Gerrymander America, Liberal Influence or Preference?

“All politics is local” – Tip O’Neill, former Speaker of the House

We have an election coming up in under a month, an election that appears to have at least the potential of massive shifting of political fortunes. Whether or not such a massive shift takes place remains to be seen. Regardless, when I look at the political landscape of this nation, and compare it against the representative realities, something just doesn’t add up. It is this disconnect that we hope to scratch at for just a bit today.

We begin with a quick recap of gerrymandering. This is the process of taking a voting population (generally within a state) and drawing districts around them to create the best potential political outcomes for your preferred party. For instance, if a state is 58% liberal and 42% conservative, with four congressional districts, the conservatives would like very much to form those districts into one of 25 liberal to 0 conservative, and the other three as 11 liberal and 14 conservative. Thereby taking a state that is overwhelmingly liberal and giving it 3 conservative representatives versus one liberal.

It’s a rather despicable practice, but one that is the norm rather than the exception. The construction of so many more “safe” districts has given rise to some interesting political outcomes. It was once thought that the Senate, with only 1/3 of its members up for election every year, would provide a “stable” distribution while the House might swing wildly. However, James Taranto of the Wall Street Journal notes that since the advent of pervasive gerrymandering the House has never changed hands unless it either went to the party that controlled the Senate or switched in conjunction with a switch in the Senate. That is, the House never switches without the Senate, but the Senate can certainly switch with the House. (I haven’t checked his histories, but Taranto is generally pretty good about such things.)

Speaking of the Senate, it represents an even more interesting gerrymander. In our prior example, we mandated that the gerrymander keep all districts at approximately the same population level. While the conservatives will accept their three district lead at a 14-11 advantage in each, they would much rather construct one district out of the 58% liberals and three districts, each of 14% conservatives. This violates some “equal protection” clause, to be sure – but it is exactly how the Senate works. No, they don’t redraw the districts, but we do see heavily liberal or heavily conservative “districts” (read states) with significantly different populations. More to the point, there are more small, conservative states than small, liberal states.

Let us go back to the last six elections, which includes three Republican wins (Bush 88, Bush 00, Bush 04) and three Democrat wins (Clinton 92, Clinton 96, Obama 08) – and no Reagan wins; because he would skew every statistic. The 50 states each caste 6 presidential election votes in those years. The final tally: 158R – 142D. There were 8 states that voted Democrat every time, and 12 that voted Republican every time. There were 21 that voted Democrat more often than Republican, and 26 that voted Republican more often than Democrat. These numbers undoubtedly lean right. If one simply averaged the 158-142 result, one might expect a nominal Senate makeup to be 53R-47D. If we only considered Bush 04 and Obama 08, one would expect a 52R-48D split. Yet the current makeup is 41R-59D (counting “independents” who are Democrats).

How does one explain such a disparity? How is it that the representation is so out of line with the voting trends of the states? I will offer several conjectures, ranging from the most pragmatic first, to some radical “America is asleep at the wheel” allegations last.

First, the simple. The current makeup of the Senate is a result of the 04, 06, and 08 election cycles. 2004 was a good year to be a Republican, but that name was tarnished phenomenally in both 2006 and 2008. There you go, huge advantage for Democrats. (Note that this explanation in and of itself portends a real struggle for Democrats in years to come. If the Republicans actually gain significant seats in the 2010 election, which is the same class as 2004, they will have very little risk of losing any seats in 2012 or 2014 and could gain quite a few more. The reason? All the weak candidates of the 2012 or 2014 classes lost in 2006 and 2008. The Republicans have very few seats in those classes, giving them ample Democrat targets for takeover. Forecast: IF Republicans takeover the Senate majority in 2010 – a big IF – I claim they are more likely to gain a 60 seat majority between then and 2014 than to lose back control.)

While it is certainly reasonable to take the simplest explanation and walk away, I think perhaps there is more going on. How is it that a country which, when polled, describes itself as 20% liberal, 40% moderate, and 40% conservative, elects a radically liberal legislature? Several wild notions follow …

It could be “liberal media bias.” Back during the 2004 campaign I caught an interview with a longtime journalist who admitted what everybody already knows – the media is far more liberal than the country as a whole. He said he didn’t really know how much that was worth in an election, but he guessed it was around 10 to 15 percentage points. That would explain it. If it is really legitimately a 10-15 point advantage just because the main-stream-media is in the tank for all liberals everywhere, then that would explain the shift. I’m not saying I believe the 10-15 point hypothesis, but liberal bias could only enable such a massive shift if the people believe what they’re told. How could a simple reporting bias lead to such a massive shift? That brings us to the next conjecture.

I said some time ago that freedom-based systems have a significant functional advantage. They leverage a person’s self-interest to motivate productivity. Whether this is moral or not is a non-issue, it is a good model of the human machine and therefore an effective economic and social system.

While this may be true for the functioning of the system, it is not necessarily true for the voting of the system. I argue that it is actually liberals who have the better model on that end. Human beings are not only self-interested, they are by nature self-centered (the two may go hand-in-hand). Self-centeredness is pride, which is the source of envy. Using envy as your model to get votes is a great way to go. “Those people have more than you, they think they’re better than you, you can show them this November by voting for us and we’ll rectify the situation.” No, nobody says it exactly like that, but to think that envy doesn’t play a part in populist messaging is crazy. Of course it does – and it works.

We throw on top of envy a general fact of human compassion and willingness to judge rather than be judged. If a conservative is in favor of cutting spending, they are easy to demonize as “against the poor and needy” – which is a terrible place to be politically. Further, if forced to judge whether a hard-working father of three, who has a house and food on the table, should be asked to give more – OR – whether a non-working father of who-knows-how-many should be thrown out of his no-longer-subsidized dwelling; the average American may well choose the former. The person with the job, house, car will still likely have most of those things if we take more from him – the poor man will be utterly destitute. Conscientious Americans have difficulty with that outcome. (So much difficulty that they will cast aside any notion of justice, freedom, or honor just to avoid a misguided guilty conscience.)

So, while 80% will call themselves moderate or conservative, they will go along with liberalism because it offers a simple respite from having to “man up” and deal with social issues on a personal level.

If any of these mad conjectures are even close to accurate, then I suspect they represent only good news for the freedom-loving conservatives. “How is that?” you say. I would argue that the status quo is about as bad as it will ever get for conservative impression in the mainstream, without rabid oppression of freedom-of-speech (which could happen, but seems less likely). The “new media” is gaining ground and the strangle-hold of liberals on all media outlets is fading.

Further, it strengthens the notion that the battle of ideals is still a battle for the hearts and minds of the people. This is a battle worth having and a battle that can be won. History is on our side. Freedom makes things better, lack thereof makes things worse. Explaining that result in simple terms is a winner.

As for the impending election, I don’t know what to tell you. Come November 2 something will happen. If you are eligible to vote, you should do so.  Be a part, let your vote count (even if you live in a state that is overwhelmingly given to “the other party”). This freedom is a rare thing indeed in the history of mankind, and we ought to cherish and exercise it.

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2 Responses to Gerrymander America, Liberal Influence or Preference?

  1. “There were 8 states that voted Democrat every time, and 12 that voted Republican every time. There were 21 that voted Democrat more often than Republican, and 26 that voted Republican more often than Democrat. These numbers undoubtedly lean right.”

    I am going to pick on your math, because that is what I do :). More seriously, I am going to pick on this because this has the potential to suggest/provide exactly the sort of unwarranted bias that you theorize in your post. Conspiracy theorists don’t need any help with their paranoia, so let’s not provide any here.

    First, please provide some references or sources for your data. This is generally a good idea, but particularly so in this case because it is either incorrect, or more likely, I simply do not understand it. The four groups of states in the quote above comprise a total of 67 states, which is too many. Perhaps the first two groups are each subsets of the corresponding last two (e.g., there were 21-8=13 states that voted Democrat more often than Republican, but voted Republican in at least one of the six elections). But this is still 8+12+13+14=47 states, which is now not enough. Perhaps there were 3 states that split the six elections 3-3?

    In any case, your suggestion that “these numbers undoubtedly lean right” infers too much, I think, at least from the limited data available here. First, you are inferring voter preferences on senatorial candidates from presidential election outcomes. I know I don’t always vote a straight ticket, and others don’t either, Maine and Louisiana being a couple of recent examples from a quick glance at ( Second, why roll up the past 22 years worth of presidential election results to draw conclusions about what you point out is a senate made up of only the past 6 years worth of congressional elections?

    In summary, all that such a glance at the last six elections suggests to me is the reactionary nature of American politics. The pendulum swings, the people (in particular, the moderates, who are in my opinion the only ideology-less objective influences on this not-so-fun game) see it swinging too far and vote their displeasure. The pendulum stops… and swings the other way. I’m a good example: you know how I “lean,” and I supported Bush in 2000! If the Republicans manage to find someone intelligent and non-wacko (e.g., Sarah Palin does not fit this criteria), I will likely vote Republican again.

    • nomasir says:

      It sounds funny when you put it like that. My statement was clearly badly formulated. I counted “never voting democrat” as “voting republican more often.” There are 8 states that always voted democrat, and another 13 that voted republican either once or twice. There are 12 states that always voted republican, and an additional 14 states that voted democrat either once or twice. There are three states, nevada, ohio, and west virginia, that split 3-3.

      Obviously, people do not vote straight ticket. Nor should they, for that matter. But one does wonder how Montana, North Dakota, and Virginia (voting 16R-2D in those elections) each have two democratic senators. Or how South Dakota, Nebraska, and Indiana (also 16R-2D) are each split. The instances of Republicans stealing seats from Democrat leaning states are next to none. There’s Maine (5D-1R) which has two Republican senators, and Massachusetts (6D-0R) which has one Republican senator.

      As for conspiracy theorism, I’m not sure I came down too hard on the side of the crazies. I don’t know that I buy the 10-15 point bias theory, I merely wanted to consider how the media bias (largely undisputed, though certainly worth discussion) could possibly give such an advantage. The proposal I came up with was that liberalism (or, populist liberalism) is a bit easier to sell.

      As for the massive split, there is nothing at all UNFAIR about it. Votes are votes and candidates are candidates – and all politics is local. I suspect that the big issue the Republicans have in controlling the Senate, which appears to be gerrymandered in their favor, is that they put forward piss-poor candidates who lose to “conservative sounding” democrats. We may well look up in 4 years and find the split well on the other side of the 53-47 baseline.

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