© by Terry Chay on flickr

About gerrymandering

I was surprised that the betting markets had the Democratic Party with a 19% chance of retaking Congress. To do so, they would have to flip nearly 50 seats.

While in the modern era, the Republicans have pulled this off twice (1994, 2010), the Democrats have only reached this number in 1974. That’s because wave elections of the magnitude needed usually occur only in midterm years when the sitting president has an ebb in popularity and the Republican party is stronger during midterms because of voting patterns.

Another way to look at it right now the Republicans have their largest House majority since just before the stock market crash kicked off the Great Depression. The challenge of flipping that seems insurmountable in an electorate as polarized as this one.

The press has mostly been focused on Donald Trump dragging down the ticket and Paul Ryan’s attempt to dance with that. So the articles focusing on the chances of the House flipping have actually decreased from last year because the conventional wisdom is that the only people who actually are at risk are Republican U.S. senators in blue or battleground states like (Illinois, Wisconsin, New Hampshire), and (Pennsylvania, Florida, Ohio).

But the betting markets are capturing something the press isn’t: s wave is a wave is a wave, and this year is looking to be a Democratic wave due to demographics, it being a presidential election year, and Donald Trump. This is compounded by the fact that strategically Donald Trump is planning on funding and running his campaign by piggybacking off the Republican National Committee. This exacerbates the problem because: 1) it siphons funds and resources from congressional elections to the general; 2) since battleground states have large electoral vote counts, there is no correlation between contested districts and battleground states; and 3) the Republicans have increasingly depended financially on large donors via Citizen’s United and outsourced most of the voter outreach and research to third party organizations, so neither the money, nor the knowledge is actually in the RNC.

By giving 5-to-1 odds, the markets are saying, “Yeah, it’s going to be a wave, but that’s not enough. But hey, we could always be wrong.” My instincts are more around 25% instead of 19% — akin to saying, “It’s possible the wave will be big enough, but it’s still far, far more likely it’ll take another election year for this wave to crest.”

That’s because I think betting markets have not (yet) correctly priced in the gerrymandering. Right now everyone is saying that gerrymandering favors the Republicans, which it does. Through gerrymandering, Republican state houses in 2010 has acted as a deep red firewall against a Democratic wave and districts are more partisan than every because of it. Evidence certainly backs it up as nationally there were more votes for Democratic congressional candidates than Republican ones in 2012 and 2014, and yet the Republican party gained seats.

However, read that again, nationally there were more votes for Democratic congressional candidates than Republican ones in 2012 and 2014. What that shows is the success of gerrymandering, but that success is a recipe for long term failure, and that failure effect will have to be larger to compensate.

States like California are forced by law to district in a non-partisan manner. In California, the Democratic Party has every state-wide office and a supermajority.

The traditional way of gerrymandering would be to pack heavily Democratic districts together. This is especially easy to do because, in the modern era, their strength has been around cities which are geographically compact. However, that trick was maxed out after 2002 when suburbs/exurbs became both population-dominant and purple. The 2012 approach to gerrymandering became much more sophisticated because the overall voter demographics haven’t been favoring the Republicans since the 1980s.

To understand the new approach, consider a state like Texas which gained four seats in Congress for 2012. Because Latinos and cities account for all of that growth and it was a presidential election year, one would expect a congressional wave for the Democratic party that year — about seven seats gained. After a hard-fought legal battle, the districts were gerrymandered to net the Democrats only three and the Republicans one. Not only that, the districts are so partisan that there was only a single congressional election within 10 points in the state in 2012 (TX-23). The markets have “priced in” this effect.

However, in order to do have this success you can’t just do like TX-35 (connects San Antonio to Austin) or TX-33 (connects liberal parts of Ft. Worth to Dallas) to build ultra-concentrated Democratic districts, you also have to wrap TX-2 around TX-18 and TX-29. The latter two concentrate majority-minority districts, but the first was gerrymandered in 2002 to create a safe Republican seat out of a Democratic one and gerrymandered again in 2012 to absorb number of Democratic-leaning people so that the state could create TX-36 as a safe Republican district, while maintaining TX-2 as a safe Republican one.

How? Basically the increase in census must mean that the state would have to weaken Republican districts by adding Democratic-leaning populations to maintain their control. However, they make it “safe” by using advanced voting models that add large amounts of people who would vote Democratic but don’t vote to these Republican districts. The model knows these people don’t vote, but demographically the model also knows they’d vote for the Democratic Party heavily if they did. It’s like an advanced version of building a prison in a red district and counting non-voting prisoners from cities as part of your district.

The last Democratic wave was 2006. This implies the shelf life of gerrymandering in the United States is six years. Around now is when the models start breaking down. Furthermore, non-voting Democrats are heavily Hispanic and Trump has activated that cohort after he called them rapists and decided to build a wall with Mexico.

I’m not saying TX-2 will flip — a 37 point swing is near impossible — but there is a huge democratic wave sitting behind that Great Red Congressional Firewall and the top of the ticket is actively ripping out parts near the cracks of its very weak foundation.

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3 thoughts on “About gerrymandering”

  1. Interesting, FiveThirtyEight wrong an article about the Democratic chances to retake the House today.

    Their conclusion is the safest bet and like every pundit, they concentrate on the strengths of gerrymandering without any discussion of the weaknesses, again cherry-picking the data to confirm what they already want to say.

    According to the markets, the odds of the Democrats retaking the house are better than Bernie Sanders winning the California Primary, and this was the article they wrote about that. This sort of misuse of statistics is why I hate FiveThirtyEight, as they do more damage to the cause than they help.

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