Hillary Clinton will win, but don't celebrate: GOP control of Congress is baked in for years to come

Democrats will keep the White House and may take the Senate — but the scandalous GOP gerrymander can't be broken

Published November 8, 2016 10:00AM (EST)

Hillary Clinton; Paul Ryan; Chuck Schumer   (Getty/Joe Raedle/Reuters/Yuri Gripas/AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
Hillary Clinton; Paul Ryan; Chuck Schumer (Getty/Joe Raedle/Reuters/Yuri Gripas/AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

Nate Silver’s relentless anxiety-stoking aside, election night 2016 promises few genuine surprises. The fundamental polling has held steady for several months. Early voting in Florida, Nevada and North Carolina, among other ostensible swing states, should choke off even Donald Trump’s most fanciful paths to 270.

Take a deep breath. There will be no equivalent of Rajai Davis’ improbable Game 7 home run to send Rachel Maddow and Chuck Todd into extra innings on Tuesday night.

Democrats will celebrate the election of the first woman president; the only question is what time the glass ceiling cracks and how many formerly red states come along. The real mystery, naturally, will come from how the monster dies: Will Trump’s death be as satisfying as Ash from “Alien,” or will it be dragged into another season like the Upside Down from “Stranger Things”?

But while trend lines for the White House and Senate smile on the Democrats, the House remains entirely out of reach even though there will be a Democratic rout when you add up the popular vote. It will not matter. Every respected analyst agrees that while the Democrats should slice into the GOP’s 30-seat House majority, they won’t hit muscle. Even the most optimistic study amazingly can’t imagine Democrats' picking up many more than 15 seats, even under these wildly favorable circumstances.

The reality is this: Even after Republicans set the party’s image on fire this year, it is entirely possible even likely that they will hold as many House seats in 2016 as they did in 2012. Americans of all political persuasions — indeed, anyone who thinks the House should reflect popular will and not be insulated from it — ought to be outraged.

There is a reason why this is happening, and we’d better have a serious national conversation about it: Republicans had a free hand in drawing nearly a majority of these House seats. The GOP executed the greatest gerrymander in history after the 2010 election and drew themselves favorable enough lines to hold the House in 2012 despite 1.4 million more votes for Democratic House candidates.

This year, the Democrats may do even better than that. But this is what they must overcome: Republicans had complete control over 193 House districts after 2010, the Democrats just 44. NPR identified 70 competitive seats heading into the 2010 election, and the GOP had the chance to redraw 47 of those. As a result, there are fewer than 20 genuine toss-ups —out of 435 districts — heading into Tuesday night.

It’s reasonable to expect that the Democrats’ aggregate-vote majority will bulge even further this year. Democratic voters have been so effectively packed into so few districts, however, that states as competitive as North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan could see zero – yes, zero – House seats change sides. That’s 0-for-61 – in four states that Clinton could very well sweep. Republicans gerrymandered themselves a 44-to-17 advantage in these states after 2010, and that seems unlikely to change on Tuesday.

If the Republicans hold the House, their gerrymandered advantage in those blue and purple states will likely provide the balance of power. Pundits and analysts will tell you that this is because of population clustering, but they are wrong: The disconnect between total votes and seat count exploded after the 2010 remapping, and that’s no coincidence.

This is unprecedented in modern American history: For the second consecutive presidential cycle, the party whose candidates win the most House votes will not control the chamber. This is how our elections are rigged — and the Republicans freely admit it. In a 2010 Wall Street Journal op-ed, Karl Rove laid out the GOP’s strategy to govern America with a minority of the votes. Republicans would use the redistricting process that must follow the census every 10 years.

Savvy strategists executed a plan called REDMAP — a colorful acronym for Redistricting Majority Project — which involved grabbing control of state legislative chambers, then using sophisticated new mapping technology in blue and purple states to draw themselves an unbreakable majority. REDMAP provided the GOP firewall in 2012 and will do so again in 2016.

This scheme has tilted our democracy in dangerous ways in the last six years – and it is about to get worse. Democrats need to be very wary before celebrating tonight. Republicans will not only hold the House, but just like then speaker John Boehner in 2012 (who somehow claimed that 1.4 million-vote defeat in 2012 as a mandate from voters to put a check on President Barack Obama), they appear determined to continue using this phony, gerrymandered advantage to deeply undemocratic ends.

This is not conjecture or guesswork. It is what senior, influential Republicans in the House and in the Senate are already saying. We would be wise to listen. It has gone well beyond just Rush Limbaugh, Louis Gohmert and the usual insane caucus.

Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican who chairs the House committee on homeland security, put impeachment on the table last week in an interview with Fox News. "This investigation will continue whether she wins or not,” he said, referring to Clinton’s emails. Colorado Republican Ken Buck revved up his base at a rally with similar talk. “Lady Justice doesn’t see black or white. She doesn’t see male or female. She doesn’t see rich or poor. But soon, Lady Justice will see Hillary Clinton.”

And here’s Jason Chaffetz, the Utah Republican who chairs the House oversight committee. “It’s a target-rich environment,” he told reporters in Utah. “Even before we get to Day One, we’ve got two years’ worth of material already lined up. She has four years of history at the State Department, and it ain’t good." Added Chaffetz: "That story about the $12 million from Morocco to the Clinton Foundation? You could take any one of these stories and have a year’s worth of investigations.”

Perhaps more frightening are statements coming from veterans like Wisconsin Republican Jim Sensenbrenner, who has spoken of the “constitutional crisis” that would follow a Clinton indictment and also noted that former president Richard Nixon “stopped the impeachment by resigning as a result of Watergate.”

New York Republican Peter King used the same “constitutional crisis” phrase as he discussed investigations that would last long into a Hillary Clinton presidency.

Wisconsin’s Sen. Ron Johnson has suggested going much further, if by some ill fortune he is re-elected: “She purposefully circumvented [the law]. This was willful concealment and destruction,” he told the Beloit Daily News. “I would say yes, high crime or misdemeanor, I believe she is in violation of both laws.”

Let’s be very clear about what this means: The Republican House, from committee chairs and veteran lawmakers to backbenchers, is committed to a path of obstruction, investigation and impeachment from Day One.

And let’s be clear about this: Republican members of the House will embark on this path against a democratically elected president, having themselves earned perhaps as many as 2 million fewer votes than Democratic House candidates. It would be overreach to call that a coup — but not by much.

It would be no surprise if House Republicans used votes on the debt ceiling to play Russian roulette with the full faith and credit of the United States or if they forced another four dozen votes on Obamacare repeal. They’ve done all that before.

But this — coming in the midst of what The Washington Post has called “widespread and systematic efforts to suppress the votes of African-Americans and other groups likely to vote disproportionately Democratic” by the Republican Party in many states — is nothing less than an assault on democracy itself. Let’s not forget how many of the voting restrictions were put in place this year in states like North Carolina, for example, where the legislature is as deeply gerrymandered as Congress.

Then there's Ohio, where a similarly gerrymandered legislature allowed early voting — but limited it to one polling station per county. That guaranteed the four-hour lines we saw this past weekend. This is no way for a sacred civic trust to be handled. A party whose best chance of winning comes from actively pushing for fewer people to vote should probably take a refresher course in basic civics.

It is the GOP's weaponization of basic civics — the constitutional mandate to redistrict all state legislature and congressional maps every 10 years — that got us into this mess. Republicans have drawn so many noncompetitive districts that it has shifted the very tone and tenor of our politics. Harvard political scientist Theda Skocpol has identified this decade, starring the Republicans elected on these obscene maps, as representing the largest recorded congressional lurch to the right in any period since such positions began to be recorded.

It is also no coincidence that Republicans elected on these maps are so beholden to the extreme base of the party. When the only elections that matter are primaries, Republican members naturally avoid anything — like dialogue, compromise or lending a hand across the aisle — that might spark a challenge from the right. The dysfunction in our politics has been baked in.

Very few competitive districts remain. But the 37 districts that the respected Cook Political Report identified as such this fall (meaning races that were either toss-ups or merely leaning toward a Democrat or a Republican) had something in common: Most were drawn by courts or independent commissions — 78 percent of them, according to the Brennan Center at New York University’s School of Law. Of the 19 districts rated as pure toss-ups, only four of them were drawn by legislators. Indeed, the Brennan center found more uncontested races for Congress this year (53) than competitive battles.

Most political reporters cling to leftover conventional wisdom from before the 2010 cycle, when the gerrymander was reinvented as a blunt-force partisan tool for governing by the minority. They argue that Democrats have clustered themselves into like-minded neighborhoods. To believe that, you’d have to conclude that Democrats in Pennsylvania, Ohio and North Carolina, three of the most gerrymandered states in America, chose to cluster like this or this. Or that there’s no partisan purpose behind this.

The truth is, the patterns that we are seeing in the House have exploded recently — after 2010 — as the groundbreaking analysis of Princeton’s Sam Wang makes clear. Partisan redistricting after 2010, Wang pointed out, “accounts for more than half of the total asymmetry in the House. The top four gerrymandered states have an effect that exceeds the effect of population clustering in all 50 states combined.”

Also, Democrats aren’t all that clustered. In 2012, President Obama won counties representing 57 percent of the population, as a study has showed. That included 53.4 percent of Pennsylvania, 56.5 percent of Ohio and 64.5 percent of Michigan — states where gerrymandered district lines artificially limit Democrats to 25 percent to 35 percent of congressional seats.

Political science studies by Michael Latner of California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo and others have convincingly concluded that Democratic clustering has actually decreased during this decade; it's the imaginatively constructed district lines that are doing the clustering.

Mapmaking technology is now so sophisticated and the data sets on all of us so frighteningly complete, that where we live hardly matters: The mapmaker can sort us too easily. Sure, it may be impossible to draw a Republican district in New York City or a Democratic one in Kansas. As it should be: Congressional delegations are meant to reflect the popular will. Our gerrymandering problem is that blue and purple states where congressional races should be competitive or where Democrats should win (states that were competitive on maps that existed prior to 2011) have been intentionally drawn to subvert the public will.

Republicans readily admit this. It’s political reporters who don’t believe them. The journalists who cling to clustering and the myth of  “the Big Sort” should spend some time reading the emails and memos of GOP strategists from Ohio, Wisconsin and Florida and study just how precisely they created algorithms intended to hold back even a popular landslide. Those sandbags will again hold back the blue surge this year.

Indeed, to dismiss the importance of gerrymandering to Tuesday's likely results, you’d need to think President Obama is wasting his time to make redistricting reform his top political priority after leaving office. Why not talk hipsters into moving to the middle of Oklahoma instead? You’d have to think the GOP strategists in Florida who created a shadow redistricting process in 2011 risked violating a state constitutional amendment mandating a nonpartisan process simply because they like drawing detailed maps.

And you’d have to believe that the $200 million that both parties have already committed to REDMAP-inspired efforts to influence redistricting by flipping legislative chambers will be wasted. The Democrats are going to need much more than luck to change these maps by the time of the next census: If they can’t take the House under these conditions, with Trump leading the party into a rout, it will only be harder in 2020.

Moreover, the Republican strategists who conceived of REDMAP are busy looking for the next loophole, while Democrats play catch up and attempt to replay the GOP’s 2010 masterstroke.

The Republican State Leadership Committee’s next move, according to a terrific report in The New York Times, is winning secretary of state races — and then guiding GOP officeholders on crafting language for ballot initiatives such that referendums funded by the Koch brothers will have the best possible chance. While Democrats race to undo the gerrymander from last cycle, Republicans are thinking three steps ahead.

Democrats will get more votes on Election Day. Hillary Clinton will be elected president. Think pieces will hail Latino turnout and proclaim that demographic change will render the Republicans a minority party forever. Thoughtful columnists of all persuasions will call for a new battle of ideas within the conservative movement to cleanse it of the ugliness that spewed forth this year.

It won't be enough. The battle for our democracy is being fought someplace else entirely. Democracy is losing.

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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