The Democratic Party’s Irrational Exuberance

Democrats are all giddy because President Trump’s approval ratings are at historic lows. Further, only  about 25% approve and an overwhelming 70% disapprove of the job Congressional Republicans are doing. Democrats are certain this will translate into great success in the 2018 Congressional elections and that they will gain control of Congress. Not so fast. The districts from which we choose our representatives favor Republicans.

A little background is necessary.

At every level of American government we use single-member districts to choose representatives. The notion is simple; we have districts that are equal in size (based on population) and each district has one representative. We use districts for members of the U.S. House of Representatives, state legislatures, city council seats, school boards, county commissioners, and more.  It is a nice idea because at least in theory we know who our representative is and he/she is responsible for representing us as citizens. Like I said…nice idea. Except like most aspects of American government, the reality isn’t as nice as the idea. Politicians have a history of playing nasty.

There are numerous problems with single-member districts. For example, they make it very difficult for minorities or even a minor party candidate to win because they must go head-to-head with candidates from the majority and candidates who represent the two major parties.

Another problem with districts is referred to as “Fenno’s Paradox” based on conclusions reached by Political Scientist Richard Fenno. After conducting exhaustive research Fenno discovered that representatives do everything possible to be liked by the people in their district, often to the point of absurdity. He said members of Congress develop a “home style” in which they sell themselves as “one of us”.  So the paradox is that people think Congress as a whole is pretty bad (Congress currently has an approval rating of about 15%), but they like the member of Congress from their district. Consequently, incumbents, those holding the office, are almost always reelected even though people pretty much hate Congress. It is a paradox.

The greater problem, the one favoring Republicans, is gerrymandering, a term going back to the early 1800’s which means drawing districts to favor a group or party. I don’t want to get bogged down in the mechanics of gerrymandering, but be assured it is fairly easy to do and most American districts are gerrymandered. All national and state legislative districts must be redrawn every ten years after we take the national census (required by the Constitution). Since we take a new census in years ending in zero, the last was in 2010.

Here is what matters: The party in control of the state government at the time of redistricting (following the census) has a great deal of control over drawing those districts and, consequently, every district can be gerrymandered by that party.

After the 2010 election the Republican Party had “control” of 24 state legislatures and Democrats controlled 15 (others were divided, with one chamber being Republican and the other controlled by Democrats). Twenty nine governors were Republicans and only eleven were Democrats. You get the picture.

The Associated Press (AP) recently examined current legislative districts and found that four times as many state legislative districts are skewed toward the Republican Party than those favoring Democrats. About three times as many U.S. House districts favor Republicans. For Democrats the news gets worse because states in which they historically had a good chance of winning (Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Florida, Virginia, etc.) now had districts favoring Republicans. All these states had Republican control after the 2010 census, so the districts were drawn by Republicans.

A number of additional factors favor the Republicans, and that led to much better results for their party in 2016 than would have been expected.  But gerrymandering played the major role in Republican success. Remember that in 2016 about an even number of Americans identified with each party, so we could expect almost even success in districts. That was not the case.

There are solutions to the gerrymandering problem. They could be drawn by non-partisan groups (Iowa does this), for example, or they could even be drawn by computer software. But the Democrats and Republicans like being able to gerrymander when they are in control, so nothing changes.

The bottom line is that unless support for Congressional Republicans really goes in the tank (people of all demographic groups begin turning against the party) and support for President Trump continues to decline among all groups (a real possibility), the Republican Party will retain control of Congress in 2018.