The Myth of Gerrymandering and Polarization
Despite conventional wisdom — and Obama — there is little evidence politicized redistricting hinders consensus
Lamenting the inability of the American political system to solve big problems, former President Barack Obama this week placed the blame on the way politicians draw political boundaries.
“It has to do with the fact that, because of things like political gerrymandering, our parties move further and further apart, and it’s harder and harder to find common ground,” he told a group of high school and college students at the University of Chicago.
“In political science, the common wisdom is that gerrymandering doesn’t seem to make all that much difference.”
It wasn’t an offhand remark by a former president coming off an extended vacation. Obama announced before leaving office that he intends to make reversing excessive, or pro-GOP, gerrymandering one of his post-presidency projects.
The term “gerrymandering” harkens all the way back to the early days of the republic, named for Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry, whom a cartoonist ridiculed for signing a redistricting bill in 1812 that included a state senate district that looked like a salamander. Hence the term “Gerry-Mander.”
With the advent of sophisticated computer software programs, political partisans now can carve out safe districts with pinpoint accuracy. Sometimes, those districts take on odd shapes, jutting out to take in or exclude specific neighborhoods. But academic experts who have studied the issue contend there is little evidence that gerrymandering, regardless of its other faults, actually increases political polarization in Congress.
The science, as liberals like to say in a different context, is settled — at least as much as any question of social science can be.
“In political science, the common wisdom is that gerrymandering doesn’t seem to make all that much difference,” Georgetown University professor Boris Shor, who has studied the issue extensively, told LifeZette. “The classic example is to look at the U.S. Senate, which by definition can’t be gerrymandered. And the Senate has become more polarized.”
A real-world example can be seen in the 1st Congressional District of New Hampshire. With only two congressional seats, gerrymandering is hard. the districts are relatively compact, and the 1st District is only slightly Republican-leaning. President Donald Trump won it by about 1.5 percentage points last year. Democrat Carol Shea-Porter and Republican Frank Guinta have swapped wins there every two years since 2008.
If competitive elections produced moderation, one would expect the voting records of Shea-Porter and Guinta to be fairly close. Instead, they are light years apart. Guinta has a lifetime 83.67 percent record on the American Conservative Union’s voting scorecard, opposed abortion, voted to repeal Obamacare, and advocated an “all of the above” energy strategy.
Shea-Porter, meanwhile, has a 4.06 percent lifetime rating, opposed the Keystone XL Pipeline, voted for Obamacare, and voted against a bill banning abortion after 20 weeks. Both lawmakers have voted with their parties more than 95 percent of the time each year they have been on Congress.
“When a district moves from ‘D’ to ‘R,’ they aren’t moving just a little,” said Thomas Brunell, a political science professor at the University of Texas, Dallas. “These are big jumps.”
Political scientists call the phenomenon “leapfrog representation.”
Moderate Districts Can Produce ‘Firebrands’
Brunell said there are good reasons for voters to dislike gerrymandering and to support reform. But political polarization is not one of them, he said.
“Gerrymandering gets blamed for a lot of things, and I think oftentimes, it’s wrongly blamed,” he said.
If the makeup of districts explained the behavior of lawmakers, Shor said, then senators from the same state would vote more or less alike even when they came from different parties. But when a state has both a Republican and Democrat in the Senate, their voting records almost always are far apart, he said.
“That’s weird,” he said.
Shor pointed out that some members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus come from relatively moderate districts.
"Plenty of firebrands get elected [from those kinds of districts], both in Congress and especially in state legislatures," he said.
Justin Buchler, a political science professor at Case Western Reserve University, said the most politically homogenous districts should produce the most extreme representatives. In America today, the districts that fit that description are gerrymandered districts created to be majority-minority. But he said black and Hispanic representatives from those districts — where Democratic presidential candidates tend to win 80 percent of the vote or more — usually have voting records only slightly to the left of the average House Democrat.
When reformers propose improvements to the redistricting process, Buchler noted, they typically call for independent commissions to take over the job of drawing boundaries from politicians. He said the model law in that regard is found in Iowa, where a non-partisan commission is in charge of redistricting and by law cannot even take into account where incumbents live.
The result is that Iowa has four compact districts that keep communities of interest together. But if the process is supposed to guarantee moderation, Buchler said, it is difficult to explain the 4th Congressional District. Since its creation after a redistricting in 2010, it has been represented by Republican Steve King, one of the most conservative members of Congress.
Obama lost the district by only 8 points in his 2012 re-election race. On paper, it is a more competitive district than King's old 5th District, which was eliminated when Iowa lost a seat in the House. Yet King's voting record has remained far to the right, not just of the average House member, but of his own party, as well.
Polarization Has Changed, But Districts Haven't
Buchler said it undoubtedly is true that congressional Republicans and Democrats have moved further apart ideologically over the past few decades. If gerrymandering were the cause, he said, that drift would not have occurred in districts where races are decided by fewer than 10 points.
"They've gotten more extreme, too," he said.
There is some evidence that the public, and not just politicians, has become more divided. A 2014 Pew Research Center survey of 10,000 adults show that the median Republican and median Democrat are much further part in ideology than 10 and 20 years earlier. But political scientists said they believe that is a result, not a cause, of the polarization in Congress.
Bucheler said partisan feelings are more intense among the public. But he said few people really have a strong grasp of what it means to be conservative or liberal. He said voters take their cues from political leaders.
So if not gerrymandering, what explains the trend? That is hard to answer, according to the experts. Buchelor said the trend began in the 1970s, which means that developments such as the rise of social media, the internet, and even cable news cannot explain it.
Brunell, the University of Texas, Dallas, professor, said it could be related to the declining strength of political parties. In the 1960s and 1970s, primaries took on more importance and the power of bosses in smoke-filled rooms receded. He said that meant the most ideologically extreme voters began picking candidates rather than party leaders more concerned about electability.
The McCain-Feingold law accelerated that by shifting donations away from parties to third-party interest groups that are often more interested in ideological purity than winning elections.
"I think that backfired in a big way," Brunell said.
Over the past 40 years, Bucheler said, more sophisticated gerrymandering techniques have not eliminated competitive House districts. The number ebbs and flows from election to election but is roughly the same as in previous generations, he said.
"Most people have the erroneous belief that we've gotten rid of competitive districts," he said. "And we just haven't."