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Mellman: Geography and gerrymander

Mellman: Geography and gerrymander
© Aaron Schwartz

Corrupt GOP gerrymandering is rampant and I’m proud to have played a small role in ending it in Michigan, through the victory of Proposition 2, which transfers the power to draw district lines from politicians to an independent commission.

However, Democrats would be foolish to imagine that Republican conspiracies are the root of all our problems translating votes into seats.

Another important part of my party’s problem is geographic concentration.

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County lines aren’t gerrymandered, remaining relatively fixed. 

In 1960, John F. Kennedy won the national popular vote by less than two-tenths of a percentage point, while winning some 1,155 of the nation’s 3,143 counties. 

In 2012, Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaCentral Asia is changing: the Biden administration should pay close attention MSNBC to debut docuseries 'Obama' Can Biden vanquish Democrats' old, debilitating ghosts? MORE won the popular vote by 4 points but took just 705 counties.

Four years ago, Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonThe Hill's 12:30 Report - Third vaccine candidate with 90% efficacy Biden won — so why did Trump's popularity hit its highest point ever? The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the UAE Embassy in Washington, DC - Calls mount to start transition as Biden readies Cabinet picks MORE won the popular vote by 2 points but was victorious in just 487 counties. 

Put differently, Clinton won the popular vote by a margin 10 times larger than Kennedy’s but netted far less than half as many counties.

Democratic voters tend to reside in high-density areas. On average, there are 36.5 voters per square mile in this country. In places Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden team wants to understand Trump effort to 'hollow out government agencies' Trump's remaking of the judicial system Overnight Defense: Trump transgender ban 'inflicts concrete harms,' study says | China objects to US admiral's Taiwan visit MORE won, the average is 22 voters per square mile compared to 86 voters per square mile for territory in which Clinton prevailed.

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Georgia provides a great example of both geographic concentration and gerrymandering. 

Last week, Jeff Singer at Daily Kos rightly pointed out that Stacey Abrams nearly won Georgia, but Democrats running for the legislature have a very long way to go. 

The culprit? GOP gerrymandering, according to Singer.

He’s certainly right, but again, that’s not the whole story. 

Singer notes that the infamous Brian Kemp defeated Abrams by only 1 point statewide, but Kemp carried 57 percent of House seats and 59 percent of Senate seats, despite winning just 50 percent of the statewide vote.

That sounds like a lot of Republican gerrymandering—and it is. But it’s not only that.

Examine the results in Georgia’s counties, which, again, are not gerrymandered, having had essentially the same boundaries since 1932.

In 2016, Donald Trump won 52.6 percent of the two-party vote, but 81 percent of the counties. 

Two years later, Kemp won less than 51 percent of the two-party vote, but 82 percent of the counties.

Consider the other good evidence adduced in the Kos analysis.

The median state House district — the one in the middle — gave Kemp a 9-point win compared to his statewide margin of just over 1 point. Thus, the median House seat was almost 8 points more Republican than the state.

The median Senate seat went to Kemp by a 19-point margin making it almost 18 points more GOP than the state.

But again, compare the House and Senate results to the median county which went for Trump by a massive 37-point margin and for Kemp by a slightly larger 40 points.

Thus, the counties seem more gerrymandered than the legislative districts, but since county lines were drawn nearly a hundred years ago, that can’t be the case.

Geographic concentration of Democrats in cities accounts for some of that huge disparity.

Simply examining the map makes the fact clear. Three of the four Democratic U.S. House seats are in Atlanta and its close-in suburbs. The other Democratic congressional seat is anchored in a group of smaller cities like Albany, Columbus and Macon. 

Nearly all Democratic state legislative seats — which are smaller — are in those same areas plus Savannah, Augusta, Valdosta and Athens (a college town). Between these denser city outposts rests a sea of red seats. 

Georgia may soon elect a Democratic governor and perhaps even sooner cast electoral votes for a Democratic president.

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However, unless and until Democrats can win legislative seats in rural and more exurban areas, that governor will be sharing power with a hostile Republican legislature.

Honest redistricting would help a great deal. But by itself, it won’t solve the problem of Democrats’ under representation in Georgia and elsewhere across the country.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has helped elect 30 U.S. senators, 12 governors and dozens of House members. Mellman served as pollster to Senate Democratic Leaders for over 20 years, as president of the American Association of Political Consultants, and is president of Democratic Majority for Israel.