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
I took a vacation last week and a fresh look at the midterm results and some pertinent analysis struck me with a realization I wrote up at New York:
Ever since the results of the 2022 midterm elections became clear, it’s been a bit of a struggle to find a proper precedent. Yes, there have been a few past midterms where the party controlling the White House gained House seats (or just lost a few), but invariably that happened under presidents quite a bit more popular than Joe Biden, and usually in economic circumstances a lot more positive than those prevailing today. Still, the results weren’t all that crazy; Republicans did, after all, flip the House, and Democratic success in the Senate (much like Republican success in 2018) was heavily dependent on a favorable mix of contests.
The shock and awe that accompanied a relatively strong Democratic performance may have been because many were expecting a late Republican surge. The polls, after all, were pretty accurate. But it was hard for a lot of analysts from both parties to overcome the belief that the party opposing the White House would get all the late breaks and win most of the really close races. That wasn’t just a hunch; it used to be a political-science truism until late surges cemented the reelections of George W. Bush in 2004 and Barack Obama in 2012. It seemed even more probable in 2022 given the historical unlikelihood of a good Democratic midterm and the suspicion that the energy Democrats got from the Dobbs abortion rights backlash might have dissipated by November.
But that’s not how it turned out, as the Cook Political Report’s Amy Walter explains in a new analysis:
“Since 2006, the final House and Senate races we’ve rated as Toss-Ups have broken decisively in one direction. What was different about this cycle, however, is that both the House (69 percent) and Senate (currently 75 percent), broke for the White House party.”
Republicans in 2014 and Democrats in 2006 won sizable majorities of the toss-up House and Senate races. And Democrats won a majority of toss-up Senate races in 2010, as did Republicans in 2018, thanks to Senate landscapes that tilted the playing field (along with non-toss-up contests that flipped seats). So a late-breaking surge (against expectations, at least) for the White House party in both House and Senate races in a midterm truly is unusual. That Democrats also won four of five gubernatorial races identified as toss-ups by Cook reinforces the surprising late trend.
So what’s the explanation? That’s not so easy to determine. Take your pick among such factors as bad GOP candidate selection (though it wasn’t just “bad candidates” who lost), Republican extremism, or a stronger “Dobbs effect” than expected. Or, to cite the explanation that makes the most sense to me (and to Walter, who has written about “calcified” politics), maybe we are in an era where polarization and partisan attachments are so strong that midterm “swings” are less powerful and the party controlling the White House is going to be on stronger ground for the time being. As always, we’ll need more elections to supply the data needed to make postelection surprises less … surprising.