Darker reds, deeper blues
For comparison purposes, look at the makeup of the House at the time of the last government shutdown, in late 1995 and early 1996. Then, 79 Republicans came from districts won by Bill Clinton in 1992’s presidential race — a third of the entire GOP conference, according to David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report. Today, just 17 — fewer than 10 percent — are in districts won by Obama last November. (There are only nine Democrats in districts won by Romney.)
The Cook Report team has created an index to measure the partisan leanings of every congressional district. What the most current analysis shows is the degree to which members of Congress represent even more ideologically polarized districts than in the past.
At the time of the last shutdown, Wasserman said, not quite one-third represented districts where the Republican vote was 10 points or more above the party’s national average. Today, more than half of them are in such districts.
But it is not just that Republican districts have become redder. Democrats’ districts are bluer, as well. In 1995-96, the median Democratic seat was about 6.7 points more Democratic than the national average. Today, that figure has jumped to 11.2 points. Wasserman notes that the partisan leanings of the median Democratic district actually rose more than in the median Republican district.
That doesn’t mean Congress is locked in concrete. Twice in the past four elections, the House has undergone a change in party control. What those shifts did not produce, however, was any easing of the partisan warfare.
What frustrates many Democrats is the fact that their House candidates actually won more popular votes in 2012 than the Republicans — 1.4 million more — but still ended up in the minority. Many cite redistricting practices as the major culprit and call for reforms that would take the redistricting process out of the hands of partisan state legislators, which advocates say would produce far less polarization in Congress.
While it is true that the takeover of state legislatures by Republicans in 2010 gave the party some advantage in the redistricting wars, there is a consensus among those who have studied the makeup of the House that redistricting is a smaller factor than is sometimes popularly described.
“In 2012, redistricting was not actually the crucial factor in Republicans’ ability to hold the majority,” said John Sides, a political science professor at George Washington University whose blog, The Monkey Cage, appears on The Washington Post Web site. “And the increasing polarization happens mainly between redistricting cycles, not because of redistricting.”