Democrats continue to try to explain away their Congressional and state legislative weakness as a result of GOP gerrymandering. How else can one explain their relief in the Supreme Court’s decision not to overturn Arizona’s Independent Redistricting Commission? But such an explanation misses other key attributes Democrats are loath to acknowledge publicly but discuss privately.
Democrats political coalition is increasingly upscale/downscale. Their low-income elements dominate VRA mandated majority-minority districts and urban centers while their upper-income base is clustered in urban suburbs. Indeed, the farther one gets from urban centers the more conservative leaning individuals become. This creates two problems, a turnout issue and an ideological issue.
Ideologically, the party’s upper and lower-income base are on the same page. But when it comes to the results of those programs they are not. In 2014 Democrats held almost every majority-minority seat they had while they lost upper-income Congressional races nationwide-most notably in the Philly (6, 7, 8) Chicago (10), Detroit (7, 8) and Denver suburbs (6). Take Maryland’s gubernatorial contest as an example. Republican businessman Larry Hogan won every suburban county in the state by wide margins. But when it came to urban Baltimore and Montgomery County he was crushed. In essence, many upper-income suburbanites who lean Democratic swung to Hogan over the lack of performance of state programs.
The Democrats reliance on a diverse coalition is also a significant problem, especially in midterms like last year. Key Democratic constituencies like single women and Hispanics will turnout in Presidential years but not so much in primaries. In the 2014 Colorado Senate race single women made up a mere 16% of the electorate compared to over 20% in 2012. Republican Corey Gardner took the race by 3%. In Nevada and California, Hispanic turnout dropped by over 40% in some races. In NV-4, a heavily Hispanic district Obama carried by 10% carried in 2012, turnout dropped an astonishing 45% allowing a Republican to carry the seat by a narrow 3%.
By themselves these two factors do not explain why Democrats are at such a disadvantage in Congress and legislative chambers nationwide. Another factor is at work. It has been described differently by different analysts. Sean Trende has described it as wasted votes. Essentially, Democratic votes are increasingly clustered in dense, urban areas making those areas increasing safe for Democrats but the surrounding areas more conservative.
Take the case of North Carolina from 2012 to 2014. In 2012, Mitt Romney won the state with 50% of the vote. Yet Democrats won a narrow majority of the Congressional vote but won a mere four of the state’s Congressional districts. Democrats look at this result as the ultimate form of gerrymandering. Unfortunately, this is a simplistic explanation. Consider the distribution of votes across the state. Democrats won three districts by over 50%. Their forth they won by a mere .2%. Republicans, on the other hand, won none of their districts by more than 30%. This gives Democrats an extremely small pool of voters to scatter across the state’s far less heavily Democratic districts.
This kind of analysis could be performed in numerous other states. Take another example in Ohio. Democrats won four Congressional districts in the state in 2012. One race was uncontested but in the other three Democrats won by over 40%. Again, this creates a much smaller pool of Democratic voters to be spread across the state. This situation is a reflection of the nation’s increasingly ideological but also geographical polarization.
Now, Democrats do have a point that Republican gerrymandering helped increase this factor’s impact on the 2012 and 2014 elections. But, let’s not forget in the states Democrats controlled after 2010 (Illinois, Massachusetts, Connecticut, etc.) they drew heavily gerrymandered maps in their favor. Also, Democrats are quick to discount another factor that has impacted Congress’s political affiliation, realignment.
Democrats used to dominate the South due to conservative whites and minorities. But starting in the 90’s and continuing into 2014, white Democrats have literally disappeared from all parts of the Deep South except for Florida. Consider what happened last year. Mary Landrieu (LA-D), the last Southern, white Democratic to hold a statewide, federal office lost in a run-off. Democratic challenges for Senate seats in Georgia, Mississippi and Alabama flipped. In Georgia the last white Southern Democratic Congressman lost and considering he won in the same district in 2012 it cannot be solely attributed to redistricting. In West Virginia, 19 term Democrat Nick Rahall lost to Democrat turned Republican state senator Evan Jenkins. Congresswomen Shelley Moore Capito became the state’s first GOP Senator in 55 years. Southern whites have ultimately shifted to the GOP ideologically and culturally.
All these factors have had an impact on the composition of Congress. The extinction of white, Southern Democrats, natural geographic ideological clustering and the Democrats upscale/downscale, majority-minority coalition have all favored Democrats. To blame Democratic weakness in Congress and the states solely on gerrymandering misses the forest for the trees and only serves to salve the party’s wounds. For until Democrats come to grips with the fact their agenda is unpopular in dozens of Southern, white districts and does not appeal outside urban, majority minority areas they will be locked out of power in Congress.