If you look a bit more deeply into the problem, though, it appears even more daunting than you might have expected.
Today I chatted with David Wasserman, who closely tracks House districts for the Cook Political Report. Wasserman recently wrote that due to population shifts and redistricting that have resulted in huge concentrations of Democratic votes in Dem districts — wasting a lot of those votes — Democrats can now expect that the percentage of seats they win will consistently trail their victory in the overall popular vote by about four percentage points.
Can regaining ground on the state level help change this? At my request, Wasserman went a bit deeper into the numbers.
The starting point for changing it, Wasserman notes, would be in the big swing states that President Obama carried in 2012. Even though Obama won them, Dems still hold far fewer legislative and Congressional seats than Republicans do. In Ohio, the breakdown of seats in the next Congress will be 12 Republican, four Democratic. In Pennsylvania the breakdown will be 13 Republican, five Democratic. Those two states, Wasserman notes, are particularly lopsided because Democratic districts are “heavily urbanized,” with huge numbers of Dem voters concentrated in them around Columbus, Cleveland, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh.
Meanwhile, in Michigan the breakdown will be nine Republican, five Dem. In Wisconsin the breakdown will be five Republican, three Democratic. In North Carolina it will be 10 Republican, three Democratic.
In all of those states, Republicans control the state legislatures. In all but one of them — Pennsylvania — Republicans also control the governor’s mansions.
To be sure, the problem goes beyond these big swing states: In several southern states, Wasserman notes, Republicans have successfully jammed African Americans into single districts, helping to dramatically minimize the number of Dem-controlled districts in them. In states like Kansas and Utah, Democrats have no seats where they should probably have one.
But winning back the governor’s mansions or state legislatures in these states seems harder than regaining state-level ground in the big swing states Obama carried. That’s why those seem like the best hope for Dems.
Yet even in those big swing states, Republicans have large majorities in the state legislatures — a holdover from 2010 redistricting on the state level, too. “I don’t think there’s a realistic chance for Democrats to win back these legislatures by 2020,” Wasserman says. That means the most likely way Democrats can make a difference is to win governors’ races, which, Wasserman notes, would result in split rule that could force redistricting battles into the courts, where a more neutral outcome might result.
But even if Democrats were to get something approaching neutral maps in these big states, Wasserman estimates, it could result in just a couple more seats in each state — adding up to a total of maybe 10 additional House seats for Democrats. That would obviously help, but it would still be short of the 30-seat edge Republicans currently hold. Democrats would still have to post pretty big victories in the next few cycles to get close to the majority. In short, beyond the problem of redistricting is the even more serious problem (for Democrats) of population distribution.
“If Democrats were to get neutral maps drawn by God in all 50 states, they would still fall well short of winning back the House,” Wasserman concludes. “What Democrats really need is a massive resettlement program.”
Of course, Democrats can hold power in Washington by winning the White House next time, or winning back the Senate, or both. But even if they do win those, the Dem agenda will continue to be frustrated by GOP control of the House. And if they don’t win those, we’re looking at total GOP control. Ironically, the Democrats’ best near-term hope for winning back the House may be a Republican president who is unpopular enough to trigger big Dem wave elections, like those in 2006 and 2008.