Over the weekend, Markos of DailyKos, pondering his California absentee ballot, posed a very pertinent question: why shouldn’t he vote for Proposition 77, Arnold Schwarzenneger’s redistricting reform initiative? Yes, he suggests, it might have a short-term negative impact on Democratic margins in the congressional delegation and the state legislature, but if it contributes to a national redistricting reform movement, it’s likely to help Democrats nationally, particularly if Democratic-backed reform initiatives in Ohio (this year) and Florida (next year) succeed as well.I can’t answer Markos’ question definitively, but do want to draw attention to peculiarities of the California initiative that make it different from those in the other states. I’ve written about this subject extensively here and here (note that the first piece was written before the Ohio initiative got underway, while the second was written before the California initiative overcame a judicial challenge), so I’ll just hit the high points.Prop 77 relies heavily on the assumption that nonpartisan redistricting is (a) feasible, and (b) will produce a more balanced map. Both these assumptions are very questionable. But that’s why the initiative focuses so heavily on who draws the maps, rather than what criteria they use. The Ohio initiative (and for that matter, the Florida initiative that’s now in a legal limbo) requires use of partisan voter registration and performance data to create an overall redistricting plan that maximizes both competitive districts and statewide partisan fairness, while the California initiative prohibits use of such data and does not make competitiveness or partisan fairness criteria at all. The one state that has successfully applied this take-the-politics-out approach to redistricting is Iowa, but Iowa, with its relatively homogenous population, stable partisan balance, and strong “good government” tradition, is not California, by a long shot. So in the end, Prop 77 is pretty much a leap into the unknown. Thus, for Democrats in particular, the decision on Prop 77 is pretty much a matter of how you feel about the current map and the system that created it. But there’s one major piece of misinformation circulating (it’s very visible in the comment thread after Markos’ post) that needs to be refuted: the idea that the current map is a standard-brand partisan gerrymander that maximized Democratic seats. Not so. For both the congressional delegation and the state legislature, the Democratic leadership pursued an incumbent-protection strategy that all but eliminated competitive districts. Yes, it created a floor under Democratic majorities, but also created a ceiling. In effect, the map traded potential opportunities to win new Democratic seats for the assurance that incumbents wouldn’t have to worry about general elections. (Another motive, according to everybody I’ve talked to, was to enable primary challenges to centrist Democrats in the state legislature, many of which succeeded). California’s situation is in sharp contrast to that of Ohio and Florida, where the reigning Republicans did indeed focus on partisan advantage to the exclusion of virtually every other factor.In other words, the Democratic advantage in California’s congressional delegation and state legislature is the product of an unavoidable Democratic advantage among voters, not of Democratic control of redistricting. And there’s no particular reason to believe the system established by Prop 77 would change that reality. The bottom line for me is that I don’t like the system set out in Prop 77, but I also don’t think partisanship is a good reason for opposing it, particularly since the current map is so egregiously aimed at eliminating competition altogether. I hope this analysis helps Markos and other California Dems make their decision. All redistricting reforms are not created equal; nor is the status quo in Democratic and Republican-controlled states the same. It’s entirely possible to oppose Prop 77 while supporting the initiatives in Ohio and Florida on substantive grounds, but not because California’s current system is particularly good for Democrats, or for democracy.
TDS Strategy Memos
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By Ed Kilgore
After absorbing a lot of Democratic gloom-and-doom about the midterms, I offered some silver lining at New York:
The 2022 midterms don’t look great for Democrats, who will try to buck history by hanging on to super-slim congressional majorities. Thanks to the particular lay of the land, Democrats have a decent chance of maintaining control of the Senate. But the House? Not so much: The two times since the New Deal when the president’s party won net House seats in a midterm (1998 and 2002), the president in question had sky-high job-approval ratings. Even if you believe Joe Biden’s plunge in popularity has been stemmed or even turned around a bit, he’s not going to have 60 percent-plus approval in November 2022 unless really crazy things happen. There’s just too much partisan polarization for that these days.
Thankfully for Democrats, even if they lose their congressional majorities next year, Biden himself won’t be an underdog for reelection in 2024. After all, the last two Democratic presidents were reelected after historically terrible midterms. Democrats lost 54 U.S. House seats in 1994 and 63 in 2010. Yes, they had bigger majorities going into those elections than Democrats have now. But they lost the national House popular vote by an identical 6.8 percent in both midterms, which is pretty bad, particularly since Democrats suffer from a voter-inefficiency problem in House elections (too many voters concentrated in too few districts).
It’s possible for a president’s party to lose a midterm so badly that bouncing back in the next cycle is all but impossible. Consider the man whose unique comeback accomplishment Donald Trump will be emulating if he runs in 2024, Grover Cleveland. The president Cleveland defeated in an 1892 rematch, Benjamin Harrison, was a Republican whose party lost an incredible 93 House seats in the 1890 midterms. This, mind you, was at a time when the House had only 332 members, which means the GOP lost over half their caucus in one cycle (an even worse percentage than in 1894, when Democrats lost a record 125 House seats during the midterm after Cleveland’s comeback triumph). In this era of polarization, nothing like that is going to happen to Democrats in 2022.
Looking more broadly at the power of incumbency, there have been 13 sitting presidents since World War II who were on the general election ballot. Nine of them won. The four losers all faced special circumstances. Gerald Ford had not previously been elected to anything more than the U.S. House; he ascended to the vice-presidency and then the presidency when disgraced predecessors resigned, and he pardoned the president who appointed him, the especially disgraced Richard Nixon. Jimmy Carter was caught up in a historical realignment that he had held off four years earlier by carrying his native South, which then resumed a massive Republican trend. George H.W. Bush suffered from a terrible economy but then also a party split (third-party candidate Ross Perot won a lot of previously Republican voters). And we all know about Donald J. Trump, who was impeached twice and seemed determined to offend swing voters.
In retrospect, what’s most remarkable is that Ford and Trump very nearly got reelected despite their handicaps, exhibiting not the weakness but the strength of incumbency. And it’s with that perspective that any early handicapping of a potential 2024 rematch should be considered. Trump benefited from incumbency in 2020, as will Biden in 2024. So the idea that the 45th president has some built-in advantage over the 46th — absent the renewed election coup so many of us fear — doesn’t make a lot of sense.