Why the House Didn’t Flip

Here’s a paradox. The networks’ exit poll taken yesterday shows that 50 percent of voters cast their vote for Democratic candidates for the House of Representatives, while just 48 percent said they voted for Republican candidates. Yet even as President Barack Obama won re-election and Senate Democrats not only didn’t lose their majority but picked up one or two seats, House Republicans suffered no diminution of their power and may end up losing just a handful of seats, if any. The Democrats had hoped to pick up the 25 seats they needed to retake the House, but they fell depressingly short.

This paradox grows starker when we look at individual states. Obama carried Pennsylvania, for instance, by a margin of 52 percent to 47 percent, and Democratic Senator Bob Casey defeated his Republican challenger by 53 percent to 45 percent. But Democrats won just 5 of the state’s 18 House seats, losing one incumbent in the process. In neighboring Ohio, the president carried the state by two points and liberal Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown won a five-point victory. But again, of the state’s 16 House seats, the Democrats emerged from yesterday’s vote holding only four. The president carried Wisconsin by seven points and Democratic Tammy Baldwin won the open Senate seat by five points, but Democrats will hold just three of the state’s eight seats. In Virginia, Obama won by 3 percent and Democrat Tim Kaine won the Senate seat by 4 percent, but Democrats will hold only 3 of the state’s 11 House seats. And in Florida, where Obama apparently eked out a 1-point victory and where Democratic Senator Bill Nelson romped to re-election by a 13-point margin, Democrats will have just 10 members in the state’s 27-member House delegation.

That’s five states that both Obama and the Democratic Senate candidates carried, but they come out of those states with 25 House members to the Republicans’ 55. We can draw some preliminary conclusions about which of the Republican strategies worked well and which didn’t in this year’s election from these discrepancies. Voter suppression was a flop: It engendered, as Van Jones said on CNN last night, “a backlash against the backlash” as those young and minority voters whose numbers the GOP sought to reduce through intimidation, restrictions, and misinformation flocked to the polls in righteous anger. Flooding the presidential and Senate campaigns with massive outside money contributions didn’t yield very encouraging results, either. Dropping huge contributions in House races looks to have paid off more handsomely, though it will take a detailed, follow-the-money postmortem before we can know this with certainty and specificity.

But the one thing we know right now is that the Republican gerrymandering of House seats in states where the GOP controlled both the governor’s office and the legislature—a group that includes the five states we’ve looked at here—during last year’s decennial redistricting was the best thing Republicans had going for them yesterday. If Democrats had won House seats in those five states proportional to their performance in statewide races, they would have picked up an additional 15 to 19 seats last night and would likely have retaken the House. Instead, the House will remain under the control of right-wing Republicans from politically lopsided districts in which they’re immune to Democratic challenges and need fear only GOP primary challenges from their right. Republicans lose where they can’t draw electoral boundaries—that is, in states whose borders can’t be rejiggered—but win when they can select their own electorates.

This isn’t to say that the Democrats don’t play games like this as well. In Illinois, where Democrats rule the statehouse, the party picked up 5 House seats last night and now holds 12 of the state’s 18 districts. But Obama carried the state by a margin of 57 percent to 41 percent: It’s a Democratic state that the Democrats now control.

One state in which the Democrats look to pick up four House seats may well be a state in which the districts were carved by a bipartisan commission. In California, after two successive decennial redistrictings in which all incumbents of both parties were protected, voters approved an initiative two years ago that took the line drawing out of the legislature’s hands and created a commission to do the job. As a result, yesterday’s elections saw up to 10 of the state’s 53 districts become competitive—which worked to the Democrats’ advantage: The ongoing demographic transformation of the state ensured that a nonpartisan drawing of lines would create many more districts with sizable Latino and Asian populations. The Latino share of state voters rose from 18 percent to 22 percent between 2008 and 2012; and the Asian share over those four years doubled, from 6 percent to 12 percent, while the white share dwindled from 63 percent to 55 percent. An artful gerrymander might have spared some GOP incumbents from having these demographic transformations come crashing down upon them, but the nonpartisan redistricting did nothing of the sort. The state’s senior House Republicans, David Dreier and Jerry Lewis, opted not to run for re-election. And yesterday, as Obama carried the state by 20 points and Senator Dianne Feinstein carried it by 22, the Democrats may have added 4 members to the 34 they already had in the state, diminishing the GOP’s ranks to 15.

In sum, the Democrats made their biggest gains in the House last night in states where they were winning big across the board. They were swimming with the tide, but Republicans held the House by swimming against it in states that would have produced far more Democratic representatives but for redistricting. When House Republicans move to block Obama’s initiatives during the next two years, claiming that they, too, have a mandate, they should be forcefully reminded that it’s Obama whose mandate comes from the voters. Theirs is a product of the line-drawers’ art. 


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