The GOP rigged the House: Even a massive Donald Trump defeat wouldn't give Democrats control

GOP redistricting post-2010 was built to withstand even a landslide loss. The week's hot political story is fantasy

Published April 1, 2016 4:05PM (EDT)

Nancy Pelosi, Paul Ryan   (AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)
Nancy Pelosi, Paul Ryan (AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)

District by district, no one understands the political landscape of the House of Representatives quite like the Cook Political Report's brilliant David Wasserman, whose job it is to analyze every detail of all 435 races. So it was news on March 18 when Wasserman issued a report that updated and revised his thinking on 10 Congressional races, all of them in the Democrats' favor. From California to Connecticut, and across states as different as New York, Nebraska, Iowa and Minnesota, Wasserman either upgraded the Democrats or signaled trouble for the Republican incumbent in Latino districts and also suburban districts filled with high-income, high-education voters.

Wasserman's takeaway: Democrats could be getting what they've dreamed of, a polarizing GOP nominee like Donald Trump or Ted Cruz who could add uncertainty to down-ballot races. "Congressional Republicans," he wrote, "are entering uncharted and potentially dangerous territory."

Wasserman presented his findings carefully, with appropriate context, and presented the overwhelming odds against the Democrats. He noted the Republican advantage in redistricting and the fact that true swing seats — legitimately competitive districts that could be won by either side any given November — have dwindled to a mere handful.

But his piece then launched a series of think pieces in USA TodayPolitico, The New York Times and several other publications all taking seriously the possibility of a Democratic rout this fall so big that it destroys the Republican firewall in the House and leads to Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Some of them were smart (Politico), others maddeningly incomplete (The New York Times). As New York magazine's astute columnist Ed Kilgore put it: "Now a Topic for Serious Discussion: Could a Trump-Led Ticket Cost the GOP Its House Majority." Any moment now, the earnest panel discussions will begin on the cable networks and the Sunday morning shows. After all, the brokered convention long-dreamed-about by political journalists might actually happen this year. Why not put another beloved, big story in play and consider whether the House might flip?

There is one very good reason: It is not going to happen. One hesitates to call anything impossible during a campaign season that has upended so much historical wisdom. Nevertheless, this is impossible. But if we're going to have seven more months of debating whether the Democrats have even the tiniest chance of capturing the House, it is important to understand all the politics and recent history which explains why it's off the table, even if Trump leads the GOP into an epic rout at the presidential level. Our political conversation around the partisan divide in Congress -- and how it got this way -- is too often shallow, ahistorical and patchy at best.

Much of this comes down to two words — redistricting and gerrymandering — two words that The New York Times would not even dare mention in its frustratingly anecdotal piece larded with the same golly-whiz quotes Democrats working on Congressional races offer every two years.

There is a significant segment of the D.C. journalism elite that believes it is unsophisticated to talk about gerrymandering and redistricting as the reason why the GOP has such a hammer-lock on the House. They believe that both sides do it, that it's the way politics has been played for centuries, or they subscribe to the "Big Sort" theory -- our districts are more homogenous because similar-minded people choose to live around each other, especially Democrats in urban areas.

And for years, both sides did do it. However, what's missing from The New York Times piece and from too much of the discussion around who controls Congress is a real understanding of how sophisticated the GOP redistricting operation was in 2010 and 2011 — and how it has made our politics more extreme both in the House and in many state legislatures. It was different, perhaps historically so, thanks to driven GOP strategists determined to take full advantage of redistricting, new mapping and demographic technologies that made it easier than ever to craft unbeatable GOP majorities, and the wave of post-Citizens United dark money which helped fund it. They called it REDMAP, for Redistricting Majority Project, and did it ever live up to its name.

Perhaps the most revealing statistic illustrating how well it worked and how redistricting has changed is this. During the 1991 redistricting, Democrats controlled the lines in 172 districts, 240 were under split control, and Republicans governed merely five. (The remaining seats were either commissions or states with only one member of Congress).

By 2001, the Democrats’ advantage was down to 135-98, with 161 seats under divided control.

After Election Day 2010, the transformation was complete. Commissions (88) controlled twice as many seats as the Democrats (44). Another 103 seats were drawn by both parties. The Republicans could draw 193 on their own. A party needs only 218 seats to control Congress.

Moreover, NPR labeled 70 districts "competitive" in 2010. After Election Day 2010, the GOP controlled the lines in 47 of those. Democrats drew 15, commissions controlled eight.

That sophisticated takeover can not be easily undone, not even with one bad election. The GOP mapping models in many states took even a worst-case scenario like this into consideration when drawing the lines.

But first, the history. After the Democrats captured the House in 2006 and Barack Obama reclaimed the White House in 2008, many political analysts thought that changing demographics and a mini-realignment might lead the GOP into the political wilderness. Republicans licked their wounds for a moment, and then the geniuses at the Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC) recognized that 2010 wasn't just a usual midterm that favors the opposition party. It was a midterm likely to favor them in a census year -- a big win, played right, could be locked in by controlling the every-10-years process of redistricting.

Enter REDMAP. The RSLC strategists decided to target as many state legislative chambers as they could in 2010, with an eye to maximizing the number of states where they could have total control of drawing new maps the following year. They spent $30 million — a steal when you consider that's the cost of some Senate races — in local elections in states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and North Carolina, all with the goal of asserting GOP dominance in purple states. They were aided by the fact that 2010 became an anti-Obama wave election and many discouraged Democrats stayed home. But by the end of Election Night 2010, the GOP had attained several hundred new state legislative seats (hitting a decades-long high point) and captured some two-thirds of state legislative chambers nationwide. They pressed that advantage big-time in 2011, using the most advanced map-making and demographic technology ever to super-glue their gains in place.

As we head into the 2016 election, it's worth taking a look at how well those new maps performed in the last presidential cycle, a solid 2012 win by Barack Obama in which he defeated Mitt Romney by 126 electoral votes. It was a good year for the Democrats nationally; taken in the aggregate, Democratic House candidates earned 1.4 million more votes than their GOP counterparts. Despite that plurality, Democrats gained merely eight seats in the House; the GOP retained a big majority of 33 seats, down a little from the previous 41-seat edge.

What this means is that Democrats start in a hole — with these electoral maps, it is not enough for more people to vote for Democratic candidates. That 1.4 million edge in 2012 amounted to 50.4 percent of the two-party vote overall for the Democrats. You would need something upwards of 55 percent to get in the ballpark of the chambers switching, which would require many millions more votes. It would require Republicans to punish their party not only by voting for Hillary Clinton, but to further punish them by taking away the House, instead of keeping it in GOP hands as a check on Clinton and the Democrats.

How did this undemocratic situation become our (in every likelihood) unchangeable reality? Take a look at the numbers in three states that went for Barack Obama, but nevertheless sent a GOP-dominated delegation to Washington.

In Michigan, after REDMAP helped create big majorities in the state House and Senate, Republicans had complete control of redistricting. Obama won by 10 points. Debbie Stabenow was returned to the U.S. Senate by 20 points. But thanks to those maps, Michigan's 14-seat House delegation included nine Republicans and just five Democrats — despite some 240,000 more votes being cast for Democratic candidates than GOP candidates.

In neighboring Ohio, Obama won with a smaller majority, as did Sen. Sherrod Brown. But Republicans controlled the entire redistricting process there as well -- and despite the strong Democratic year, Ohio sent 12 Republicans and only four Democrats to Washington.

And then in bordering Pennsylvania, where REDMAP helped deliver complete control of redistricting to Republicans in 2010, Obama took the state by five points, Sen. Bob Casey was re-elected by just under nine points, voters cast 83,000 more ballots for Democratic House candidates than GOP candidates -- and yet Republicans won 13 of the 18 seats.

This Pennsylvania district, the 7th, explains a lot if you want to understand just how precisely mapmakers did their work after 2010. Every one of these lines -- described by some as Donald Duck kicking Goofy -- exists to draw specific Republicans into this district, and to make as many surrounding districts as Republican as possible. Then, mapmakers packed so many Democrats into Chaka Fattah's Philadelphia district that he won with more votes than any congressman in the country in 2012.

(The RSLC lays out exactly how they did this right here.) You can also look at purplish states like Wisconsin, Florida and North Carolina, all of which went for Barack Obama at least once, but have overwhelmingly GOP congressional delegations. Wisconsin is just 5-3 GOP. But North Carolina is 10-3 GOP. Florida is 17-10 GOP. The maps are the overwhelming reason why. (Democrats did gerrymander portions of Illinois and Maryland after 2010, but it's false equivalence to suggest both sides do it when the proportion and overall result is so dramatically different.)

Email records and depositions show the epic lengths the Republicans went to in 2011 to draw maps with the goal of locking in a decade -- at least -- of House dominance. In court case after court case -- whether in Wisconsin, North Carolina, Florida or Texas -- or in other states like Ohio where Freedom of Information Act requests have uncovered revelatory email exchanges between operatives and mapmakers, the story is scary for anyone who cares about participatory democracy. In Florida, a federal judge overturned two districts in 2014, ruling that it seemed to him that there was a shadow redistricting process conducted by GOP masterminds. In Wisconsin, even some Republican lawmakers howled at being forced to sign confidentiality agreements to view the new maps, which were constructed, in part, at a law firm across the street from the state capitol. A judge later rejected the idea that attorney-client privilege would allow the mapmakers to keep details of the process private. In Ohio, emails suggested how operatives made changes to maps after receiving last-minute communications from Speaker Boehner's political team, and how they dubbed their secret redistricting headquarters "The Bunker."

OK, put all this recent history aside. What if Trump is nominated and he runs as poorly as George McGovern or Walter Mondale, both of whom lost 49 states? Republicans currently hold their largest House majority since the New Deal. They command a 247-188 seat advantage, meaning Democrats would have to flip 30 seats to retake control. In Ronald Reagan's 49-state landslide over Mondale in 1984, the GOP gained just 16 seats. Richard Nixon's 49-state walloping of McGovern in 1972 generated just 12 additional seats for the Democrats.

Partisan loyalties have only intensified since those elections, so it is more difficult to imagine a candidate of either party sweeping to that commanding a victory. But previous landslides have not moved the House. And when Democrats got 1.4 million more votes than Republicans, it shifted only a handful of seats. Getting to 30 — on these maps — is more unlikely than anything else that has happened even in this unpredictable year. The numbers do spell disaster for Trump. A wave that big is simply unrealistic to imagine.

Moreover, what too many pundits don't understand is that in many states, these maps were drawn to withstand waves like this, with the help of powerful computer programs and all the available demographic and voting information. In Ohio, for example, GOP-aligned mapmakers in 2011 created multiple indexes and algorithms to perfect the districts they drew. Mapmakers looked to create districts where John McCain would have defeated Barack Obama in 2008, despite running 5 percent beneath the average for a Republican candidate statewide in Ohio.

First, they used the percentage of vote received by John McCain in 2008. McCain ran at just under 47 percent, about 5 percent underneath the average for a statewide Republican candidate – so if you could create a Congressional district where McCain would have defeated Obama, you’d know that this was a solid Republican seat even in an off year for the GOP. Eleven of the 12 districts held by the GOP are safer than safe. Only one, the 14th, is a potential swing seat even in a wave.

Now look at the demographics of these new districts. When House insurgents forced then Speaker John Boehner into the 2013 government shutdown, the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza and David Wasserman wanted to know more about who these 80 new members of the House Freedom Caucus were and where they lived. They ran some numbers, and discovered, shockingly, that Republican districts in 2012, after redistricting, had managed to be drawn more white, even as the national trends marched toward greater diversity. The average district, won by a Republican in 2012, was 2 percent more white than it was in 2010.

They found that those 80 conservatives were elected from districts, on average, that were 75 percent white, compared to the national average of 63. In the 2012 presidential election, Obama defeated Romney by 4 percentage points. In the 80 districts held by the insurgent conservatives, Romney won by an average of 23 points, they found. The congressmen – and 76 of the 80 were men – managed even larger victory margins, an average of 34 percent.

These seats simply are not flippable. The Democrats may be able to take back a handful of suburban seats if Republicans nominate Trump and the party recoils. But the current Congressional maps are built to favor the same angry, older and whiter voters who have fueled Trump's rise. To take back the House, Democrats have would have to win in Trump Country, with Hillary Clinton likely at the top of the ticket. These districts, in part, helped create Trump. The big House majority helped convince the GOP base that they should be winning in Washington more often, that the answer was to be more confrontational and less compromising. Districts where the only viable challenger comes in a primary from the right also drive parties to the extreme and nurture the echo chamber. That enough of these far-right districts would now turn around and elect a Democrat -- that there is even a challenger in these districts capable of mounting a winning campaign -- strains credulity.

Sure, Democrats could improve on the handful of seats they won in 2012. But we all saw how eager that Congress was to work with President Obama. It's hard to imagine that changing even if the Democrats take back a dozen seats.

In order to take control Wasserman told USA Today – he really is the expert on this — Democrats would have to win 30 of the 31 seats where a GOP candidate appears "at risk." Oh, and not lose any seats of their own. Trump or no Trump, that's a steep hill.

Let's keep all of these numbers and the reality of these maps in mind when talking about the prospect of Democratic control over the next few months. Any piece or cable news discussion on this topic that does not include REDMAP or understand how the 2011 redistricting was different and more advanced than any that came before isn't just missing part of the story. It's missing the entire story, and engaging in punditry as fantasy.

There are no easy answers to breaking this deeply undemocratic firewall in what was designed as the people's chamber. (Indeed, there are many who believe that if the Democrats' priority is taking back the House they'd be better off losing the White House in 2016. The out-party tends to gain seats in the midterm. That would set the Democrats up for a chance to retake the House in the 2020 presidential year -- and perhaps put them in better position in state capitals for the subsequent 2020 redistricting.) It will not, however, be solved this fall at the ballot box. This may sound disturbing or even un-American. But the first step to fixing it is to talk about it honestly.

By David Daley

David Daley, former editor-in-chief of Salon, is the author of the national bestseller “Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count” and “Unrigged: How Americans Are Battling Back to Save Democracy.”

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