By Mark Mellman - 05/28/13 11:52 PM EDT
Democrats’ national demographic advantage has been a cause for
celebration in our party and for deep concern in the GOP. At the
presidential level, and in a number of states, solid Democratic support
from African-Americans, Latinos, younger voters and seculars has
created serious problems for Republicans — problems that are currently
confounding them, even leading the GOP to finally back immigration
While this coalition confers obvious advantages on our presidential candidate, its limitations create obstacles to Democratic efforts to retake the House. Most obstacles, including this one, can be overcome, but it takes a strategy, and by definition, it’s a different strategy than the one that works nationally and for the current crop of Democratic House members.
We start from the fact that Democrats got 50.7 percent of the vote in 2012 but won just 46.2 percent of the seats. We like to see this as the result of a nefarious Republican plot to resurrect the ghost of former Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry and draw advantageous lines for themselves across the country. But that is only partly true. Even more important is the simple reality that Democratic constituencies are highly concentrated in metropolitan areas that deliver large majorities to Democrats, while Republicans are spread more efficiently throughout the country so they “waste” fewer votes. While the GOP used redistricting to aid and abet the situation, it is neither new, nor mainly a result of gerrymandering.
The number of wasted votes was evident in a pre-redistricting election — while George W. Bush received more than 80 percent of the vote in just 80 precincts, Al GoreAl GoreMain Street to Washington: A train ride through division Clinton’s third-term dilemma Third-party candidates aim for Sanders loyalists MORE garnered 80 percent in almost 800. In 2012, more than two-thirds of the 68 most one-sided districts were Democratic.
Republicans enjoy an advantage in the House that results in large measure from political geography and coalition politics. Thus, President Obama won nearly five million more votes than Mitt Romney in 2012, but Romney nonetheless outpolled Obama in 226 districts, while Obama ran ahead in only 209.
In evaluating the significance of this inefficient overconcentration of Democrats, it is important to understand just how tightly partisanship is now linked to the congressional vote. In 2012, only 12 of the 406 districts where Obama’s district vote share was at least 2 points above or below his national vote share went to the “other” party. Just 6 percent of House districts delivered split decisions, with pluralities for the president of one party and the House candidate of the other. That record low compares to the average of 34 percent in the ’70s and ’80s. Exit polls show the percentage of partisans defecting to candidates of the other party in House races has been cut in half.
With partisanship so tightly linked to election results, and Republicans more evenly spread around the country, Democrats have a problem. Of course, there were 17 districts that voted to reelect Obama and then switched parties to back a House Republican — exactly the number we need to regain control — but nine Democratic seats were won by Romney. By the same theory, we should have trouble holding these seats. Winning the House seats in the 226 districts Romney won will be difficult for Democrats — and by definition, our current coalition is unlikely to be sufficient in all the districts we need to regain control.
Democrats now in the House by and large represent Democratic districts and have little need to move beyond the party’s core constituency. However, regaining control will require a careful strategy to reach out to those normally not well disposed to voting for Democrats: white voters in suburbs and rural areas, including the somewhat wealthier, the more religious and men. Failure to make progress with these segments will leave Democrats a minority in the House for years to come.
Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the Majority Leader of the Senate and the Democratic Whip in the House.