If You Like Political Polarization, You'll Love Redistricting

A new report says that the House isn't getting any better any time soon.


Do you love congressional gridlock? Do you thrill to the sound of the filibuster and to the death of compromise? Get excited for the 20-teens, then, because this decade’s post-redistricting Congresses figure to have fewer competitive seats (and thus fewer seats switching between parties) and more partisans than in previous decades, according to a study being released today by the Bipartisan Policy Center.

[See political cartoons about Congress.]

The Center looked at the partisan profile of all 435 districts over the last three decades and what it figures to be for the coming decade, comparing how they voted presidentially with how they voted in House races. They counted up the number of competitive seats and the number of what they call “misaligned” seats, districts which profile as being strongly for one party but which are represented by the other party.

It will surprise no one to learn that with this decade’s redistricting finished, the number of competitive seats is declining slightly—from 103 in the 2000s to 101 in this decade—after having dropped off the proverbial table in the previous decades. In the 1970s, according to the report, there were 152 competitive House seats; in the 1980s there were 135; in the 1990s, there were 129. I suppose we can be happy that this round of redistricting, which the study found to be a wash in terms of partisan advantage, seems to have arrested the precipitous decline in competitive districts.

Interestingly, according to the study, members in competitive districts don’t tend to be centrists as such but rather tend to be “only slightly more toward the center than the median member” of their party’s caucus. This actually makes some sense given that before politicians can win in competitive districts they have to get the approval of primary voters who will by definition be more to the left or right than the district in general. But, the study adds, “small as the difference is, there some evidence of moderation among those members in office.” But every little bit helps, right?

[Check out editorial cartoons about the GOP.]

The drop in misaligned seats, whose representatives tend to be the most moderate in Congress according to the report, is more precipitous and closely tracks the ideological sorting out of the parties that has taken place over the last few decades. In 1992, according to the Center, 93 Democrats and three Republicans represented districts whose partisan profiles suggested they should be firmly in the other party’s camp. Today those figures are nine Democrats and two Republicans. “And the redistricting map looks to produce even fewer members representing misaligned districts” after Tuesday, the study adds. “The number could be as low as 2 or 3 Democrats and zero Republicans.”

This raises a related point, by the way, one of the understated storylines in this year’s Senate races. “If there’s a theme in the Senate race this years it’s people in very close races in really nasty states for their side,” the Cook Political Report’s Charlie Cook said recently at an Aspen Institute luncheon. Such candidates include Republicans Scott Brown of Massachusetts and Linda Lingle of Hawaii and Democrats Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Jon Tester of Montana, and Bob Kerrey in Nebraska. ABC News Political Director Amy Walter, who was appearing on a panel with Cook, noted that if these kind of candidates win, “[the] Senate would look very different because they are opposite parties … in states that don’t traditionally elect somebody from their parties so they would be those down-the-middle, need-to-compromise kind of people.” With the right breaks, the Senate could veer back away from partisan cliff. But there’s little chance the House will join it.

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