Before the budget fight, the widespread assumption in Washington was that conservative Republicans in the House of Representatives could do more or less whatever they wanted (like, shutting down the government), because many come from safe districts Republicans specifically drew to squeeze out Democrats. So even if a majority of the country disapproved of the Tea Party’s tactics, the voters who sent them to Washington would stick with them.
Those seats may not be so safe after all. At the beginning of each decade, states redraw the boundaries of their congressional districts. It’s a chance to catch up with changing demographics in light of new U.S. Census numbers, and, since the early days of the nation, an opportunity for the political party that controls the state legislature—with help from national Democratic and Republican leaders—to improve their chances of winning more seats in Congress. A few states, including California and Washington, try to limit partisan tinkering by giving the job of redrawing the lines to independent commissions. In most others, it’s a purely political operation.
After the 2010 midterm elections, Republicans had power to redraw the lines in 18 states, letting them alter 210 congressional districts nationwide. Democrats led legislatures in just 6 states, with sway over 44 districts. (Seven states have only one district; 19 legislatures were divided between Democrats and Republicans or let commissions draw the lines.)
To create as many solid Republican seats as possible, GOP lawmakers did what the party in power has done for decades: They created strangely shaped districts that lumped Democrats into a handful of deeply blue enclaves the GOP was resigned to losing, and then drew the other districts to spread Republican votes everywhere else. Pennsylvania, which Princeton Professor Samuel Wang calculates was the most gerrymandered state, is emblematic of the results: In 2012, Republican House candidates in Pennsylvania won 13 seats by an average of 22 percentage points; Democrats won five seats by an average margin of 53 percentage points. Wang, a neuroscientist whose statistical models accurately predicted the 2012 presidential election results, says nationwide, post-Census gerrymandering in 2011 rendered about 1.7 million Democratic votes superfluous because they were funneled into existing blue spots on the map.
There’s a superficial logic to this strategy, but trouble lurks underneath. Many of the redrawn districts that elected Republicans in 2012 aren’t actually conservative strongholds, Wang says. They’re also packed with political independents whose votes tend to reflect the national mood. They’ve tilted toward the GOP in recent years but don’t think of themselves as Republican loyalists. “When they swing,” says Wang, “they swing really hard against you.” In the aftermath of the government shutdown, just 35 percent of independents said Republican control of the House was “good for the country,” down from 54 percent last December, according to a poll by CNN/ORC International conducted on Oct. 18-20.
That sharp shift could mean gerrymandered districts are actually less secure than those that weren’t subject to partisan cartography after 2010. By examining poll data throughout the shutdown, Wang found that Republicans in gerrymandered districts saw their voter support drop almost twice as much as colleagues elected from GOP districts whose boundaries hadn’t been reshaped for partisan gain. “Isn’t that freaky?” he says.
If the national backlash against the shutdown continues to work against Republicans, Wang anticipates “dozens more seats” could be vulnerable in 2014, perhaps getting Democrats close to the 17 they’d need to gain control of the House: “If either party is paying attention to this information, I would presume that those gerrymandered states would be prime targets to carpet bomb with ads,” he says. Even so, Justin Levitt, a professor at Loyola Law School who has testified before Congress about redistricting, cautions that a lot can happen in a year and public sentiment could swing back toward the GOP before the next Election Day. “There is a limit,” he says, to the “predictive power” of lines.