Distortions of the US House: It’s not how the districts are drawn, but that there are (single-seat) districts

In the New York Times, Sam Wang has an essay under the headline, “The Great Gerrymander of 2012“. In it, he outlines the results of a method aimed at estimating the partisan seat allocation of the US House if there were no gerrymandering.

His method proceeds “by randomly picking combinations of districts from around the United States that add up to the same statewide vote total” to simulate an “unbiased” allocation. He concludes:

Democrats would have had to win the popular vote by 7 percentage points to take control of the House the way that districts are now (assuming that votes shifted by a similar percentage across all districts). That’s an 8-point increase over what they would have had to do in 2010, and a margin that happens in only about one-third of Congressional elections.

Then, rather buried within the middle of the piece is this note about 2012:

if we replace the eight partisan gerrymanders with the mock delegations from my simulations, this would lead to a seat count of 215 Democrats, 220 Republicans, give or take a few.

In other words, even without gerrymandering, the House would have experienced a plurality reversal, just a less severe one. The actual seat breakdown is currently 201D, 234R. In other words, by Wang’s calculations, gerrymandering cost the Democrats seats equivalent to about 3.2% of the House. Yes, that is a lot, but it is just short of the 3.9% that is the full difference between the party’s actual 201 and the barest of majorities (218). But, actually, the core problem derives from the electoral system itself. Or, more precisely, an electoral system designed to represent geography having to allocate a balance of power among organizations that transcend geography–national political parties.

Normally, with 435 seats and the 49.2%-48.0% breakdown of votes that we had in 2012, we should expect the largest party to have about 230 seats. ((Based on the seat-vote equation.)) Instead it won 201. That deficit between expectation and reality is equivalent to 6.7% of the House, suggesting that gerrymandering cost the Democrats just over half the seats that a “normally functioning” plurality system would have netted it.

However, the “norm” here refers to two (or more) national parties without too much geographic bias to where those parties’ voters reside. Only if the geographic distribution is relatively unbiased does the plurality system work for its supposed advantage in partisan systems: giving the largest party a clear edge in political power (here, the majority of the House). Add in a little bit of one big party being over-concentated, and you can get situations in which the largest party in votes is under-represented, and sometimes not even the largest party in seats.

As I have noted before, plurality reversals are inherent to the single-seat district, plurality, electoral system, and derive from inefficient geographic vote distributions of the plurality party, among other non-gerrymandering (as well as non-malaportionment) factors. Moreover, they seem to have happened more frequently in the USA than we should expect. While gerrymandering may be part of the reason for bias in US House outcomes, reversals such as occurred in 2012 can happen even with “fair” districting. Wang’s simulations show as much.

The underlying problem is, again, because all the system really does is represent geography: which party’s candidate gets the most votes here, there, and in each district? And herein lies the big transformation in the US electoral and party systems over recent decades, compared to the party system that was in place in the “classic” post-war system: it is no longer as much about local representation as it once was, and is much more about national parties with distinct and polarized positions on issues.

Looking at the relationship between districts and partisanship, John Sides, in the Washington Post’s Wonk Blog, says “Gerrymandering is not what’s wrong with American politics.” Sides turns the focus directly on partisan polarization, showing that almost without regard to district partisanship, members of one party tend to vote alike in recent congresses. The result is that when a district (or, in the Senate, a state) swings from one party to another, the voting of the district’s membership jumps clear past the median voter from one relatively polarized position to the other.

Of course, this is precisely the point Henry Droop made in 1869, and that I am fond of quoting:

As every representative is elected to represent one of these two parties, the nation, as represented in the assembly, appears to consist only of these two parties, each bent on carrying out its own programme. But, in fact, a large proportion of the electors who vote for the candidates of the one party or the other really care much more about the country being honestly and wisely governed than about the particular points at issue between the two parties; and if this moderate non-partisan section of the electors had their separate representatives in the assembly, they would be able to mediate between the opposing parties and prevent the one party from pushing their advantage too far, and the other from prolonging a factious opposition. With majority voting they can only intervene at general elections, and even then cannot punish one party for excessive partisanship, without giving a lease of uncontrolled power to their rivals.

Both the essays by Wang and by Sides, taken together, show ways in which the single-seat district, plurality, electoral system simply does not work for the USA anymore. It is one thing if we really are representing district interests, as the electoral system is designed to do. But the more partisan a political process is, the more the functioning of democracy would be improved by an electoral system that represents how people actually divide in their partisan preferences. The system does not do that. It does even less well the more one of the major parties finds its votes concentrated in some districts (e.g. Democrats in urban areas). Gerrymandering makes the problem worse still, but the problem is deeper: the uneasy combination of a geography-based electoral system and increasingly distinct national party identities.

33 thoughts on “Distortions of the US House: It’s not how the districts are drawn, but that there are (single-seat) districts

  1. It seems to me that explanations of US congressional and legislative (legislatural?) behaviour need to address the extraordinary level of incumbency as well as partisan outcomes. The tendency to reversed pluralities and the disadvantage to geographically concentrated parties happen outside the US. You do not find the congressional or legislative seat as a life perq outside the US as, for example, John Howard discovered in Bennelong in 2007.


  2. If the House were fairly apportioned, though, it would make a huge difference. If we use the Wyoming rule, California gets shafted out of something like 20 seats, which with either PR or partisan gerrymandering would go Dem. Texas would gain a lot, nullifying that, but Texas has to deal with the VRA and in


  3. No single member district system will ever be completely neutral. There will always be some advantage to whichever party has its supporters concentrated more strategically.

    In the United Kingdom, the system favored the Conservatives in the 1940s and 1950s, and Labour in the 1990s and 00s, and arguably produced the Conservative majority in 1951 and the Labour majority in 2005.

    Its an interesting question about whether redistricting commissions should identify the partisan bias that would occur with neutrally drawn districts, and counteract that by deliberately favoring somewhat the “naturally” disadvantaged party. The commission in California seems to have done that at the congressional level during the last round of redistricting.


    • Ed, to be clear, we do not expect single-seat districts to be “neutral.” That is a separate question from partisan bias.

      What I have shown in some of my academic work is that you can predict, within a narrow error band, the distribution of seats between the top two parties just from knowing their aggregate vote shares, the total number of districts, and the voting population. This works for a shockingly large percentage of all FPTP elections, without attempting to model in any way the concentration of party support. Then there are the poorly predicted cases–large over- or under-representation of the largest party. In a very close election (in votes) like US House 2012, the under-representation does not have to be large to result in a spurious majority.

      As for the UK, this method detects partisan bias, but not to an especially large degree–on a percentage basis, and in comparative perspective. Partly what makes partisan bias small in the UK is that the assembly is so large, relative to the population. However, this factor also tends to lead to an “expected” under-representation for the largest party that is more substantial than for most FPTP systems. The small amount of partisan bias that does exist is what kept the country from experiencing a minority situation in the 2005 election, when Labour had an “expected” seat share of less than 50% but actually won a majority. The Conservatives in 2010, of course, were not so lucky, with a similar vote share to that of Labour in 2005.


  4. What would it take for the U.S to move towards Proportional Representation? Reverse Plurality in the Electoral College twice in a row.


  5. Reverse plurality in the Electoral College would do nothing for PR. Most Americans aren’t even aware that the concept exists, or fundamentally misunderstand its meaning, as seen by the numerous newspaper articles describing plurality-reversing congressional district assignment of electors as ‘proportional.’

    Some state parties use proportional representation to assign party convention delegates to presidential candidates, though generally with an exceptionally high 15% threshold. I believe the Democrats give states who use proportional selection bonus delegates, but I think using congressional district allocation also is considered ‘proportional.’

    As for a plurality reversal causing a change to the electoral system for president, it didn’t in 2000. If it happened again to a Democrat, the GOP would talk about the wisdom of the founding fathers in creating the electoral college. If it happened to a Republican plurality winner, they’d be calling for a revolution (as Mr. Trump did when he believed Romney won the popular vote). I think that in all honesty, if it did happen, there would be a major move towards a national popular vote.

    As an aside, I think given our present state of affairs, a direct national popular vote would be a disaster. We have over a hundred million more people than the largest country in the Americas to use one for the executive (Brazil; worldwide, Indonesia has more people than Brazil but I have no idea how their electoral organization works), in a far bigger geographic area, and lack the autonomous national electoral authority with ultra-modern technology and widespread secure voter registration with photo ID (I am not advocating for GOP-esque photo ID requirements, for the record). We disenfranchise almost 4 million US citizens and nationals resident in PR, VI, AS, GU, and MP, not to mention the millions of working Americans who can’t make it to vote on a Tuesday. We have 51 electoral authorities, many of them partisan-run, and each with their own rules (and several with their own methods of voter supression). The headaches of getting an accurate count would be enormous–Florida didn’t finish counting its votes until a week after the election this year.

    It would be compounded if we used AV or contingent voting, requiring multiple counts. If we used a runoff system, winter weather would be an even larger concern in a runoff held in mid-to-late November or December than the 1st week of November (there’s a reason Canada holds elections in May or October), as would getting absentee ballots out and back to overseas military personnel.

    Despite its many flaws, the electoral college system has the advantage of limiting the areas where close scrutiny, absolute accuracy, and rapid counts are required to a few states, not the entire country. It also almost always elects the plurality winner (only excluding 2000 in the past 132 years). Honestly, while a runoff or preferential vote would be a fairer way to determine the winner in a race where no candidate has an absolute majority, I don’t find the electoral college to be that odious of a manner of choosing between the top two candidates. I would not be in favor of a single-round plurality national popular vote.

    I would be most in favor of an amendment stating that any ticket receiving 50% or more of the valid vote nationwide, as certified by the chief election officer in each jurisdiction, is automatically declared elected, and that if no ticket receives more than 50%, the electoral college shall decide the winner.

    I think that is an amendment that both the public and the legislatures of 38 states could get behind–small non-swing states might like it because it means that every vote counts, but if no candidate get 50% they retain their disproportionate voting weight.


  6. Couldn’t the electoral college votes of each states be allocated proportionately with the threshold being set at 5%? It wouldn’t be treated as with a Congressional District, but by something akin to a close party list. I don’t understand why the U.S media doesn’t understand PR. Why do they think Congressional Representation allocation of electoral votes as proportionate is silly. That system is worse than the one that we have now.

    Most democracies internationally use some sort of PR. A lot of countries tout their democratic success story (South Africa spring to mind) because of their use of PR. The present system of the electoral college isn’t proportionate, but just a multi-member FPTP system.


  7. The electoral college could be set proportionately, but I doubt many states would. 5% of a threshold is far too low–there are not very many states with 20+ electoral votes. That system would give electoral votes to candidates who have no chance of winning a majority in the electoral college, and throw elections to the House, where every state has a single vote (and gerrymandered delegations mean large states like Ohio, Virginia, and Pennsylvania would go Republican)–California’s 37 million people and Wyoming’s 568,300 have the same weight. If a state’s congressional delegation is tied, it essentially loses its vote. The Vice Presidential election goes to the Senate, so we could have very well ended up with a President Romney and Vice President Biden. Given that possibility, the electoral college seems almost representative and democratic. I see no need for Texas to give 2+ electors to a third party candidate who is not going to win the election; unlike a parliament, where that would result in 5% of the seats, one cannot win 5% of the presidency, as it’s a single-winner election.

    It also can still result in a plurality reversal even if every state is using it–say, if the Democrat dominated in California, Texas, and New York, while the GOP dominated elsewhere. It also still gives more weight to the smallest states because every state has two senators and at least one representative regardless of population. California has one electoral vote for every 670k people; Wyoming has one for every 190k people. And the states with the most weight per capita would be those which are the least proportional in their distribution of electors–a 3-vote state like Wyoming is going to give 2/3 of its vote to the GOP candidate in that system even if he only win a plurality.

    Our media doesn’t understand PR because they’re unfamiliar with it, just as most of the media outside of the United States really does not understand how the electoral college works or how Bush could beat Gore in 2000 (though in looking at foreign coverage pre-2000 on youtube, it seems they’ve learned a lot about it since then). They know in foreign countries they have ‘complex’ PR that somehow results in 12 parties in the Knesset and have no idea of the complexity of it; though admittedly, while our media probably has no idea, Israel’s surplus vote rule does actually add a degree of complexity that’s not seen in other PR countries.

    Somehow, many in our media have come to describe any non-winner-take-all system as proportional, possibly based on the false analogy that PR isn’t winner take all. Part of it also has to do with party delegate selection plans, which encourage ‘proportional’ selection of delegates, and which consider congressional district allocation to be proportional. The party conventions may be a sign of what’s to come–some winner-take all, some by congresional district or county, and some by PR.


  8. I find it absolutely baffling that only one state uses civil servants to draw district boundaries (Iowa). Even the state with ‘neutral’ commissions have members appointed by partisan politicians.


  9. Unless I’m mistaken, there was an Electoral College plurality reversal in 1888 as well, so that would be twice in the last 132 years.

    I concur that the GOP would probably call for the introduction of national popular voting for presidential elections following a defeat due to a plurality reversal (especially if the GOP presidential candidate polled an absolute majority of the popular vote), but even then it would be by no means certain: in such an event I can see quite a few Republican leaders making the case that such a drastic change would not warranted by a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence – the “lightning does not strike twice in the same place” argument, which incidentally was also put forward in 1978 New Zealand, following the first of two back-to-back general election plurality reversals – or others calling for the adoption of CD-based allocation of presidential electors or some such system.

    (In fact, in the case of New Zealand’s switch from FPTP to PR for parliamentary elections, it took a second, consecutive plurality reversal to get the ball rolling – lightning did indeed strike twice in the same place, as it can do in real life – and even then the whole process stretched out for well over a decade.)

    As for presidential elections in Puerto Rico, one problematic point that keeps popping up whenever the issue is brought up is the fact that most people here don’t pay federal income taxes, as income from sources in Puerto Rico is exempt from FIT (but not from SS/Medicare taxes).

    Finally, on a curious note I should note that in this year’s Israeli general election the surplus agreements made no difference whatsoever in the allocation of Knesset seats: the twelve qualifying parties would have obtained the exact same number of seats without the agreements in place, provided of course they had polled the same number of votes.


  10. In this thread, Ed identified a number of other electoral college reversals. Why 132 years? Why disregard the other reversals during that 132 years?


  11. Unless I am seriously mistaken, the only times that the plurality vote winner did not win the Electoral College was 1824 (when the popular vote was not conducted in all states), 1876, 1888, and 2000.

    While I would say that three times is three times too many, it has only been three times.


  12. There is a good case for 1960 as well. One could say that parliamentary systems give reversed majorities, but the US system manages to give both spurious presidential majorities and spurious legislative majorities.


  13. I was thinking of 1876, so I should have said 136 years. Apparently I have convinced myself it is still 2009. I had forgotten about 1888, which is particularly notable in being the only election in which the incumbent lost the electoral college despite winning the popular vote.

    I think 1876 particularly stuck in my mind because it is the only election in which a candidate with an absolute majority of the popular vote has been denied the presidency. It is perhaps doubtful whether Tilden actually won a majority given the number of disputed votes (I believe I once read that the Democrats in FL, LA, and SC chose not to count black voters in claiming victory, while the Republicans did count them, though I can’t remember where I read that), but he certainly defeated Hayes however the votes were counted. It would have been the most analogous election to a Romney reversal, given that (based on Wikipedia’s numbers) the Democrat won a majority and beat the Republican by 3% and yet lost the electoral vote.

    The Compromise of 1877 which gave the GOP the presidency in return for the end of Reconstruction also set the stage for the huge setback in minority/black voters’ rights which we still have yet to completely recover from 136 years later. Indeed, my own home town in suburban Dallas was finally forced to end general ticket voting and replace it with SMD just this Monday due to a VRA lawsuit, though the idea of SMD being ‘fair’ is still laughable, and I have serious doubts as to whether the new system will not in fact end up diluting minority rights even further. I cannot fathom why judges do not impose proportional elections (for non-partisan municipal elections, I’d guess STV) where minority rights are being disregarded other than by the complete ignorance of PR I spoke of earlier.

    As for 1960, who knows who actually won the legitimate vote. LBJ was a pro at rigging elections, and the result in Texas was one of the closest in history, and the long-standing custom of the deceased to cast their votes for the Democrat was still alive and kicking on the border; it was also quite healthy in Chicago under Boss Daley. However, Kennedy’s totals are uncertain because of the presence of unpledged electors in much of the South. Of course, Nixon’s opperatives were just

    To its credit, the electoral college allowed Lincoln to win the 1860 election decisively with just 39.8% of the vote. The result of that election actually has very strong similarities to the 2011 Canadian election (similar low popular percentage leading to a decisive win because of a split opposition) , though the idea of comparing Stephen Harper to Abraham Lincoln is one of the most ludicrous thoughts I’ve ever had.


  14. @ Chris, 15, I personally don’t see why people should lose the right to vote just because they are dead.

    More seriously, I too have often wondered why no one ever thinks to replace at-large elections with proportional representation instead of dividing up the area into districts. It just seems like no one can even consider adopting the idea.


  15. I think the ‘Gingles test’ from Thornburg v. Gingles may have something to do with it.

    The court states that “the minority group must be able to demonstrate that it is sufficiently large and geographically compact to constitute a majority in a single-member district. If it is not, as would be the case in a substantially integrated district, the multimember form of the district cannot be responsible for minority voters’ inability to elect its candidates.”

    In doing so, they seem to completely ignore the fact that it is not the multi-member district, but the majoritarian manner of election, which prohibits minority groups from electing their candidate of choice.

    This is strange, though, because they mention prohibitions on bullet voting in plurality at-large elections as a possible vote dilution argument (for instance, where minority voters trying to elect a single black candidate in a 4-member seat were required to vote for 4 candidates, including 3 candidates who were not of their choice, for their vote to be formal), as well as the division of a multi-member district into single ‘places’ to be voted on by majority vote.

    Many cases have used the ‘Gingles test’ to deny minority claims of vote dilution because they weren’t sufficiently geographically concentrated enough to form a single-member seat. Then again, some places, like Amarillo, TX for the school board and Boerne, TX for the city council, have used judicially-mandated cumulative voting, so it may be a fault of the lower court justices for failing to research all of the possible alternatives.

    Throughout the case, as in most US case law, ‘proportional representation’ refers to minorities’ share of representatives being equivalent to their share of the population (something which has explicitly not been required by the Voting Rights Act since 1982), and not to candidates being elected based on the proportion of votes received.

    This ignorance is absolutely astounding, though as almost all sources for law are US only sources, not surprising. Perhaps the strongest way to get PR into law might be to have the cities that use it (Cambridge, MA and Minneapolis, MN) file a standard amicus curae brief in cases where multi-member at-large district are being challenged.


  16. Of all people, Clarence Thomas, joined by Antonin Scalia, had a concurring opinion on a cert review case in 1994 (Holder v Hall) that actually expresses considerable knowledge of PR and semi-PR systems and questions whether the court’s focus on single-member districts is proper. Of course, since he also argues that the court shouldn’t be making that type of policy decision in the first place, it’s a mixed bag.

    While the results we have already achieved under the Voting Rights Act might seem bad enough, we should recognize that our approach to splintering the electorate into racially designated single member districts does not by any means mark a limit on the authority federal judges may wield to rework electoral systems under our Voting Rights Act jurisprudence…

    But as the destructive effects of our current penchant for majority minority districts become more apparent, cf. Shaw, supra, courts will undoubtedly be called upon to reconsider adherence to geographic districting as a method for ensuring minority voting power. Already, some advocates have criticized the current strategy of creating majority minority districts and have urged the adoption of other voting mechanisms–for example, cumulative voting or a system using transferable votes that can produce proportional results without requiring division of the electorate into racially segregated districts.

    The only major issue I have with his logic is his criticism of overturning systems which the people have “purposefuly” adopted. It ignores the potential for a majority to vote in favor of an electoral system which disenfranchises a minority.


  17. The liberal website “Daily Kos Elections” (the successor site to “Swing State Project”) has consistently been the best single source of data for US elections for several years, thanks to the hard work and number crunching skills of its diarists.

    Yesterday, a diarist posted a spreadsheet of electoral data for all 435 US house districts, showing among other things the presidential vote in each house district in 2008 and 2012, along with the votes for congressional candidates of course, and a miscellany of other items. I’m not sure what the use of of having a pronunciation guide (actually two) for the names of the incumbent congressmen, but its there if you need it and its easy to hide the two columns otherwise.

    In a country where its hard to get the aggregate popular vote totals for the presidential election, this is very welcome and its amazing that its free.

    There are a few things I noticed just by looking at the spreadsheet for about five minutes. First, it appears that the Democrats did win the congressional popular vote in 2012, the figures show 50.6% though of course this is affected by how uncontested districts are counted. Obama took just over 52% of the popular vote, a 1.8% swing against the Democrats on the 2008 totals. Its unusual, in fact I think this is the first time historically, for American voters to re-elect a President to a second term for for there to be an anti-incumbent swing. Usually its very much “back him (with an increased popular vote total) or sack him” (there was a swing against FDR when he ran successfully for his third term, an exception to the rule for obvious reasons).

    Also, by my count, Obama got a higher popular vote than Romney in 219 districts out of the 435, a bare majority. This represents a loss, using the same new 2012 boundaries, of 27 districts compared to 2008 (data is exclusively for the seats drawn after 2010 so this was an effect of the swing, not gerrymandering). It was a close election, but with a roughly 4% popular vote margin, Obama would normally have won just over 230 districts, so gerrymandering probably did cost the Democrats a dozen seats or so as has been estimated by other commentators. However, they would still be able to get a majority in the House, albeit barely, just by winning all the Obama districts alone.


  18. I’ll add that its helpful to keep the difference congressional democrats’ 50.6% of the vote, and Obama’s 52% of the vote in mind.

    Not getting a majority on 50.6% is a reversal, but something that could feasibly happen in a system using single member plurality without gerrymandering. However, without gerrymandering such a reversal would mean the Democrats falling only a few seats short.

    Had the congressional Democrats gotten 52% of the national popular vote, the gerrymandering would not have cost them the majority, as evidenced by Obama winning a majority of the districts (and Obama’s performance indicates getting to 52% was and is feasible), it just would have been a much narrow majority than normal for that sort of percentage.

    Its fair to note that in U.S. politics, votes for the congressional party usually lag votes for the winning presidential candidate, in fact in 2012 there was a smaller gap than usual. Also, Carter and Gore failed to carry a majority of the congressional districts in their elections despite winning the national popular vote, so there is a small anti-Democratic bias with using single member districts.

    Also, the Republicans “won” redistricting for this decade, but their gains are still limited by the fact that its done state-by-state, so the redistricting winner’s gain is limited by states where the minority party is able to gerrymander, states with bi-partisan, judge-drawn, and commission drawn lines, and various instances where other political circumstances keep parties from exploiting this tactic. If an American political party ever is able to do this on a nationwide scale the effect would be formidable, though hopefully so would the backlash.


  19. A diarist at Daily Kos elections counts Obama winning 209 districts to Romney winning 226, in which case the Republicans did succeed in gerrymandering a majority nationwide and most of my comments were in error. Since I counted the Obama district by hand on the spreadsheet, my count could have well been off by ten districts.


  20. While the first order issue is obviously to move from uninominal to multinominal districts, equally obviously there is a second order reform that is worth pursuing. Districts should be drawn by an independent process that is open, transparent and fair. Advocating redistricting reform does not exclude advocating PR.


  21. It is also certainly worth pursuing direct enrolment.

    In NSW a string of government agencies are required to notify the electoral commission of changes in status and address. Example, the education department notifies the commission of students who turn 18. The commission enrols people as it becomes aware of them and there is an easy review process to resolve administrative errors.

    Almost a quarter of a million more electors are now on the NSW state roll than the NSW federal roll. The federal parliament is moving to adopt the same system for federal enrolment, in part because of sheer embarrassment at the divergence between the state and federal rolls.


  22. The details of how elections and voter rolls are typically administered in the US are too depressing for both writing and reading the long post that would be required to explain them. Politicians (and sometimes friendly judges) drawing the district boundaries to benefit other politicians (or in some cases themselves) only scratches the surface.


  23. Ed, why do you assume that a vote/seat majority reversal necesarily means (is proof for) gerrymandering? A reversal is also possible (but less likely) with a fair district scheme. How can you prove that the reversal is caused by gerrymandering and not by the territorial distribution of the votes themselves?


  24. The Democratic congressional percentage was 50.6%, so a reversal without a gerrymander is plausible.

    However, it appears that Romney carried a majority of districts, 226 to 209. Obama’s percentage of the vote (as calculated by Wikipedia) appears to have been 51.1%. This was also a 3.9% margin over Romney. Reversal of a 3.9% margin is implausible without gerrymandering.

    The presidential vote is important because it puts Democrats in a position to needing to convince some Romney voter to switch tickets down-ballot. They needed Romney -congressional Democratic voters in 2012. Note that this is a normal situation for the Democrats. Democratic presidential candidates received a majority of the popular vote only four times since FDR died, and only carried a majority of congressional districts once or twice.

    However, they fell short of a congressional majority by 16 seats, so maybe they lost a dozen due to gerrymandering and another dozen to having their vote concentrated in the cities. Republicans did better in the national congressional popular vote than in the national presidential popular vote, but not by enough it seems to make a difference.


  25. Ed, thanks for the D-Kos link. But unless I missed a link within the linked page, it is only the presidential votes. Where did you find the US House results for 2012?

    In any case, I hope to have a chance to “play” with the dataset at some point in the (near?) future.


  26. My count (done after importing the data into Stata) confirms 226 districts for Romney and 209 for Obama. Combined with 24 states won (and hence 48 more electoral votes), a district-based plan would have reversed the outcome of the presidential election, although it would have been close enough (274 electoral votes for Romney, 270 needed) that campaign effects could have prevented the reversal.

    In fact, there were many close districts that could have swung under the different campaign effects of an actual district-based presidential contest. Romney won 27 of his districts by five percentage points or less. Obama won 21 of his by such a margin. (Want a tighter margin? Romney won 12 by two or less, Obama 10.)

    It is not necessarily implausible that a popular vote lead of nearly four percentage points could be reversed through single-seat districts absent gerrymandering. If one party tends to win by large margins, due to concentration in urban areas, it can fail to win a majority of fairly apportioned districts even with a majority of the vote.

    Note that I am not claiming US House districts are fairly apportioned. I am simply noting that this result is not in itself evidence that gerrymandering is decisive.


  27. This is another article where the writer attempted to draw non-partisan districts, using a set of criteria an independent commission could reasonably have used, and compared that against the actual result:


    The author concludes that the Republicans would still have won the House, mainly because of the concentration of the Democratic vote in urban areas. He makes the point that this doesn’t hurt the Democrats as much in the western states, hence they did well with the Arizona and California maps.


  28. “There’s a simple reason that congressional Republicans are willing to risk alienating Hispanics: They don’t need their votes, at least not this year. Republicans would probably hold the House – and still have a real chance to retake the Senate – if they lost every single Hispanic voter in the country…”
    – Nate Cohn, “Why House Republicans Alienate Hispanics: They Don’t Need Them,” WaPo blog (21 October 2014)


  29. Pingback: Outside the Beltway | Steven L. Taylor

  30. Pingback: The Power Of Primaries

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