Gerrymandering Denialists: Still Wrong, for New Reasons!

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Oct. 14 2013 5:12 PM

Gerrymandering Denialists: Still Wrong, for New Reasons!

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Jon White

Last week, during an endless dispute with the pundits who keep arguing that gerrymandering is not THE factor in the House Republicans' intransigence (as if anyone is saying it is), I asked a reader to come up with a pretty map explaining just what happened in North Carolina. Jon White obliged me.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel, a former Slate politics reporter, is a reporter for Bloomberg Politics

Thanks, Jon! In other news, Nate Cohn has responded to my post by calling it "obnoxious" (true) and completely conceding my point that gerrymandering is a factor in our current crisis. "Weigel himself wrote a whole post about gerrymandering and the shutdown!" writes Cohn. This is true, and anyone who reads that piece will notice that I call gerrymandering a factor that complements the GOP's natural advantage in population distribution.

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More importantly, Cohn fundamentally misunderstands the political calculations that go into gerrymandering when he argues (truthfully) that in 2012 it made some districts less Republican.

Look at Jim Jordan’s district (OH-4). For the most part, his district represents the safely Republican countryside, but it sneaks back up to northern Ohio to steal a few Democrats and make his district more competitive than it would be if it only represented the conservative countryside. Without gerrymandering, his district gets more conservative--even if some suburban Republican winds up moving into a more competitive district. And indeed, Jordan’s district became less conservative after redistricting. 

Well, yes—does Cohn think the map-makers didn't know what they were doing? A good gerrymander, like Ohio's or North Carolina's or Pennsylvania's, takes into account how safe the majority party's current congressmen are before it draws districts for the new guys. As I wrote in the post that Cohn is allegedly debunking, the Republican gerrymander made four of the state's districts less Republican in order to make the districts of Democrats Heath Shuler, Larry Kissell, Brad Miller, and Mike McIntyre more Republican. This was done with great care, but with an eye on how safe the guys who "took the hit" really were. So Rep. Patrick McHenry, a 37-year old who is likely to be in office for a while, had to handle a slightly less Republican district. Reps. Virginia Foxx, Walter Jones, and Howard Coble are, respectively, 70, 70, and 82, but their districts have still been tweaked to be roughly 7 points more safely Republican than the rest of the state. (Republicans in the legislature, who drew this map, have a good idea of where they might run if any of these people retire.)  

The result: the new North Carolina map packs Democrats into a small number of ultra-safe seats and gives Republicans largely-safe seats that will be un-loseable in anything but a wave election. Rep. George Holding is in the least "safe" Republican seat—it's about 5 points more Republican than the state as a whole. And this is what happened in other gerrymandered states, left and right. In Maryland, a couple of Democrats gave up some Montgomery County liberals in order to create a new, Democratic First District. In Ohio, Rep. Jim Jordan, Rep. John Boehner, Rep. Mike Turner and Rep. Steve Stivers gave away some Republican suburbs so that freshmen like Rep. Jim Renacci and Rep. Bill Johnson could have safer seats. (It mattered a lot for Renacci and Johnson.) John Boehner's district is technically "less conservative," sure—it's because map-makers did not fear for one second that this would change Boehner's behavior.

David Weigel, a former Slate politics reporter, is a reporter for Bloomberg Politics

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