Last year, it seemed as if things might be looking up for Republicans. Their presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, did well in the first presidential debate, and some thought that the momentum from that victory, coupled with the country’s dissatisfaction with President Barack Obama and the sluggish economic recovery, could propel Romney to the White House. Conservative pundits felt optimistic enough to thumb their noses at statistics guru Nate Silver’s predictions that continued to show Obama with the upper hand on Election Day.
There was even some feeling that the Senate might be in play because Democrats had more seats to defend and more retiring members. All of this gave some Republicans a glimmer of hope at controlling Congress and the Oval Office, as they had most of the time during the presidency of George W. Bush. But we know how that story ended.
The Republicans didn’t win the presidency, and Democrats held on to the Senate. But Republicans retained control of the U.S. House, a victory that has roots in the midterm election of 2010, and some predict that wave could last over the next decade.
Reflecting on the 2012 election, even Republicans say it could have been worse for them. “On November 6, 2012, Barack Obama was reelected president of the United States by nearly a three-point margin, winning 332 electoral votes to Mitt Romney’s 206 while garnering nearly 3.5 million more votes,” said a January 2013 report from a committee assessing GOP strategy in the House. “Democrats also celebrated victories in 69 percent of U.S. Senate elections, winning 23 of 33 contests. Farther down-ballot, aggregated numbers show voters pulled the lever for Republicans only 49 percent of the time in congressional races, suggesting that 2012 could have been a repeat of 2008, when voters gave control of the White House and both chambers of Congress to Democrats. But, as we see today, that was not the case. Instead, Republicans enjoy a 33-seat margin in the U.S. House . . . in the 113th Congress, having endured Democratic successes atop the ticket and over one million more votes cast for Democratic House candidates than Republicans. The only analogous election in recent political history in which this aberration has taken place was immediately after reapportionment in 1972, when Democrats held a 50-seat majority in the U.S. House of Representatives while losing the presidency and the popular congressional vote by 2.6 million votes.”
The Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois took a recent look at redistricting as part of its 2013 Illinois Report. “Explanations for how Republicans weathered the storm in the U.S. House and why Illinois was unusually stormy for them both involve district lines. One cannot forecast U.S. House results, or understand the election outcomes after the fact, without paying attention to where and how the districts were drawn. Most important, in the end, is who drew them,” said the report.
The congressional seats were reapportioned after the 2010 census and before states drew new legislative maps. According to the IGPA report, that completely nonpartisan process helped Republicans’ chances for holding the House. “Following a decades-long trend, the 2011 apportionment saw the upper Midwest and Northeast lose congressional representation to the South and Southwest. The two exceptions to this pattern were Louisiana’s loss of a seat due to the exodus caused by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and the state of Washington’s gain of a seat as its population continued to boom, swollen in part by an exodus from California, which failed to gain any U.S. House seats for the first time since it joined the union in 1850.”
Republican political forces did not miss the opportunity that reapportionment presented. “As the 2010 census approached, the Republican State Leadership Committee began planning for the subsequent election cycle, formulating a strategy to keep or win Republican control of state legislatures, with the largest impact on congressional redistricting as a result of reapportionment. That effort, the REDistricting MAjority Project (REDMAP), focused critical resources on legislative chambers in states projected to gain or lose congressional seats in 2011, based on census data,” the GOP committee’s report said.
According to the Illinois Report, of the 6,125 state legislative seats on the ballot in 2010, Republicans saw a net gain of 680 seats. The wins left them with more state legislative seats nationwide than they had held since the 1920s. In 20 legislative chambers, the control flipped from Democrats to Republicans. Republicans held the legislature and governor’s office in 20 states, compared with only eight before the election. In two states, Maine and Wisconsin, the balance of power switched completely when Republicans stepped into the majorities in those legislatures and governor’s offices.
Most states draw their maps through a partisan process, but not all. After the 2010 census, Republicans controlled the mapmaking in 14 states with a total of 146 House seats. Democrats drew the lines in five states, including Illinois, with a total of 42 House seats.
The Republican State Leadership Committee says these numbers reflect a targeted campaign in states after the 2010 census. “The rationale was straightforward: Controlling the redistricting process in these states would have the greatest impact on determining how both state legislative and congressional district boundaries would be drawn. Drawing new district lines in states with the most redistricting activity presented the opportunity to solidify conservative policymaking at the state level and maintain a Republican stronghold in the U.S. House of Representatives for the next decade,” the committee’s report said.
For the most part, the authors of the IGPA report agree with this assessment. “Leaders of both parties fully understood the importance of the 2010 state legislative and gubernatorial races for redistricting. Republicans made an extraordinary national effort to win as many of these races as possible and probably profited from the ‘good fortune’ of having lost the 2008 presidential race,” the report says in its conclusion. “Having now withstood a fairly poor year in 2012, the party could be poised for more gains in 2014, when Democrats can expect the usual ‘midterm loss.’ Long-term forecasts are always risky, but current members will now have two years to settle into their new districts to improve their popularity and boost name recognition, so barring major national trends, the GOP majority control of the U.S. House could be safe at least until the next redistricting election in 2022.”
Republicans and New York Times prognosticator Silver are on the same page now. On his FiveThirtyEight blog shortly after the 2012 general election, Silver predicted it would be unlikely for Democrats to take back the House in 2014.
While other states were flipping party control in 2010, Democrats in Illinois kept majorities in both legislative chambers, and Gov. Pat Quinn narrowly held onto his job. Democrats drew the maps in 2011, and the state’s congressional delegation changed party hands. “The president’s home state was a conspicuous exception to this point that the U.S. House was the best venue for Republicans in 2012: In Illinois, Republicans fell from holding 11 of 19 congressional seats to having only six of 18. More than half of their net losses nationwide can be assigned to the Land of Lincoln,” said the Illinois Report. Illinois lost one seat in the reapportionment because the state’s growth did not keep pace with other areas. The state has gone from 24 congressional seats in 1970 to 18 today.
The political mapmaking process takes into account many factors and tries to predict demographic and political trends over the coming decade. The party in power often draws its own districts with slim majorities, making a district just the right side of “safe” to avoid wasting loyal party voters who could be used to make another district tilt to the party’s advantage. This practice also makes such districts susceptible to population drifts. And, of course, campaign money, personality, incumbency, constituent services and good old-fashioned political scandals are always around to play their roles in elections.
The IGPA report has this warning for anyone who believes that it is only about the maps: “Control over redistricting is not always a guarantee of electoral success. Sometimes, parties forgo the opportunity to try to maximize seat totals. Moreover, finely drawn partisan gerrymanders can backfire when there is a large swing against the mapmaking party because such a map features fairly small advantages for the favored party, by definition.”
Still, the authors look at the mapmaking in Illinois and other states and argue for a different system that lessens the influence of politics on the process. “Our purpose ... is not to denounce Democratic control of the Illinois U.S. House delegation or Republican control of the U.S. House. But ... in the end, it is difficult to defend electoral maps that are expressly designed to exaggerate partisan advantages and insulate elected officials from public sentiment,” the report says. “Any electoral system involving single-member districts will have some redistricting effects. But these can be small when the lines are not driven almost exclusively by partisan considerations. In turn, partisan control of the process of drawing districts should be regarded with suspicion by anyone who is genuinely disinterested in regard to the fates of the parties but keen on competitive races and responsive elections. Smart politicians armed with the power to fix election results will find the temptation very hard to resist.”
This redistricting analysis was one chapter in the IGPA’s Illinois Report. The document covers several other areas of state policy.
Illinois Issues, April 2013