The real New York Times scandal: Ignoring why Democrats can't win the House

Why is the Times denying reality? The GOP's 2011 redistricting means Dems have no chance of taking back the House

Published September 12, 2016 6:19PM (EDT)

Nancy Pelosi   (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
Nancy Pelosi (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

The March 4, 2010, edition of The Wall Street Journal must not have arrived at either then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office or at The New York Times. It was a bad day to miss the paper, because Karl Rove took to the op-ed page and displayed the GOP playbook to dominate the House of Representatives for the next decade. The strategy, he announced, would be redistricting.

Rove spelled out the plan in Vegas Strip neon: Republicans would spend tens of millions of dollars in local legislative races that fall, with the goal of dominating the post-census redistricting, drawing themselves friendly maps and “costing Democrats congressional seats for a decade to come.”

The GOP tactician could not have been more transparent. Republicans intended to turn down-ballot contests in tiny neighborhoods into consequential national battlegrounds, he wrote, getting so specific as to name-check Brushy Creek in Round Rock, Texas, and Murrysville Township in Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania. “Republican strategists,” Rove revealed, “are focused on 107 seats in 16 states. Winning these seats would give them control of drawing district lines for nearly 190 congressional seats.”

It worked brilliantly. Democrats put up little fight and as a result stand little chance to recover the House until after the 2020 census at the earliest. “The DNC, they just whistled past the graveyard,” Steve Israel, the New York congressman who took over the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee after the party’s 2010 debacle, told me.

Yet six years later, Pelosi remains in an odd state of denial. Pelosi’s curious belief that “Democrats could take the House” this November — which is surely more about fundraising and firing up the troops — was an actual headline on Politico last week. The Washington Post then regurgitated that whole, in a story with the headline “Nancy Pelosi is right. Democrats could win back the House in November.”

The word “redistricting” does not appear in this curious analysis. Neither does much reality: The University of Virginia’s esteemed Crystal Ball last week actually downgraded the Democrats’ likely gains in the House from 13 seats to 12. Either way that’s far short of the 30 they would need to deliver the speaker’s gavel back to Pelosi. And those mild Democratic gains will likely come over more mainstream suburban Republicans, resulting ironically in a House that’s purer in its conservatism and more difficult for House Speaker Paul Ryan to control.

But the coverage has been even more fanciful this summer at The New York Times. For six months now — and an amazing four times in the last two weeks of August alone — the paper of record has ignored or whitewashed history in trying to explain this fall’s battle for the House. Time and again, almost impressively, the Times has managed to write 1,000-plus-word stories about the struggle for Congress that do not mention either of the two most important words — redistricting and gerrymandering — or that diminish the centrality of the maps with a bizarre, passive shrug that this is just the way it is. The actual history has now been denied so many times, and with such similar language, that it’s hard to conclude it’s not intentional and official Times style.

Now, the strategy Rove outlined — called Redistricting Majority Project or REDMAP, for short — performed better than the GOP ever imagined. It explains why Republicans were able to draw state legislative lines so stout that in Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan and North Carolina they’ve captured supermajorities — or something close — in state legislative chambers despite often losing the popular vote. It helps clarify how Republicans held the U.S. House in 2012, taking the overwhelming majority of seats in states like Ohio (12 of 16), Michigan (9 of 14), Pennsylvania (13 of 18) and North Carolina (10 of 13) where they lost or closely divided the popular vote. And it explains why Hillary Clinton could sweep all four of those swing states this fall without a single congressional seat changing sides.

Democrats need to win 30 seats to retake the House. You would be hard-pressed to identify 30 competitive districts. (Indeed, the Times cannot, returning again and again to a Kansas seat where a Democratic challenger apparently trails by at least 15 points and hundreds of thousands of dollars. Also, again and again, the Times suggests Trump has made Florida Rep. John Mica vulnerable, ignoring that he’s actually vulnerable because a court forced his district to be redrawn.) There’s a lack of competitive seats because of the way the lines were drawn in 2011. This, too, was part of the GOP plan.

You won’t find any of this historical context, however, in The New York Times — even in stories with headlines like “What are the chances that Democrats retake the House?”

One of the most recent pieces, “Democrats step up pursuit of House Republicans left limping by Donald Trump,” by Alexander Burns and Jonathan Martin, is a masterful collection of blinkered horse-race half-truths. It is vaguely sourced to “private meetings,” a wine-soaked presentation to major Democratic donors, a handful of self-interested congressmen and super PAC strategists.

The thesis is that Donald Trump’s unpopularity among college-educated suburbanites has Democrats putting additional House seats in play and Republicans scrambling to defend them. It is undercut in the fifth paragraph, where Burns and Martin concede that “Few Democrats say they believe their party is positioned, at this point, to take control of the House.”

Then comes this doozy: “Because of the way congressional districts are drawn, Republicans have a powerful structural advantage even in a punishing political environment."

Actually, no. That’s a nifty bit of journalistic jujitsu, a sentence that is at once accurate and yet completely conceals the truth. This is not merely “because of the way congressional districts are drawn.” Republicans have this powerful advantage because the Republicans drew the lines that way to build themselves a legislative majority even in years when their candidates receive fewer votes. This is not the way it’s done, or politics as usual or some magical structural advantage. This is the result of a calculated political strategy that the Republicans freely admit to but The New York Times has chosen to not report.

The language is nearly identical in a piece by Martin published a week earlier, titled “Republicans worry a falling Donald Trump tide will lower all boats.” Here, the Times political reporter hedged in this way: “Few professionals in either party believe the Republicans’ 30-seat majority in the House is yet at risk, largely because so many districts are drawn to make them uncompetitive in general elections.” There’s that voice from nowhere again, almost word for word – because of the way the districts are drawn. Once again, it masks the story of who drew them and why.

John Harwood is a terrific columnist, but he took a similar line in his look at “How House Republicans may survive Donald Trump.” Harwood did not mention redistricting at all, instead positing that “House Republicans have strong defenses in the congressional district boundaries, which set the terms of competition.” He did not explain that they drew themselves those defenses. He did suggest that Democratic population growth happens within Democratic areas and Republicans “represent districts in which voters already lean their way.” The intention behind the lines goes unstated. GOP confidence that they will retain the House, Harwood concluded, “rests on Mr. Trump’s position stabilizing.” That it actually rests on the gerrymandered GOP firewall also went unstated.

Odder still is an Aug. 23 Upshot column by the usually savvy Nate Cohn that portended to explain “What are the chances that Democrats retake the House?” but was actually more concerned, in the top two-thirds of the story, with explaining the nature of a wave election. Eventually, Cohn turned to the question of how big a wave would be necessary to give Nancy Pelosi the speakership.

“The problem for Democrats, though, is that they might not retake the House even if they managed to perform as well as the Democrats of 2006 or 2008 or the Republicans of 2010. Why?” Cohn asked, and you think, here it comes: the way Republicans drew the lines! No. Because the “Republican House is on very high ground and it will take a large wave to bring it down,” he wrote, adding, “Consider the various ways that the Democrats will be fighting on harder terrain than the Democrats of 2006.” Here it comes! Got to be the lines drawn in 2011! No. It’s because “there are far fewer easy pickings.” Also because Democrats in 2006 benefitted from GOP scandals with Reps. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and Mark Foley (R-Florida), and they can’t count on that this year.

Let’s recap: Democrats won’t retake the House because there are fewer easy pickings and fewer GOP scandals. The words redistricting or gerrymandering, once again, do not appear anywhere in a story about the chances the Democrats have to win the House. There’s no discussion about how hard it is to attract impressive candidates to run in a district that appears hopelessly gerrymandered or about how hard it is for that candidate to raise money or attract media attention. This is like writing a story about the chances that baseball will ever have another decade like the 1990s, in which 71 players hit over 40 home runs in a season (it was only done 13 times in the 1980s), without mentioning the words steroids or performance-enhancing drugs.

This dismissal of gerrymandering has carried over to the opinion pages, where the lead story in last weekend’s Sunday Review carried the pleading headline “Take Back the House, Democrats. Please.” As if it were that easy. Robert Frank, a professor of economics at Cornell, thinks it might be. He rejected the argument that the GOP remapped the House and guaranteed a decade’s dominance. That “betrays a misunderstanding of how partisan gerrymandering actually works,” he Times-splained, before offering an outdated explanation of how redistricting worked in the pre-computer era. If one district votes 60 percent Republican and another 48 percent Republican, he wrote, and Republicans draw two 54 percent districts, they have made themselves vulnerable in a wave election.

What Frank doesn’t seem to understand is that these days determined partisan mapmakers have access to volumes of census data, voting records and reams of consumer preferences as well as powerful computer programs that can instantly calculate the likely result of moving a district line a block in any direction. Today’s mapmakers easily calculate algorithms designed to withstand electoral waves. The data, the technology and the ease and certainty with which they can be manipulated are what made the post-2010 redistricting cycle fundamentally different from any other in the modern era.

Frank used Pennsylvania as his example. He suggested that a state where Republicans won 13 of 18 congressional seats in 2012 — despite the fact that Democratic House candidates won nearly 100,000 more votes than their GOP opponents – actually illustrates the Republicans’ problem. Republicans created four districts where GOP presidential candidates win by less than 2 points and another six where they win by less than 6 percentage points. “In theory,” he suggested, “each of those seats is now more vulnerable than before.”

But let’s look at the reality of 2012. Republicans won not by spreading their vote thin but by packing all the Democrats into five districts where they won overwhelming victories: Robert Brady won the state’s 1st Congressional District with 85 percent of the vote, Chaka Fattah the 2nd with 89 percent, Mike Doyle the 14th with 77 percent. Allyson Schwartz (69 percent) and Matt Cartwright (61 percent) won comparative squeakers.

The only competitive Pennsylvania district in 2012 — again, a year in which Barack Obama carried the state for a second time and Democratic House candidates earned more votes than Republicans — was the 12th, which Republican Keith Rothfus won 52-48. The percentage-point margin of victory in the other 12 districts: 13, 25, 25, 14, 19, 13, 23, 31, 17, 13, 16, 26. One more time: Republicans generated these margins of victory in a state where they got fewer votes, statewide, than Democrats. The lines are stout, and the lines matter. There is a reason why Larry Sabato’s renowned Crystal Ball Report rates only one of Pennsylvania’s 18 seats as a toss-up this year, despite Hillary Clinton’s solid lead.

In ignoring these facts, The New York Times is not the only offender. An Aug. 31 Wall Street Journal story observed that Republicans are expected to hold the House and noted that “most (districts) were specifically drawn by state legislatures to favor one party or another.”

This is a wild false equivalence. There are numbers to show exactly who is drawing these seats and if one wants to measure whether “both sides do it.” After 2011, Republicans had complete control over drawing 193 districts. Another 103 districts were drawn jointly by the two parties. Independent commissions drew 88. Democrats had complete control over just 44 districts.

The Times, however, has a special and outsized role in American journalism. For better or worse, it sets a large part of the agenda and plays an important role in framing the contours of political debate. In a powerful column last month on the many ways the Trump campaign has challenged journalism and exacerbated the distance between objectivity and truth, Times media reporter Jim Rutenberg concluded that it is “journalism’s job to be true to the readers and viewers, and true to the facts, in a way that will stand up to history’s judgment.” He quoted the Times’ senior editor for politics, Carolyn Ryan, describing Trump’s candidacy as “extraordinary and precedent-shattering” and saying that “to pretend otherwise is to be disingenuous with readers.”

But the great GOP gerrymander of 2011 was also extraordinary and precedent shattering. It has, for all intents and purposes, put a chamber of Congress, the one ostensibly intended to mirror popular opinion and the public will, beyond control of the voters. This is not, as the Times would have us believe, because of the way the districts are drawn. It is how one party determined to draw them and the way it damaged the levers of representative government in the process. The process can’t be fixed until we talk honestly about the problem. Too bad The New York Times keeps making it worse.

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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