Reapportionment Wars

Outlets weigh in on the Census’s political implications

There goes the decade.

That decennial phenomenon “reapportionment” is back in the news with the U.S. Census Bureau releasing the latest population statistics Tuesday—there are now 308,745,538 Americans living in the United States—and the media musing over changes in store for the nation’s political map.

Congressional seats will next year be reapportioned based on new state population counts—state legislatures and governors will handle the redistricting—as will the Electoral College. Eight states are set to gain seats (the big winners are Texas with four new seats, Florida with two) and ten states are set to lose (the big losers: New York and Ohio which both lose two). The general shift is a swell in the populations of the south and the west. While most have declared this a big advantage for the GOP—population growth in the south and west favors Republican-held states and districts—the rise in minority populations, traditionally part of the Democratic base, means the jury is still out on which party is best positioned to take advantage of America’s new demographics.

The political fallout, a loss of House seats in the northeast and pickups in the south and southwest, are neatly summarized and mapped in this New York Times graphic.

And last night’s NBC Nightly News report has some nice graphics in its quick rundown of what the Census data means for Congress.

Most outlets are running with ledes similar to that chosen by NBC: this is good news for the GOP. The Bloomberg report opens: “Republican strongholds in the U.S. South and West are poised to gain political power in time for the 2012 presidential election, taking electoral votes away from states Barack Obama carried in 2008, new population data is likely to show.” The New York Times’s Sabrina Tavernise and Jeff Zeleny take a characteristically more ambivalent approach, describing “far-reaching implications for elections over the next decade” before eventually conceding that Republicans seem to be bolstered here, though with an important caveat.

If President Obama were to win in the next election the same states he carried in 2008, he would receive six fewer electoral votes under the new map. Yet that shift would be significant only if the race were very close.

It is also unclear if the gains will go mostly to Republicans, since more than three-quarters of the population gains in the last decade were members of minorities, populations that tend to vote for Democrats.

The Times then goes on to explain further the Republican advantage, as they see it.

On the surface, Republicans would seem to have an overwhelming advantage. Most of the states gaining seats trend Republican, and most of those losing them tend to elect Democrats. What is more, Republicans will be well-placed to steer the process, with Republican governors outnumbering Democratic ones 29 to 20, with one independent, come January.

“Republicans are in the best position since modern redistricting began,” said Tim Storey, an expert on redistricting at the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Of the 336 districts whose borders are drawn by state legislatures, Republicans have full control of 196, Mr. Storey said. Democrats control legislatures for 49; a further 91 are split. The rest would be drawn by divided legislatures or appointed commissions.

Elsewhere at the Times, Michael D. Shear writes on the Caucus blog that there is an argument to be made that this is in fact a potential boon for Democrats, signaling an increase in minority voters and in the populations of Democratic pockets in Republican stronghold states.

At Slate, Dave Weigel isn’t seeing it:

This is about as bad as it could get for Democrats, and as good as it could get for Republicans. The next GOP presidential candidate gets six free electoral votes from South Carolina, Texas, Utah. The Democratic caucus in the House is about to see internal warfare in the rust belt and northeast, as their members are forced into Thunderdome battle for the diminished number of seats. Only in Illinois, I think, will the Democrats be able to create a map that hurts the GOP’s newly elected members and takes back a seat or two.

Weigel also says those who see Democratic potential in growing blue pockets of red states might need a political reality check.

It’s almost a fool’s errand to try and predict redistricting now, before incoming legislatures get control of it, but if there was no partisan gerrymandering, we’d see a lot of competitive or Democratic-leaning new districts in red states. Most of the growth in the past decade has happened in suburbs and exurbs that have been growing bluer—Travis and Harris County in Texas, Maricopa County in Arizona, Wake County in North Carolina, and so on. But Republicans can easily carve up red states after the Florida and Texas models, and pack non-whites in uncompetitive districts, shore up a few liberals, and make the rest of the districts too Republican-leaning to get into real danger.

An interesting offshoot of the latest reapportionment reporting is the question about the size of the House: when one congressperson represents almost one million people, should the House be expanded to include more members? At The New Republic’s Citizen Cohn blog, Jonathan Bernstein has some thoughts, responding to tweets from Firedoglake’s David Dayen and conservative political writer Reihan Salam, both suggesting Congress needs its own population increase. He sees the concern, but says a “Big House” could prove problematic.

For elections, the problem with a Big House is that, given residential patterns and assuming no change in single-member districts, we would wind up with even more lopsided partisan districts than we have now. Indeed, all the incentives of reapportionment would work the same as they do now, which combined with good modern technology would mean that we would probably wind up with about the same number of swing districts, but far more solid partisan districts. Meanwhile, more districts mean even less media coverage for each contested election—and I would strongly argue that more media coverage is almost always a good thing. Small districts with little or no media coverage are a recipe for a strong incumbency advantage, which few people see as a really good thing.

Politico focuses on the upcoming fights to come when states begin redistricting—packed with detail about potential fights to come. It’s a worthy read for anyone who would dare call reapportionment boring. A selection:

For the next year, ambitious and sharp-elbowed legislators around the nation will look to Machiavelli, rather than Jefferson or Hamilton, for inspiration as they draw the congressional maps that will begin and end political careers and determine the partisan makeup of Congress during the next decade.

Some incoming House freshmen are already marked men and women — before they’ve been sworn into office. Some veterans are about to be brusquely pushed into retirement. A few members of Congress will be forced into head-to-head battles with colleagues in order to survive another term.

All in all, it’s a harrowing exercise in political Darwinism.


The peril is greatest in the 9 states — Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania — that are slated to lose seats as a result of population shifts over the past decade.

Most of those states have been hemorrhaging seats for decades and have already produced epic incumbent vs. incumbent clashes — some of which helped forge the political personas of some of the best-known figures in American politics.

And how’s this?

“You probably have one Democrat and one Republican killed,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a longtime Democratic strategist in the state, speculating that Rep. Carolyn McCarthy would be thrown into the same district as fellow Democratic Rep. Gary Ackerman and that GOP Rep.-elect Ann Marie Buerkle would see her district joined with that of another Republican.

“Democrat-on-Democrat violence and Republican-on-Republican violence,” added Sheinkopf. “It’s who blinks first.”

What are they putting in the eggnog down there?

For soberer minds, one of the more interesting straight news pieces on the reapportionment comes from John McCormick and Tim Jones at Bloomberg, which is mentioned above. The writers point out that this reapportionment needs to be put into historical perspective.

The scope of the reapportionment would be the smallest since 1970 if just 17 states see a gain or loss. That’s a reflection of slower migration in recent years triggered by the worst recession since the Great Depression.

The reporters also put flesh on the bone of some of the statistics we’re seeing, contextualizing the population changes in some states.

Nevada, which is projected to gain one seat, was the nation’s fastest-growing state for much of the past decade, before its growth was stunted by the recession. The state had the highest foreclosure filing rate for the 47th straight month in November, at one in every 99 households, five times the national average, according to RealtyTrac Inc.

And there is a nice diversion into the reasons Ohio, “the biggest loser,” lost its two seats. Such case studies are rarer in the other reporting, which focus either on the big Dems-vs.-GOP picture, or dig into the minutia of strategic redistricting to come.

The biggest loser for total seats could be Ohio, which has played a pivotal economic and political role for two centuries. It is the birthplace of seven presidents and a core member of the nation’s manufacturing heartland, producing automobiles, rubber, steel and glass.

Since January 2000, Ohio has lost 409,000 manufacturing jobs — a 40 percent drop — Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows.

…Ohio’s industrial heritage has taken a back seat to Wal- Mart Stores Inc., Kroger Co. and the Cleveland Clinic, the state’s three largest employers, according to the Ohio Department of Development. General Motors Co., once a major employer in the state, ranks 23rd.

As jobs moved out, the state’s political influence began to slide. Ohio had 24 members in its congressional delegation in 1972. Today, it has 18, and that number is projected to drop again this time.

“It’s all about votes and power,” said Ned Hill, an economist and dean of the college of urban affairs at Cleveland State University. “Ohio and the Midwest are going to be at a huge competitive disadvantage.”

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.