AMAC Exclusive – By Daniel Roman
2022 will be the first electoral cycle following the 2020 census, meaning that it will also be the first with new congressional and legislative districts. As the redistricting process is now highly partisan, it is not surprising that political observers have taken to trying to score the process: Are Democrats winning? Republicans?
If you ask David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report, whose interest in political mapmaking is betrayed by his Twitter handle @redistrict, the answer is that redistricting has turned into a “happy surprise” for the Democrats. He estimates there will be more Biden won seats on the 2022 maps than the 2020 ones. While Wasserman notes that if Biden’s approval ratings stay where they are, this will not be enough to save Democrats, and in his Cook Political article strikes a less optimistic tone for Democrats the deeper you go, most of the media is running with the “Democrats are winning redistricting narrative.”
Eric Levitz of New York Magazine declared that “Democrats are doing weirdly well in redistricting” and that “there is actually an outside chance that the final map will be tilted, ever so slightly, in the Democrats’ favor.” Levitz cites analysis from Data for Progress, which, by applying a strict comparison to previous maps, predicts the number of seats that are more Democratic than the country at large will increase from the old maps. Data for Progress is infamous for self-serving research for Democrats and has annoyed many in D.C. Democratic circles, but its analysis has been seized on by state-level Republicans who find it convenient to allege that Democrats are, in fact, beating them at redistricting in order to imply their leaders are betraying them.
The result is a strange alliance in which both hard-core left-wingers and right-wingers have a vested interest in believing that Democrats are winning the “redistricting battle.”
But are they?
The problem with these analyses is that, like all models, they need a baseline. Are these maps good for Democrats or Republicans compared to what? Expectations? Good compared to the 2011 cycle, which was already about as bad for Democrats as it was possible to be following on their state-level losses in 2010? Good compared to some sort of baseline such as the number of Biden-won districts in 2020?
2020 was a different election from 2018, which was a different election from 2016. In turn, the 2011-2021 maps were themselves not a neutral baseline. Take the example of Virginia. Its congressional lines saw the state’s 11 seats break 7-4 for Joe Biden when he won by 10% statewide and 6-5 for Glenn Younkin when he won by 2% statewide. Yet the existing map voted 6-5 for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton in 2016, even as Clinton carried the state by more than 4%. That map itself replaced, after a court order, a GOP-drawn map in which Mitt Romney carried 7 of 11 seats but lost the popular vote to Barack Obama by 3%. So, is the new map biased towards Democrats? It is worse than if they had not passed a non-partisan commission and drawn it themselves, and it will probably result in them losing seats, but it is better than what they had in 2011.
Part of the reason many have trouble wrapping their minds around the redistricting wars is that far too many insist on analyzing the new maps in terms of implications for 2022. But the behavior of both Republican and Democratic legislators, the former securing their vulnerable seats while going for minimal gains, the latter inviting disaster in a bad year by stretching themselves thin, indicate that both parties have written off next year as a GOP wave. Democrats are fighting for a chance at a majority in 2024, while the GOP is trying to make it possible to hold their own if 2026 looks like a repeat of 2018.
The Texas Republican Party, long the target of Democratic charges of gerrymandering ever since Tom Delay orchestrated a mid-decade redistricting in 2003, has been charged with having drawn a defensive map. Texas gained two additional congressional seats from the 2020 census, and the new GOP map locks in those gains for Republicans while otherwise allowing the Democrats to hold the two seats they gained in 2018. This would seem like a moderate move, but that ignores what has happened to a host of vulnerable seats. No less than eight Republicans sat in districts Joe Biden lost by less than 3% in 2020. Under the new map, that number is zero.
If one assumes that 2020 was the high-water mark for the Democratic Party in Texas, then the new maps are defensive and relatively generous to Democrats. If, however, you believe that there is a chance Democrats could get close to a tie in the state over the next decade, the maps are highly aggressive works of art. The chart below shows the striking differences between the old and new maps on the basis of uniform swing from 2020 in a number of scenarios.
|Statewide Vote||Old Map||New Map|
|52-48 D||24D 12R||23R-15D|
|2018 Senate 50-48 R||20R-16D||24R-14D|
|2020 President 52-46 R||22R-14D||25R-13D|
As can be seen, the GOP at most went after one Democratic-held seat, the 15th District on the border, which was won by Donald Trump by a margin of 2.68%. The major shift, however, is on the ceiling for Democrats. On the previous map, had Democrats managed to get within 2% statewide, they would have stood to cut the GOP margin to a mere 4 seats. On the new map, that same result would produce a 10-seat GOP lead. More dramatically, even if Democrats were to win 52% of the statewide popular vote, they would likely only achieve a similar margin to what they held after the 2020 elections (23-15 deficit versus a 23-13 one currently). By contrast, if the old map had remained in effect, Democrats would have stood to win two-thirds of the seats in Texas with a little over 52% of the vote.
It is hard to escape the conclusion that the new maps in Texas are a stunning success for Republicans when you examine these hypothetical “worst case” scenarios, and it is a failure to evaluate Republican actions principally on that metric which allows anyone to suggest that Democrats are “winning” the redistricting cycle.
Texas is not alone. A similar approach was undertaken in Georgia. Joe Biden won 6/14 congressional districts under the old map and 5/14 under the new one. While this seems like a minor change, the closest Biden-won seat under the old map voted for him by a margin of 52.4% to 46.1%, with the next doing so by 54.8% to 43.7%. Eliminating more than one of the Democratic-held seats would have been hard, and instead, the GOP drew 9 relatively safe seats.
This approach may be cautious. Compared with what Democrats undertook in Illinois, New Jersey, and especially Maryland, where they relied on a host of single-digit Biden margins in areas with substantial down-ballot Republican strength, it definitely is. But Republicans have the luxury of not needing to be aggressive. A majority is a majority, and if Republicans can draw 215 relatively safe seats or 190 safe and 40 swing seats in the areas they control, the fact Democrats still have to concede 3-4 GOP seats in New York, and Illinois means the GOP is better off. The Republican map is far more likely to hold up in a close year, ensuring a GOP majority in any situation in which Democrats win the national popular vote by less than 2%.
And that is the key difference to understanding the relative strategies of the parties in redistricting. Neither party is actually drawing for 2022. Both Republicans and Democrats are fairly certain the GOP will win a House majority in 2022 no matter what maps either party draws. As such, the real battle is for 2024 and beyond. Democrats are determined to go all out to ensure that if Joe Biden somehow wins reelection in 2024, they can win a House majority with a 3-4% popular vote margin, even if it means a much greater wipeout in the short term, namely in 2022. At the same time, the Republican Party is determined to give themselves a fighting chance of holding the House or limiting the Democrats to a bare majority if 2026 looks like 2018 while at the same time maximizing their odds for 2024.
From the perspective of 2022, the 2021 redistricting cycle has probably served to increase the number of seats Democrats will hold in January 2023 from what they would otherwise have been expected to be. But that is not a “win.” It is a deliberate consequence of both parties writing off GOP House control come 2023 as a foregone conclusion and playing to a different model. Maybe that ruthlessness is a surprise, but Democrats “winning” redistricting or “doing surprisingly well” is not. If they are, it is a pyrrhic victory, as the real battle is set to commence in 2024 and 2026 and, as the examination of the new Texas maps show, the GOP has ensured a vastly more favorable playing field for those environments.
Daniel Roman is the pen name of a frequent commentator and lecturer on foreign policy and political affairs, both nationally and internationally. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics.
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