Despite a three-point national vote lead in the 2022 Midterms, Republicans only gained around 8-10 seats in the House. Granted, that's enough to give them the majority next year, but that number should have been 28-30 or even 48-50 House seats. The difference? Democrats finally got as good as the GOP when it came to gerrymandering and defending their turf in a structural change from ten years ago, as Decision Desk's Zach Donnini analyzes.
The US House structural bias was more favorable to Democrats than expected for three reasons. First, as a byproduct of their previous house majority, Democrats held an incumbency advantage in most competitive districts. Republicans had to bear the burden of flipping Democratic seats to win the chamber. This challenge certainly cost Republicans several seats, where strong Democratic incumbents resisted national trends and held their Trump-won districts even as the nation shifted six points to the right. To compound the issue, Republicans did not even take advantage of the incumbents they could have had. Supported by Donald Trump, loyalist Republicans Joe Kent and John Gibbs led ousters of popular and electorally successful incumbents Jamie Herrera-Beutler and Peter Meijer, handing two districts to Democrats. Second, Democratic gerrymanders were highly effective. While Democrats could only pass optimal partisan gerrymanders in four states (Oregon, Nevada, New Mexico, and Illinois), they took advantage of the opportunity with clinical efficiency. Democrats won 24 of 30 (80%) of seats in these four states, despite only winning 54% of the combined house popular vote (controlling for uncontested districts). The third and final reason is the most worrisome for Republicans: the new Republican coalition—built by Donald Trump—is not remotely designed for success in the US House.
Fast Fact: Although recent political realignment has allowed Republicans to acquire a massive structural advantage in the US Senate, it is helping Democrats counteract gerrymandering and gain a structural advantage in the US House.
Why are Republicans Developing A Geographic Disadvantage in the House?
While Republicans were successful in rural America well before Donald Trump arrived on the political scene, it was not until the 2016 Presidential Election that the party began to dominate the regions. In 2012, Democrats wasted far more votes than Republicans in blowout House races. While 30 Democrats won their race by 60 points or more, only 7 Republicans won by the same wide margin. The 2016 election was an election of regional polarization: very blue areas (generally cities) became bluer, and very red areas (generally more rural areas) become redder. In the 2012 presidential election, only ~33% of Americans lived in a “non-competitive” area, a county where either Democrats or Republicans won >65% of the vote. But in 2016, this number increased to 43%. Democrats did boost their numbers in heavy blue areas, but it was Republican success in rural areas that primarily drove this increase, closing the gap between the two parties in wasted votes.
Ancestral rural Democrats across the country, particularly in the Midwest, left their party in droves for Trump and the GOP. For the most part, Republican House candidates did not need this marked improvement in the reddest areas, these were the districts Republicans were already holding easily. Of course, some of these rural voters were districted with blue areas and did contribute to battleground seats, but most of these rural improvements were turning 50-point wins into 60-point wins for the GOP.
Although Republicans disproportionately improved in very red areas in 2016, serious problems did not start to develop until 2020. Partisan realignment since 2016 (educational polarization and racial depolarization) has proven to be disastrous for the GOP in the House. To oversimplify American politics, the safest blue districts tend to be in cities, and the safest red districts tend to encompass rural areas and small towns. The battleground districts are disproportionately located in high-education suburban areas, where Republicans are slipping. Conversely, Republicans enjoy higher and higher levels of minority support as Black and Hispanic voters trend toward the party. Dividing all counties into five categories, ordered by the highest to the lowest proportion of the vote won by Biden, Trump only gained between 2016 and 2020 in the bluest counties. To make matters worse, Democrats gained the most in the most competitive counties.
Republicans will have to grapple with the uncomfortable reality that trading a suburban vote (in a competitive House district) for an urban vote (in a deep blue House district) deeply harms their ability to hold a geographic advantage. If educational polarization continues at this rate, it could be Democrats that hold a significant advantage in the US House by the end of the decade—but not because of gerrymandering.
Republicans did better in states like New York, Florida and California. But Democrats did better in states like Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Nevada and Arizona, the big five battleground states. Dems won competitive districts that needed fewer increases in votes to win, while Republicans did things like turning 30 point losses into 20 point losses in deep blue House races. Dems also picked up House seats that they shouldn't have in GOP states like Ohio, and Republicans handed them wins by purging their party of "moderate" seats in states like Oregon and NC.
If Democrats had fixed New York's gerrymander, we would have kept the House, because going forward the competitive suburban House districts are where Democratic vote growth is the best.