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The Democrats’ Bad Map

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The Democrats’ Bad Map

Democrats may have trouble winning the Senate and House in future elections.

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica. This story was co-published with The New York Times’ Sunday Review.

Even as Hillary Clinton appears poised to win easily against a highly erratic candidate with a campaign in meltdown, a sobering reality awaits Democrats on Nov. 9. It seems likely that they will eke out at most a narrow majority in the Senate, but will fail to pick up the 30 seats they need to reclaim the House. If they do manage to win a Senate majority, it will be exceedingly difficult to hold it past 2018, when 25 of the party’s seats must be defended, compared with eight Republican ones.

The Republican Party may seem in historic disarray, but it will most likely be able to continue to stymie the Democrats’ legislative agenda, perpetuating Washington’s gridlock for years to come.

Liberals have a simple explanation for this state of affairs: Republican-led gerrymandering, which has put Democrats at a disadvantage in the House and in many state legislatures. But this overlooks an even bigger problem for their party. More than ever, Democrats are sorting themselves into geographic clusters where many of their votes have been rendered all but superfluous, especially in elections for the Senate, House and state government.

This has long been a problem for the party, but it has grown worse in recent years. The clustering has economic and demographic roots, but also a basic cultural element: Democrats just don’t want to live where they’d need to live to turn more of the map blue.

Americans’ tendency toward political self-segregation has been underway for a while now — it’s been eight years since Bill Bishop identified the dynamic in “The Big Sort.” This helps explain why red-blue maps of so many states consist of dark-blue islands in the cities surrounded by red exurbs and rural areas, a distribution that is also driven by urban concentrations of racial minorities and by the decades-long shift in allegiance from Democratic to Republican among working-class white voters.

That hyper-concentration of Democratic votes has long hurt the party in the House and state legislatures. In Ohio, for instance, Republicans won 75 percent of the United States House seats in 2012 despite winning only 51 percent of the total votes for the House. That imbalance can be explained partly by Republican gerrymandering. But even if district lines were drawn in rational, nonpartisan ways, a disproportionate share of Democratic votes would still be clustered in urban districts, giving Republicans a larger share of seats than their share of the overall vote. Winning back control of state legislatures in Pennsylvania and Michigan could help Democrats in redistricting in 2020. But it would help more if their voters were not so concentrated in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, Detroit and Ann Arbor.

“It would be awfully difficult to construct a map that wasn’t leaning Republican,” said the University of Michigan political scientist Jowei Chen. “Geography is just very unfortunate from the perspective of the Democrats.”

More recently, a confluence of several trends has conspired to make the sorting disadvantageous for Democrats on an even broader scale — increasing the party’s difficulties in House races while also affecting Senate elections and, potentially, future races for the presidency.

First, geographic mobility in the United States has become very class-dependent. Once upon a time, lower-income people were willing to pull up stakes and move to places with greater opportunity — think of the people who fled the Dust Bowl for California in the 1930s, or those who took the “Hillbilly Highway” out of Appalachia to work in Midwestern factories, or Southern blacks on the Great Migration. In recent decades, though, internal migration has slowed sharply, and the people who are most likely to move for better opportunities are the highly educated.

Second, higher levels of education are increasingly correlated with voting Democratic. This has been most starkly on display in the 2016 election, as polls suggest that Donald J. Trump may be the first Republican in 60 years to not win a majority of white voters with college degrees, even as he holds his own among white voters without degrees. But the trend of increasing Democratic identification among college graduates, and increasing Republican identification among non-graduates, was underway before Trump arrived on the scene. Today, Democrats hold a 12-point edge in party identification among those with a college degree or more. In 2004, the parties were even on that score.

Finally, in the United States the economic gap between the wealthiest cities and the rest of the country has grown considerably. The internet was supposed to allow wealth to spread out, since we could be connected anywhere — but the opposite has happened. Per capita income in the District of Columbia has gone from 29 percent above the United States average in 1980 to 68 percent in 2013; in the Bay Area, from 50 percent above to 88 percent; in New York City, from 80 percent above to 172 percent. Cities like New York, San Francisco, Seattle and Boston, exert a strong pull on mobile, highly educated, Democratic-leaning voters, while at the same time stirring resentment in the less prosperous areas those voters leave behind. And these economically dominant cities tend to be in deep-blue states.

How extreme is Democratic clustering? If you compare President Obama’s 2012 performance with Al Gore’s in 2000, you can see a huge increase in the Democratic percentage of the vote in the 68 largest metro areas. But it barely budged everywhere else. Some of that increase was caused by voters already in those cities flipping from Republican to Democratic. But it was also the gravitational effect.

This clustering of Democrats helps explain why Trump has been keeping it close in Ohio and Iowa, both states where some 72 percent of white residents over 24 lack college degrees, the highest share among the 13 most competitive states.

It works the other way in presidential elections, too. Democrats have gained in some other swing states with high levels of college-educated voters, like Virginia and Colorado, and they do at least reap a benefit in the Electoral College for having a lock on big states such as New York and California.

But it’s another story in the Senate, where this dynamic helps explain why the Democrats are perpetually struggling to hold a majority. The Democrats have long been at a disadvantage in the Senate, where the populous, urbanized states where Democrats prevail get the same two seats as the rural states where Republicans are stronger. The 20 states where Republicans hold both Senate seats have, on average, 5.2 million people each; the 16 states where the Democrats hold both seats average 7.9 million people. Put another way, winning Senate elections in states with a total of 126 million people has netted the Democrats eight fewer seats than the Republicans get from winning states with 104 million people.

Clustering is part of the problem. All those Democrats gravitating to blue strongholds like New York and California get the party no more Senate seats than Republicans get from Idaho and from Wyoming, a state with a population of about 580,000, slightly more than Fresno, Calif. If the Democrats are going to gain a lasting hold on the Senate, they have to win seats in swing states. But that gets harder the more that Democratic-leaning voters flock to big, blue states, abandoning swing states like Ohio, where the Republican Rob Portman is gliding to re-election, or smaller red states where Democrats might still have a shot at holding Senate seats, like Montana, Indiana or North Dakota.

Jenn Topper has thought about this dynamic a lot, because she’s a clear example of it. Topper, 31, grew up in Beavercreek, Ohio, a suburb of Dayton, a city that has lost nearly half its population since 1960. She left for college at Florida State, then for a public relations job in New York, then for a political communications job in Washington.

“When you grow up in Ohio, there’s a bigger world out there, and if you know about it, you just want to go to it,” she said.

A couple years ago, Topper and some colleagues who were also from Ohio were excited to meet “their” Democratic senator, Sherrod Brown, at an event. He asked them where they lived in Ohio. But they don’t live in Ohio — and won’t be able to vote for him in what is sure to be a tough race in 2018.

Topper’s high school classmate Brett Stelter, 31, left Dayton after attending Ohio University. His father was a district parts manager for Honda, which has a plant near Dayton, and Stelter himself did part-time work at the plant. But his dream was to be an actor, and so he ended up in Los Angeles.

“There’s just nothing to do in Ohio,” he said. “The jobs are limited, but it’s not just the jobs and the industries that are in Ohio, it’s the mind-set that I didn’t gravitate to.”

Stelter, who voted twice for Obama, is disappointed that his vote is superfluous in California, and tries to make up for it by engaging on social media with people back home — people like his father, who is leaning toward Trump. “Part of me wishes I could be there to personally talk to people instead of trolling them on the internet,” he said. But his political irrelevance is not enough to make him consider moving back. “Going back to Ohio to be able to vote every four years is not enough for me.”

This clustering is happening even as many smaller cities and outlying regions are experiencing mini-cultural renaissances. For one thing, a foodie or beer snob now has much less to complain about when contemplating dining outside a big coastal city. And most of these places are much more affordable than Brooklyn or Los Angeles. But they can’t seem to compare with the profusion of cool elsewhere.

Even cities making comebacks, with restored downtown buildings and plenty of locally brewed I.P.A., have the memory problem. If a city was on the ropes when young people left it, it’s frozen in that form in their image of it. “You’re competing with memory,” Topper said. “People look back and remember what it was like when they were there. You don’t often hear about how things are moving or growing or new things are happening. That picture of when you have left is all you have.”

Of course, some people do go back. Brittney Vosters, 30, who went to high school and college in Dayton, left for several years, living in Chicago and enrolling in graduate school in public administration at Rutgers in New Jersey. She recently moved back to Cincinnati so her husband could go to graduate school in northern Kentucky. It has struck her how much her former Dayton classmates have sorted out politically. “It’s noticeable that the people who left are more liberal-minded and the people who stayed are more Republican,” she said.

And this sorting out is self-perpetuating, too. The fewer people you encounter of the opposite political persuasion, the more they become an unfathomable other, easily caricatured and impossible to find even occasional common ground with. By segregating themselves in narrow slices of the country, Democrats have also made it harder to make their own case. They are forever preaching to the converted, while their social distance also leaves them unprepared for what’s coming from the other end of the spectrum. Changing that would mean adopting a broader notion of what it means to live in a happening place, and also exposing themselves to discomforts that most people naturally avoid, given the human tendency to seek out our own kind.

Vosters, for one, appreciates that her vote counts a lot more now in Ohio than it did when she was in New Jersey and Illinois. But she has no doubt where she’d like to end up for good. For her next move, she said, “I’d look at the political map and go toward the blue, because it’s more comfortable to be around people who are like you.”

Photo: Democratic members of Congress rise to their feet for a standing ovation as Republican members remain seated during U.S. President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress in Washington, January 12, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst  



  1. Stuart October 24, 2016

    “Republicans won 75 percent of the United States House seats in 2012 despite winning only 51 percent of the total votes for the House.”

    Hello? How big does the gap have to get? Can you really justify, say, 25 percent of the vote electing 75 percent of the House seats before you finally figure out something is wrong?

    1. AgLander October 24, 2016

      You should purchase a vineyard since you already produce a lot of “whine”……

      1. JPHALL October 24, 2016

        OH AGATHA: You have returned with your usually BS. Talk about whining. T Rump is winning that title! Losing to a girl who most people do not trust. A woman who gets blamed for staying with a man who did the same things as T Rump but not since the 90’s. It must really chap your hide!

  2. dtgraham October 25, 2016

    This is the second National Memo article in the last few years that has tried to take a lot of the blame from gerrymandering and place it onto geography. I don’t get it. Any regional upper chamber like a Senate will not take population into account so much (or at all), in order to give regional representative balance. I understand that. However, the main lower House in any of the democracies that I’m aware of, go strictly by population.

    To be effective and appropriate, there can only be so many people being represented by each elected representative and each elected representative should have a minimum number of constituents. For example, a large town with two very lightly populated rural areas right next to the town should not result in 3 districts for that geographic area. One for the town and two for the rural areas. The town’s large population demand that the town be segregated into different districts with different elected representatives. It doesn’t matter how concentrated people are in a geographic area. It only matters how many people there are.

    Republicans destroyed that concept with their Congressional Red Map of 2010. They cracked and packed (that’s the term) too many likely Democrat voters into too few huge districts. I wish the National Memo would stop blaming Americans for where they choose to live. Where they choose to live is irrelevant and shouldn’t matter to the proper functioning of a fair and representative democracy.

    1. dbtheonly October 25, 2016

      I suggest at least part of the article is pointing out that Democrats tend to cluster in urban States. They leave, say Ohio, and move to sat, California. The Senate was designed to overweight States with smaller populations. Just the way it works.

      Next, both State and Federal districts tend to follow county lines. This is by no means a requirement, but a thumb on the scale as it were. I’m certainly hopeful enough Democratic turn out on off year elections can go a way to correct, as you suggest.

      Finally, we’ve got the concept of the “minority-majority” districts for Federal Congress. I thought it a good idea at the time, but it allows the segregation, and yes, I used that word intentionally, of minority voters into districts that are isolated within the rest of the State.

      1. dtgraham October 25, 2016

        I suppose affirmative racial gerrymandering may be a factor in the number of uncompetitive Congressional districts but it would be a small one. This wasn’t a problem until after 2010. Congress routinely changed hands before that.

        I’m still not following the concept of clustering in urban states. If the states where they moved from lose some districts due to population loss, then the urban states where they moved to gain districts. It shouldn’t matter where they are; just their numbers. I may be missing something.

        Incidentally, I didn’t mean segregation in that way.

        1. Wolf October 25, 2016

          Problem is the House needs more seats for the pop we have, but you still have to contend with the fact that soo many Dems seems to want to live in congested, polluted, noisy cities, rather than spreading out and enjoying the nature they so claim to respect. Wish there were more Dems here in AR, but sadly its likely to go red for the wrong reasons.

          1. dtgraham October 25, 2016

            You are too hospitable my friend. And the good people of Compton and Detroit also hope that the fine folks of Arkansas join them and experience that urban excitement.

            As the great 20th century poet, Petula Clark, once wrote:

            When you’re alone and life is making you lonely you can always go downtown.
            When you’ve got worries, all the noise and the hurry seems to help, I know, downtown.

      2. plc97477 October 25, 2016

        I don’t think it is so much that Dems cluster in urban areas as it is that people who live among others learn to care about others making them more liberal.

        1. dbtheonly October 25, 2016

          Psychology is certainly not my field, but first off, we’ve got our friend, Dom, telling us he’d not have moved to the area if he’d known how “red” it was.

          Then, I’ve known any number of rural farmers. They care about others. They’re good, honest folk.

          1. plc97477 October 25, 2016

            I’m not saying rural people can’t be caring they are just less apt to know African-Americans, less apt to know gays and lesbians, less apt to know people who are different than themselves and less apt to care about people who don’t look like themselves.

    2. Vernon Sukumu October 25, 2016

      You’re are absolutely right, I’ve work in or ran political campaign since the sixties that is the way I see it also.

      1. dtgraham October 26, 2016

        Thank-you Vernon.

  3. Dominick Vila October 25, 2016

    Judging by the results of early voting, I would wait a while before celebrating anything. Like the article says, we will be lucky to get control of the Senate. The best we can hope for is a one seat majority, most likely a tie. The House is out of reach. Let’s not confuse a Hillary victory with Republicans abandoning conservatism. A rejection of the least conservative Republican nominee does not mean Republicans are planning to vote for Democrats running for Congress, Governor, and other State and Local level seats.
    I’ll be happy with a Hillary victory and a 50-50 split in the Senate (with Kaine casting the deciding vote).

    1. dbtheonly October 25, 2016


      I can promise you, as we wake up on the morning of November 9th, there will be some results we’ll be happy with, and others we’re disappointed in. I’ll meet you here around 5:00 Mountain, and we can compare.

      I want as big a run up as possible. I particularly want to see Toomey to lose, but that’s personal.

      What I really want is for the enthusiasm for the presidential race to carry over into 2018. I’ve seen crushing defeats for the past two midterms and really am tired of it.

      1. Dominick Vila October 25, 2016

        How about Issa, Gowdy, and a couple more Inquisitors?

        1. dbtheonly October 25, 2016

          Oh, Dom, there’s a long string of names I’d like never to hear again. Marco Rubio in particular. But we’ll have some successes and some failures. It’s the nature of the game.

          It all goes to why politics is more like baseball than football.

          1. Eleanore Whitaker October 25, 2016

            My thought is that Gowdy will get his for daring to take on FBI Dir. Comey. Comey blew a gasket when Gowdy tried to politicize the FBI just as the Bush Administration tried to do with AG Alberto Gonzalez who hired ONLY Republican lawyers as U.S. Attorneys. That got him a quick exit and a shameful resignation.

            Gowdy and the Republicans want Republican law, Republican judiciary, Republican Majorities in the House and Senate and Republican control of our tax dollars. As if that would EVER happen.

            They just refuse to accept that Party isn’t government and partisan influence in government can only go so far before both parties must contribute to that influence.

          2. dbtheonly October 25, 2016

            Ms. Eleanore,

            I wouldn’t mind if each and every Republican lost on the 8th. But as I told Dom, we’ll have some wins and some losses. I was thinking Gowdy’s seat in SC was fairly safe, but there’s hope.

    2. Eleanore Whitaker October 25, 2016

      Actually, if last night’s tallies of the early elections are any barometer, the House may lose it’s majority of Republicans quite easily.

      There is a very serious reason for Americans being fed up with the neo conservatism. First, it is mindless austerity that has not done a single thing to help Republican states and Republicans in those states know if they don’t don’t get on board with change, they will end up being dependents of Dem states.

      When Texas starts turning from red to pink and Arizona follows suit, you know that the reason is that the conservatives have played out their hand.

      The Republican penchant for using our tax dollars to support Big Business is ending and they know it. They created an insatiable monster that now eats up more than 70% of every budget in tax cuts and tax subsidies. After 2 administrations to prove their theory that if Americans keep these businesses in existence existing ONLY on tax dollars and that will generate jobs, the GOP has been a morbid failure proving that theory. It has NOT created jobs. If anything, it has created a culture of CEOs who believe they can use tax dollars alone to create their wealth and keep their businesses operating on cheap foreign labor.

      Now, the Republican voters are smelling the stink of this. Their states are going under and there are NO Republican jobs for all of the money the GOP hands to these billionaire corporations. Time had a funny way of clearing away Republican smoke and mirrors.

    3. plc97477 October 25, 2016

      50-50 split won’t help us with filibustering.

      1. Independent1 October 25, 2016

        What’s crucial is that it’s at least a 51/49 split in favor of the Dems so it’s a Democrat chairman who sets the Senate agenda. With McConnell as chairman, he won’t even bring issues up for a vote that are critical to the Dems – like voting on Obama’s nominee to replace Scalia in the Supreme Court. Or a lot of legislative issues that might have enough Republican support to get them passed if the chairman will even bring the legislation up for a vote.

    4. Independent1 October 25, 2016

      Here’s an article you might appreciate:

      Florida Latinos boo Marco Rubio off the stage: He’s a ‘freaking sellout’

      You’d think a Latino politician might understand that his fellow Latinos aren’t stupid. Apparently, though, Marco Rubio thinks his last name is enough to make other Latinos forget that he’s backing Donald Trump in this election. It’s not, as he found out when he “got booed off a stage in Orlando on Sunday, by a crowd that was overwhelmingly Latino.”

      [W]hen he took the stage, there was spattering of boos from the crowd. And when the emcee introduced the senator, they grew louder. “I’m going to introduce a man who represents Latinos, no matter where you’re from,” the emcee boomed in Spanish. The boos grew louder still. “Ladies and gentlemen, the senator for the state of Florida, a Latino like you and me … his name is Marco Rubio! Applaud!”

      Instead, the boos rained down on the senator, drowning out what appeared to be a handful of supporters in the crowd.

      “Thank you for having me today,” Rubio said, also in Spanish. “I want you to enjoy this day. We’re not going to talk about politics today. Thank God for this beautiful day, and for our freedom, our democracy, our vote, and our country. God bless you all, thank you very much.”

      Then he left the stage, to more boos.


      1. Dominick Vila October 25, 2016

        Hopefully the same sentiment will become apparent in the Miami-Dade area, where most Cuban-Americans live. Most Hispanics in the Orlando area are Puerto Ricans, who are U.S. citizens at birth, and who do not identify well with people like Rubio.
        I voted today, for Hillary and for every Democrat running for office. Looks like the initial lead that Trump enjoyed during the mail-in ballot period is down to only 1% as of yesterday, the first day of in-person early voting. If the trend continues, Hillary should win Florida easily, but it is still too early to tell.

  4. Eleanore Whitaker October 25, 2016

    Isn’t this just like the right? They know there is no hope Trump can win. So now, out come the lies and distortions in a style they hope is believable. NOT.

    You know why they are putting this garbage map out now. President Obama has been out on the Dem campaign trail hitting all of the deepest red Republican states and the RED is fading to pale pink and in some cases “WHITE.” The color of surrender.

    So what Issa and Ryan and the rest of the Tea Party Boys want is to feed bare faced lies they hope will rally their “ignernts” and keep up the threats and accusations.

    Mind you. They are two words they never want uttered: PROVE IT. rofl.

    In reality, the President and Sen. Elizabeth Warren are rallying Republicans in the heart of Issa, Ryan, McConnell and Gohmert territority. And wow do those good ole good ole boys hate that. Not to worry. They hate everything anyway.

    1. Dan S October 25, 2016

      Even now the deep red state of Texas is in play. There’s a chance Secretary Clinton could take the lone star ⭐️ state that hasn’t voted for a Democratic President since 1976. There’s an excellent chance the GOP will lose the Senate majority, goodbye Majority Leader Mitch McConnell

      1. dpaano October 25, 2016

        The “turtle” will crawl away with his head in his shell!!! Good riddance!

      2. Eleanore Whitaker October 26, 2016

        In truth, Ann Richards would have been the 1st US female president had she not had to run the ramparts of the battle geared Republican cowboys.

        It is kind of odd, isn’t it? That a guy like Trump, who is 99% showman and 1% slime, would somehow use his “Art of the Deal” on some pretty ignorant RNC hot shots. When Trump stated in the 2nd debate that he “donated $100 million” to his own campaign, he let the cat out of the bag. $995 million from Charles and David Koch, another $22 million from Karl Rove and Norquist and along comes Daddy Warbucks Trump with a nice fat $100 million just to allow him to run as a Republican. Priebus must have been having an off day to allow that wink wink nod nod deal.

        There are many fine women in Texas who dare to break through the political barriers in their state and they have much to offer.

        It is easy to see why Hillary scares the hell out of Republicans. It wasn’t because she is a Clinton. It was because they always knew a woman of her level of intelligence can’t be controlled and would open a door they wanted forever closed: the one at the front portico of the White House. They rue the day their WhiteWater, Benghazi, Libya and Syria accusations went no where. Now, they realize she has given too many other women ideas that the government is not a unilateral gender issue.

        1. Dan S October 26, 2016

          I remember Ann Richards very well. Her taking down of Bush was priceless. The only woman the GOP has had was the VP slot being of course Sarah Palin. I believe she was the first person that actually endorsed Trump. No big surprise there. After last nights altercation Gingrich had with Meghan Kelley I wonder if she’s ready to leave Fox & perhaps the Republican Party. Sorry about getting off topic there

          1. Eleanore Whitaker October 26, 2016

            Ann Richards was an amazingly astute, intelligent woman. The GOP HAD to get RID of her of be outclassed. That’s also what they did to Wendy Davis. But now, Texas ladies are getting into government on Congressional level. I especially enjoyed watching Sheila Jackson Lee, rip Gohmert to smithereens.

            There is some that seems to run through the veins of the most controlling southern and midwestern men: the need to take over the country. Do they not see they are literally demolishing their own party? That Tea Party founded by David and Charles Koch is now in tatters. It’s said Ryan is losing his seat to a former Dem and McConnell will be forced out by the Dem Majority in the Senate.

          2. Dan S October 26, 2016

            I’m certain McConnell will be gone when the Senate majority flips to the Democrats. Mitch only has himself to blame by first refusing President Obamas nomination of Merrick Garland for the Supreme Court a vote to the full Senate. Then his endorsement of Trump then his stony silence as every skeleton in Donnies closet has come tumbling out making Bill Clinton look like a choir boy. Paul Ryan’s future is more hazy depending if the House stays in Republican hands. Even if it does the talk of a civil war in the GOP could lead to his ouster since he’s not giving any aid to help getting Trump elected

          3. Eleanore Whitaker October 26, 2016

            I hope you are right. McConnell has been the thorn in the side of President Obama. He’s a downright bigot.

            Something really weird is going on. It’s been pointed out by several experts, that Hillary may have to appoint the largest number of SC justices due to retirements. What is weird is that while the Republicans hold Pres. Obama’s SC nominee hostage, a lot of people want Pres. Obama to be an appointee to the SC. He says he doesn’t want it. But that would be a true coup d’etat for the Democrats. Kind of like Poetic Justice.

          4. Dan S October 26, 2016

            I’ve often thought of the same thing having President Obama become a Supreme Court Justice. He’s my age so he could easily serve a good 30 years on the court

          5. Eleanore Whitaker October 27, 2016

            Dan, you are a very special guy. Guys like you make sense and know the right way forward. You can be trusted to make wholesome, rational decisions. Sadly, you are also quite rare among men your age.

            Unfortunately, some of the men who cannot accept equality in race, religion and gender, are men who did it to themselves. They cannot look in the mirror and see the mirror image the rest of us see. These are the guys who view the world from a tilted angle that’s too far right and too extreme.

            Thank goodness men like you are still there fighting the good fight.


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