Every so often, Nate Cohn writes something about how the political impact of gerrymandering is overrated, and I write something about how he's wrong. The argument has gotten pointlessly heated in the past, and neither one of us has inched toward an alternate position, but it's like the Western Front in 1915: no blinking, no surrender, lots of poetry. Cohn's argument, which I read as a rebuttal to the conventional wisdom that Democrats would run the House if not for gerrymandering, inevitably ends up justifying tactics that minimize the clout of urban, liberal voters.
And Cohn's latest dispatch from the map wars is written to be a book-closer. Titled "Why Democrats Can't Win the House," Cohn cites some familiar political scientists to argue that "gerrymandering is not responsible for the entire Republican edge in the House" and that "Democrats might be forced to wait for demographic and generational change to spread beyond urban centers and suburbs" to win a majority. He's not punching a straw man, exactly; there are Democrats who look at the 2012 popular vote for House races, which they won, and say that gerrymandering was the one thing keeping them from a return to power. It's true that Democrats win urban centers by bigger majorities than they used to, while losing rural counties. It's true, as Bill Bishop has said for a decade, that Americans increasingly settle closer to people of the same ideology.
Here's the problem with Cohn's analysis: It assumes that the Big Sort naturally will lead to district maps that minimize Democratic power. In hand-waving away the politics of gerrymandering—not responsible for the entire GOP edge, after all—he says that the megastates now won by Democrats who run up huge margins in the cities have losts of "wasted" Democratic votes.
Mr. Romney didn’t win a single Pennsylvania county, let alone a district, by as much as Mr. Obama won Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. The large Democratic margin in these cities allowed Mr. Obama to carry the state, but it did not translate to a majority of House districts. The hundreds of thousands of wasted Democratic votes in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh typify the electoral challenge facing House Democrats, which has become more pronounced during the Obama years.
The skeptical reader might want to grab a map of the 2008 Pennsylvania election. Obama won the state by 10 points overall, better than his 2012 showing, but most of his 620,478 margin came from his 478,759-vote cushion in Philadelphia County. (Philadelphia, the state's biggest county, covers the entire city boundary.) The same day, Democrats won 12 of the state's 19 House seats. Yet in in 2012, Democrats won five of the state's 18 seats. (The state had lost one seat after the census.) Does Big-Sorting explain all of that? No. The 2011 gerrymander, as Sean Trende explained at the time, minimized the clout of Philadelphia-area Democrats by packing them into three safe seats—the 1st, 2nd, and 13th.
Previously, some suburban liberals had been voting in swing districts, risking the careers of Republicans like Jim Gerlach and Pat Meehan. They were exiled into blue seats, and replaced by reliable Republican voters. It was Republican mapmaking, not the Big Sort, that made sure Philadelphia-area liberal votes would be "wasted" on safe seats. (Also, check out the winding shapes of the 6th and 7th districts if you think mapmakers were just bowing to the reality of Big-Sorting.)
Does the Democrats' strength in urban areas make that sort of gerrymandering inevitable? For one answer, head across the Mason-Dixon Line into Maryland. In 2011 the state's dominant Democratic Party set out to create seven blue seats and one rural seat that would go safely Republican. It cast its hungry eyes at Montgomery, the state's most populous county, the home to such beloved D.C. suburbs as Bethesda and Silver Spring. In 2012 the county gave a 200,047-vote margin to the Obama-Biden ticket. Mitt Romney won 16 of Maryland's 23 counties, but the mega-counties like Montgomery wiped out his rural vote.
Democrats carved up Montgomery like a turducken. Parts of the county remained in the 3rd, 4th, and 8th districts, and a big slice was added to the 6th District, which cut across the rural parts of the state that cut across Appalachia. Democratic candidate John Delaney won the Montgomery County part of the 6th by 55,545 votes. He won the district overall by 58,626 votes. Democrats had strategically used the megacounty to overcome the rural GOP vote.
You can see just what they did if you compare Philadelphia County's delegation to the delegatation that depends on Montgomery County. Only three members of Congress represent any part of Philadelphia—Rep. Bob Brady, Rep. Chaka Fattah, and Rep. Allyson Schwartz.* They averaged 80 percent of the vote in 2012. Fattah's district is actually the bluest House seat in America, outside New York City. You could create a mega-blue district in Montgomery County, but instead Democrats split up its voters between four Democratic candidates. Those candidates averaged 66.5 percent of the vote in 2012. The redistricting of 2011, in Maryland, was like that story in Snowpiercer about all of the people in the back of the train giving parts of their body to feed the hungry.** Montgomery County-based Rep. Chris Van Hollen, for example, won 73 percent of the vote in the Democratic apocalypse year of 2010, but only 63 percent of the vote in 2012. This was because he allowed Montgomery County to be juiced for the 6th District.
I'm not saying Maryland is the platonic ideal of redistricting. Nobody says that—Maryland and Illinois are usually offered up as the proof that Democrats can wreak havoc with maps, too. What I'm saying, and what Maryland proves, is that a geographic clustering of population is not an impediment to drawing more competitive seats, when the mapmakers are exclusively focusing on population. Mitt Romney won 16 of Maryland's 23 counties; more human beings live in the seven that he lost. Romney won 54 counties in Pennsylvania, but more humans live in the 13 that he lost. If the votes of people in those urban and suburban counties are "wasted," it's because the gerrymander designers decided to waste them while maximizing the votes of rural conservatives. You look at these maps long enough and you start to see the wisdom of Brian Beutler's idea for a gerrymandering detente. This would, in the short run, mean Republicans still overperform their raw vote—as Cohn says. But it would mean fewer politicians getting the chance to neuter the voters who might not support them.
*Correction, Sept. 10, 2014: This post originally misspelled Pennsylvania Rep. Chaka Fattah’s first name.
**Does anyone get this reference?