Election 2014: Revenge of the Gerrymander

Partisan redistricting might come back to haunt the GOP.

Most discussion of gerrymandering, the process of drawing electoral district boundaries to maximize representation by those holding the pen, tends to focus on its purported role in promoting extremist politics by reducing competition between America’s two political parties. Recent academic research suggests that this may not in fact be the case and that other factors may be more important in explaining voting behavior by members of the House of Representatives. Nevertheless, the underlying realities of gerrymandering may produce some other unintended consequences—particularly if the Republican Party remains deeply divided as it enters the 2014 election cycle.

Since the central goal of gerrymandering electoral districts for the House of Representatives is to win the largest sustainable number of seats, there is a tension at the heart of the process between spreading your side’s voters widely to win as many seats as possible and concentrating them to ensure that the individual seats are secure. This tension is less problematic for party leaders in states that vote heavily in one direction or the other—since a structural majority allows for majorities in most if not all districts—but is more problematic in competitive states, the ever-popular “swing states.”

In swing states, margins of victory are inherently thinner because voters are distributed relatively evenly between the two major parties (which is what makes them swing states in the first place). This is often what allows a winning presidential candidate to gain House seats for his party. Conversely, in normal circumstances it frequently facilitates backlash against a president’s party during mid-term House elections. Republicans are counting on reaction against Obamacare to allow them to maintain or strengthen their position in Congress in 2014.

But will 2014 be a “normal” mid-term election? Events so far suggest that it will not. Increasingly deep divisions between establishment Republicans and Tea Party Republicans on one hand, and disenchantment of libertarian-leaning Republicans with the party’s social conservatives, on the other, are unlikely to heal even as campaigns gain steam. Most importantly, these antagonisms have moved beyond philosophical disagreements and into the real-world realm of alternative candidates and competitive fundraising pitting chambers of commerce against grass-roots groups.

If the Republican Party is still at war with itself next November, many of its candidates could face the same fate as Virginia’s failed gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli, whose controversial candidacy helped Libertarian rival Robert Sarvis to win 7% support among Virginia voters (setting aside Republicans who may have stayed at home on election day rather than support either of them). Less than half of Sarvis’s support could have elected Cuccinelli as Governor—and 18 Republican House members won their jobs with a margin of that same 7% or less in 2012, mostly in swing states like Colorado, Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. In the latter three states, Republicans drove the most recent redistricting plans following the 2010 census.

Should intra-party fights among Republicans intensify, many more may become vulnerable. (Beyond that, of course, some may render themselves unelectable in the process of defeating Republican rivals from one faction or another.) Perhaps ironically, this may be most likely in swing states like Ohio, where Republican state legislators tried to gerrymander their way to more House seats following the 2010 census.

Paul J. Saunders is executive director of The Center for the National Interest and associate publisher of The National Interest. He served in the State Department from 2003 to 2005.