Your Congress, Now With Helpful Color Coding!

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Sept. 5 2013 7:12 PM

Sure, Congress Is More Partisan. But It’s Also More Honest.

What we can learn from a new political almanac.

Speaker of the House John Boehner and Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi.
House Speaker John Boehner and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi preside over a chamber with an awfully predictable electoral future, thanks to gerrymandering—and thanks to voters no longer splitting their tickets.

Photo by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

The biennial arrival of a new Almanac of American Politics is a moment of true joy for political reporters. Here again—finally!—are current capsule histories of the 435 congressional districts and 50 states. Here in one place are enough factoids to make any hack seem like an expert on a congressman he’s only just heard of before going on TV to discuss him. (“Well, Sean, the congressman is an Iraq War veteran who voted for the debt limit deal … ”) Here is a useful primer on Northern Mariana Islands Del. Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan and his quest to make the census count his islands’ population properly.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

Here, too, is helpful proof that we’re going to be stuck with this Congress for at least eight years. The new almanac calculates the Obama-Romney and Obama-McCain shares of the vote in every district, information that had been aggregated online but not in a particularly user-friendly way. Flip back and forth between this book and the 2012 edition, which contains the old Obama-McCain margins before the gerrymanders, and you see how the gerrymanders of 2010 have taken most of the country out of play.

Look! There’s Ohio’s 6th, morphed from a district McCain won by 8,004 votes to one he took by 40,084 votes. There’s Maryland’s 6th, an old Republican district (McCain by 61,231 votes) molded for Democrats (Obama by 44,696 votes). There’s one of the most devious gerrymanders in the country, North Carolina’s 8th, drawn by the GOP class of 2010 to shove out Democratic counties. The old 8th had gone for Obama in 2008 by 16,100 votes. The new one went for McCain by 46,772. It’s no surprise that Democrat Larry Kissell lost it. Back in 2012 Republicans mocked the doomed Kissell for skipping the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte; it felt a bit like mocking the kid in the body cast for coming in last in a footrace.

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This is “old news,” I suppose, but the map allows anyone who pays glancing attention to predict nine out of 10 votes in the House. You have a conservative GOP that owes nothing to swing votes; you have a liberal Democratic Party that can say the same. In his introduction to the Almanac, Michael Barone argues that “clustering” of “Democratic core constituencies like blacks, Hispanics, and gentry liberals” means that the party’s simply going to be packed into fewer districts. In 2004 George W. Bush won 51 percent of the vote and 255 congressional districts; in 2012 Obama did just as well with the popular vote but won 209 districts.

How does that skew our parties? Well, that’s obvious, if easier to remember during a debt fight than during some black swan campaign to bomb Syria. How new is this, voters going straight down the ticket and electing presidents and congressmen of the same party? Quite new, and best explained by thumbing through an older Almanac.

So I picked the 1990 edition, which appeared after George H.W. Bush’s midterms and predated the first round of redistricting that attempted to maximize the number of majority-minority seats. Its version of Congress is completely unrecognizable. In 2012 only 17 Republicans won elections in districts carried by Obama-Biden. In 1988, in 137 districts—not even counting the states that have single, at-large districts—voters chose George H.W. Bush for president but chose a Democrat for Congress.

This was most visible in the South, where voters were incredibly slow to reject the white, conservative Democrats of their forefathers. They backed forgotten statesmen like Georgia Rep. Ed Jenkins, who ran 36 points ahead of Michael Dukakis to win his seat, and South Carolina Rep. Liz Patterson, who won her first race by 4 points in a district Dukakis lost by 34 points. But before 1992, much of the country looked like this. In Illinois, George H.W. Bush beat Michael Dukakis by a slim 51-49 margin, separated by fewer than 100,000 votes. He routed Dukakis in 14 of the state’s 22 districts. How many Republicans did Illinois send to Congress? Just seven. Half of the Bush districts elected Democrats, most of them by landslides. Democratic Rep. Marty Russo, in the 3rd District, ran 30 points ahead of Dukakis. Future Sen. Dick Durbin won the 20th District by running 17 points ahead of Dukakis.

Six years later, of course, Republicans managed to fix this. Southern and rural whites realized that they were angrier at Hillary Clinton than at Abraham Lincoln. They won their first congressional majority since the Eisenhower years, and they won it with reliable conservatives. In 2006 Democrats reversed this by duct-taping their remaining Southern moderates and “Blue Dogs” to suburban Democrats who could take advantage of the Iraq War backlash.

The 2012 election, dreadful as we all remember it, was more definitive than any of these races. It gave use a more Republican House than the voters expected, thanks to the gerrymander, but it gave us coherent parties. There are no Republican representatives from New England; there are only five white Democratic congressmen* from the Deep South (excepting Florida). There are no pro-Obamacare Republicans, and at the national level, no pro-life Democrats who buck the party when it counts.

So it’s true: Gerrymandering isn’t the only reason the GOP held the House. Gerrymandering only worked because voters stopped splitting their ballots. Voters have a terrific and true understanding of what policies they’ll get if they vote D or R, and no longer will they settle for the Lincoln-bashing Democrat who keeps the military base open. Someone as flawed as Mark Sanford can walk up to South Carolina voters, remind them that Nancy Pelosi exists, and beat the capable Democrat he’s running against. You can pine for that old era of split ballots and heterodox parties, if you like. The new era’s a lot more honest—and with helpful color coding!

*Georgia Rep. John Barrow, Tennessee Rep. Steve Cohen, Tennessee Rep. Jim Cooper, North Carolina Rep. Mike McIntyre, and North Carolina Rep. David Price. Three of these men, in 2013, voted against Nancy Pelosi for speaker—Barrow, Cooper, and McIntyre.**

**Correction, Sept. 6, 2013: This post orginally misidentified North Carolina Rep. Mike McIntyre as fellow North Carolina Rep. Mark Meadows.