of gerrymandering, in the way leadership caters to its fringe elements.

Both Charlie and Stu – Cook and Rothenberg, respectively – have fewer than 30 House Republican seats as even in play, total, for 2014. Most of those are not even toss-ups, they’re just those remotely in play. That’s a fundamentally different orbit than what the Gingrich-Hastert-DeLay conference floated in from 1995-2007. Back then, when they regularly had about 230 seats, they pushed hard to the right but always feared losing their swing district seats and, therefore, their majority.

Even if redistricting only creates a buffer of 15 to 20 fewer seats in play for R's, that’s a buffer that, for now, leaves GOP leaders not in fear of losing the majority. The result of that lack of political fear is, leaders suffer from what I call "HC5 Syndrome" – decisions are increasingly based on how they will play out inside the basement room where Republicans regularly meet, not on how they play out on the national political landscape.

AB: Fair points, again. I agree that Boehner likely isn’t as concerned about losing the House as he would have been two years ago. But I don’t think it’s as big a difference as people think.

Fair Vote did a good study on this. They showed that, before this round of redistricting, the GOP had 189 safe seats and there were 89 “balanced” seats. So Republicans needed to win 29 of 89 balanced seats (32.5 percent) to hold the majority. Today, after redistricting, there are 195 safe GOP seats and 74 balanced seats. So the GOP needs to win 23 of the 74 balanced seats (31.1 percent). The fact is that 31.1 percent and 32.5 percent aren’t that far apart.


I think the fact that the GOP majority is safer than it was before has as much or more to do with the fact that they were finally able to pick off all those conservative Democratic districts that should have been theirs to begin with. Even under the old map -- which was not drawn overwhelmingly by Republicans -- the GOP would have been heavily favored to keep the majority going forward. All they have to do is win one-third of the competitive seats.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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Chris Cillizza · October 9, 2013