The South, White/Black Voting, and Gerrymandering, in Two Maps

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
April 24 2014 12:33 PM

The South, White/Black Voting, and Gerrymandering, in Two Maps

Nate Cohn is out with an interesting, map-filled look at the Southern and Western white vote, and how in some places (Mississippi, Alabama) it's grown as reliably Republican as the black vote has grown reliable Democratic. That's not entirely new. Ever since Richard Nixon's 1972 landslide, and especially since Ronald Reagan's 1980 win, Deep South whites have been voting monolithically Republican. When George W. Bush ran for re-election against the last white Democratic candidate, he scored 80 percent of the white vote in Alabama and 85 percent in Mississippi. In 2012 Mitt Romney only improved on those numbers by 4 points, about as much as Obama improved on Kerry's share of the black vote. Cohn's point is that the first black president's ability to bring out nonwhite voters has obscured some of the Democrats' losses. That's true. Kerry won 40 percent of the vote in Mississippi and 37 percent in Alabama; eight years later, Obama won 44 percent and 38 percent in those states.

Cohn frames this as a challenge for the legendary "emerging Democratic majority." I'd like to take the opportunity to revisit my running argument with Cohn, that gerrymandering is giving us a more conservative Congress and preventing Democrats from taking more turf. In the spirit of Data Journalism, let me demonstrate this with two maps from Dave Leip's invaluable Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections. (In Leip's maps the Democrats are red and Republicans are blue, which is the color coding used for left/right parties all over the world, but is rare enough here to be worth explaining.) 

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Here's how Texas voted in the 1988 presidential election between George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis. Spoiler: Dukakis lost, with only 43.35 percent of the vote in Bush's adopted home state. 

And here's what Texas looked like in 2008, when Barack Obama lost the state to John McCain.

Now, if you're just eyeballing that map, you're likely to assume that Obama did worse in Texas than Dukakis did. Right? Wrong. Obama won 43.63 percent of the Texas vote that year, marginally better than Dukakis, despite winning far less land area. The old "yellow dog" Democratic vote in east Texas had long become Republican; this is the part of the country that sends Louie Gohmert and Steve Stockman to Congress. But the cities had abandoned the GOP. See that little island of Obama red in North Texas? That's Dallas County. In 1988 Dukakis lost it to George H.W. Bush by 17 points and more than 100,000 votes. In 2008 Obama crushed McCain in the county by 15 points and more than 100,000 votes. That district hugging Galveston Bay is Harris County, i.e., Houston and the sprawl. Bush won it by 15 points; Obama won it in a squeaker. Obama was actually the first nominee to win Dallas and Harris counties since LBJ—and he did it twice. 

What does this have to do with gerrymandering? As Cohn often argues, doesn't the geographic coherence of the Democratic and Republican votes suggest that "it's difficult to draw competitive districts in a deeply polarized country"? Not really—as ever, it's up to the mapmaker. More human beings live in urban and suburban areas than in the rural areas that stopped being competitive for Democrats. Humans vote, not land. It shouldn't be hard to draw competitive seats in this new scatter.

Ah, but if you zoom in to Texas' cities and urban sprawl, you'll notice that the cities have been carved up into safe Democratic seats and safe Republican seats. Harris County (Houston) was decided by fewer than 1,000 votes in the 2012 presidential election. Mapmakers have carved up the Houston area so that Rep. John Culberson gets an area that gave 60 percent of the vote to Romney, Rep. Ted Poe gets suburbs that gave 63 percent of the vote to Romney, and Rep. Steve Stockman gets a sprawl that gave 73 percent of the vote to Romney. Meanwhile, Democratic Rep. Gene Green, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, and Rep. Al Green get the liberal parts of Houston, districts that gave, respectively, 66, 76, and 78 percent of the vote to Obama. The Voting Right Act plays a big role here—Lee and Green, both black, represent majority-minority seats as required by that law. But it wouldn't be very hard to draw coherent, competitive seats, even as the vote becomes more polarized racially and coagulated geographically. Gerrymander-ers have chosen to exacerbate the trends.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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