The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Surprise: Democrats dodged a gerrymandering fiasco. A top analyst explains why.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Democrat of California. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

The long-awaited, long-feared Gerrymandering Apocalypse of 2021 has not materialized for Democrats after all.

Throughout last year, many analysts and panicked Democrats alike concluded that Republicans would win the House in 2022 because of their outsize control over the redrawing of district lines. Some suggested Republicans could take the House on the strength of extreme gerrymanders alone.

But that conventional wisdom just took a big hit with the release of a new analysis by the Cook Political Report. It concludes that the redistricting wars are shaping up as a wash and that the map may be somewhat better for Democrats than during the past decade.

The analysis finds that in the 34 states that have completed redrawn House district lines thus far, President Biden would have carried 161 of 293 districts based on the 2020 vote totals versus 157 under current lines.

That means the national House map, as of now, is slightly more favorable to Democrats than before. As the analysis puts it, the map is “slightly less biased in the GOP’s favor than the last decade’s.”

Once every decade, states redraw their congressional district lines. The Post’s Colby Itkowitz explains why the stakes could not be higher. (Video: Zach Purser Brown/The Washington Post)

While Republicans will remain clear favorites in 2022, the national map could continue to improve for Democrats. As of now, redrawn lines account for more than two-thirds of House seats, and lines still remain to be decided in some places, but those provide more openings for Democrats.

Dan Morain: Everyone is against gerrymandering — until they’re the ones with the power to do it

There are several reasons for all this. In some places, Republicans opted to shore up safe seats rather than gerrymander as aggressively as possible. Meanwhile, where Democrats could, they aggressively gerrymandered themselves.

To understand the full picture, I spoke to Cook Political Report’s David Wasserman, who conducted the analysis along with Amy Walter. An edited and condensed version of our conversation follows.

Greg Sargent: What’s the top line finding when it comes to the map in 2022?

Follow Greg Sargent's opinionsFollow

David Wasserman: There will be a few more Biden-won seats after redistricting than there are now. However, many of those seats will be such narrow Biden margins that Republicans are still clear favorites for House control.

Sargent: You say in your analysis that in many places, Republicans didn’t gerrymander as aggressively as they could have and instead opted to shore up a bunch of safe seats. Why do you think Republicans pulled their punch?

Wasserman: In many cases, they had to. The paradox is that the places where Republicans still have control over the process tend to be their legacy Sun Belt states, like Texas, Florida, North Carolina and Georgia.

Those are also places where we’re seeing demographic shifts benefit Democrats (with the possible exception of Florida), particularly in suburbs. So Republicans are playing keepaway. A number of their own districts have become more vulnerable over the past 10 years. They’ve had no choice but to focus on shoring those districts up.

Keep in mind that in Texas, where there are currently 23 Republicans and 13 Democrats, nine of the 23 Republican-held seats are seats where Biden won more than 47 percent of the vote.

Sargent: To take that paradox and run with it, we often talk about Republican gerrymandering as this big fortress that they’re building against inexorable demographic change. But here the story is more subtle: Precisely because of that demographic change, Republicans couldn’t gerrymander that aggressively.

Wasserman: That’s right. Look, let’s be clear. If there were nonpartisan processes in Texas and Georgia and North Carolina, we’d be talking about much more equitable maps than the ones Republicans passed.

However, demographic change was a constraint on Republican designs. And that’s part of the reason we’re seeing a slight net gain for Democratic performance under the new maps nationally.

Sargent: By shoring up some of these safe seats, does this mean some of these House Republicans — in districts that they might be vulnerable in — now are more free to embrace MAGA obsessions and under less pressure to appeal to middle-of-the-road and independent voters?

Wasserman: In many cases that is true. There are always trade-offs. There are bound to be a few more Democratic-leaning seats in the next decade than there are now. The far more dramatic effect of redistricting is that there’s a decline in competitive seats.

Sargent: Does that mean the trade-off Republicans embraced is as follows: They allowed for the creation of a few more districts that went for Biden than before, in order to further insulate their incumbents from having to appeal to the middle?

Wasserman: They did so to keep those seats in their own column regardless of the ideology of their own member. Republicans moved a lot of their own seats to higher ground to ensure that they’d remain in the party’s column.

But the effect of that is districts that are ideological cul-de-sacs where most Republican candidates will be playing to the MAGA base only.

Sargent: You say in there that if Biden’s approval remains at 45 percent or below, the House is almost certainly lost for Democrats. Is that right?

Wasserman: Yes, but I would say for Democrats to have a good chance of winning the House back, Biden’s approval has to be closer to 50 than 45.

Jennifer Rubin: Polling on Jan. 6 shows the vast majority of Americans aren’t crazy

Sargent: Making a reasonable extrapolation out to what the map might look like based on what you’ve seen up to now, what does the national popular vote have to be for Democrats to hold the House?

Wasserman: Six or seven years ago, I would have said Democrats need to win the popular vote by four points to win the House. A couple of years ago, after Democrats got favorable court rulings striking down Republican maps — in North Carolina, Virginia, Florida and Pennsylvania — I would have said two points.

Under the new maps, there might be a slight Republican bias still, but I think the House vote and House seats are going to align more closely during the next decade than they do today.

If Democrats were to win the House vote by a point, there’s a good chance they’d hold control.

Sargent: What’s your bottom line on what we still don’t know about the national map?

Wasserman: There are three big variables left to go. The first is court rulings in North Carolina and Ohio, where partisan control of two to three seats in each state is likely in play. The second is Florida — how much can Republicans get away with in terms of maximizing their seats, considering the state’s anti-gerrymandering law?

The third — and this is the biggest one — is New York. Do Democrats seize the opportunity to purge as many as five of the remaining Republican seats from the state?

Sargent: Let’s say Democrats do decently on all these three fronts. What happens?

Wasserman: Then we might be talking about the potential for Democrats to hold on to the majority. But I think all of these big variables would need to break their way, on top of a rebound of Biden’s approval, for that to happen.