Just How Big a Deal Is Gerrymandering, Anyway?

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- After the redistricting round that followed the 2010 census, pundits — especially liberal pundits — were quick to conclude that the Republican-dominated legislatures that produced the new maps had locked in Republican majorities in the House through at least the 2020 census. It’s still quite possible that Republicans will retain their House majority in November, but it’s clear now that the sense of inevitability was just plain wrong. After all, most analysts right now think Democrats are favored to gain the seats necessary to win back the House. 

National Journal’s Josh Kraushaar has a worthwhile column out about the overrated effects of partisan gerrymandering. I think overall he’s just about correct. That said, it’s worth noting that even a narrow advantage created by drawing the lines can be quite important (and in fact gerrymandering may have been decisive in 2012, when Democrats fell 17 seats short despite winning a narrow plurality of the overall vote). It’s also true that Republicans right now may have a “natural” advantage in how their voters are distributed geographically, although line-drawing could at least theoretically adjust for that. 

So why isn’t gerrymandering as big a deal as it seems to be?

For one thing, changing the lines every 10 years can lead to a gerrymander collapsing as either population shifts or political changes upset the assumptions that the mapmakers worked from. As sophisticated as the new mapping tools may be, they couldn’t predict all the ways that population can change within a state, and therefore within House districts, by 2018. And they certainly couldn’t foresee the particular political patterns of the decade, and how they would affect various different groups of voters. 

The other limitation on partisan gerrymandering is that the higher the reward, the greater the risk. That’s just mathematics. The way gerrymanders work, after all, is to distribute a party’s voters “efficiently” — which just means that they try to pack all of the opposition’s voters into a small number of lopsided districts, leaving themselves with majorities in all the remaining districts. But the more districts a party tries to win, the thinner the margin of victory in each of those districts. That makes some of those relatively safe districts vulnerable to a big surge for the other party. That’s why traditionally a lot of states, even when they have unified party control at the state level, opt for bipartisan gerrymanders in which all the incumbents are protected with extremely safe districts. 

All that said, it’s still the case that analysts estimate that Democrats will have to win the overall House vote by some 5 to 10 percentage points in order to win a House majority. I’ll leave aside for now the question about just how justified (or not) such a system might be — I’m far less critical than most — but whatever one thinks of that, it’s another good reason to be careful about equating election results given in seat totals (or, in a similar way, electoral votes or Senate seats) with the will of the people.

1. Douglas L. Kriner at the Monkey Cage on Congress’s options when it comes to President Donald Trump’s policy on Russia.

2. Also at the Monkey Cage: Kim Yi Dionne on Ethiopia and Eritrea.

4. David Kris at Lawfare on the Carter Page FISA applications. Short version: There’s not too much new here in terms of what’s happening with the investigation and anyone’s eventual guilt or innocence — but wow, does this look bad for Devin Nunes and his “dishonest” memo. 

5. Julian Sanchez on where Trump gets information. As I’ve said: There’s nothing at all wrong with a president monitoring the news media, including the partisan press, for many reasons — including as a defense against groupthink, against advisers with an agenda, and staff who won’t tell the boss stuff he or she doesn’t want to hear. By all accounts, that’s not how Trump uses Fox News. 

6. Noah Berlatsky on how the news media report on public opinion about Trump.

7. Mike Allen notes record White House turnover at the 18-month mark. 

8. Josh Barro on Trump and the Fed.

9. And Kevin Drum tells the actual story about Trump and the new Air Force One. Surprise! It turns out that Trump’s supposed savings on the new planes is … entirely fictional. Nevertheless, as Drum reports, several outlets went with Trump’s phony story as if it were true. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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