By Jonathan Krasno
The conventional wisdom about congressional elections is that redistricting has made about 90 percent of House seats so heavily Republican or Democratic that they are out of reach for the other side. This comes up repeatedly in discussion of recent polls showing trouble for the GOP this fall. Experts caution that public opinion will only matter in the relative handful of districts where real competition is possible.
This extreme view of redistricting’s impact is simply wrong. How district lines are drawn does affect who wins and loses elections. But the argument that the mapmakers have managed to wring almost all of the potential competition out of the system vastly overstates the case and manages to make a bad situation worse.
Politicians have always wanted safe seats, and in the last decade mapping software has made it easier to draw those sorts of districts. Mapmakers’ handiwork is supposedly reflected in the 2004 House results: just 22 House races were decided by 10 points or less (of the two-party vote), the lowest number of close elections in more than 50 years.
The problem with that evidence is that districts are not the only reason why elections may be lopsided. For example, two thirds of House candidates in 2004 outspent their opponents by more than 5 to 1. It is no surprise when those candidates run up huge margins over their outgunned rivals.
That is one reason why academics often use presidential elections to measure the underlying partisan balance in a region. Sure enough, the presidential results from 2004 reveal a much different picture: President Bush or Senator Kerry prevailed by 10 points or less in 102 districts. That is actually a small number for such a close election, but it still suggests that there are far more potentially competitive districts than the House results reveal.
I could incorporate more elections or use fancier statistics, but I would still find a fair number of closely-drawn districts. It is worth remembering that this standard of “closeness” is entirely arbitrary; plenty of Democrats and Republicans have shown that they can win in areas where their party is a distinct minority.
If district lines do not explain the lack of competitive House elections, what does? Incumbents do their share in other ways. Sitting politicians work constantly to publicize their good deeds, using all of the advantages that come from holding an important office. It seems to work: polls show that citizens have a much higher opinion of their own member of Congress than of Congress itself.
But this, too, is an old story. Incumbents have been using their offices to build name recognition and good will for years. Unless one believes that they have become better at this over the last decade, incumbency cannot explain the striking decline in the number of close elections.
The best explanation is deceivingly simple: lack of effort. That is not to say that the main actors in congressional elections – candidates, parties, interest groups, and the media – do not work hard. Rather, these players have increasingly come to focus their attention on the group of races they find most competitive, essentially ignoring a growing number of campaigns.
For example, consider the actions of the political parties. Parties are an important source of funds for many congressional campaigns, and their decisions influence other donors. In 1992, parties invested half of the money they spent in congressional elections in 84 districts; in 2004 they spent half in just 11.
It is tempting to conclude that parties are merely responding to political reality. That is certainly true, but it is also true that parties and other big players help create that reality. Where good candidates run – with financial support from their party and the resulting media coverage – elections are cliffhangers. Where they do not, or they receive little funding or coverage, the results are foregone conclusions, no matter how evenly balanced a district may be.
Francine Busby as an under-funded nobody barely registered against Duke Cunningham in 2004. Francine Busby as a Democratic priority almost won the special election to succeed Cunningham in 2006. It is true that Busby’s funding was not the only difference between 2004 and 2006 – Cunningham went to jail in the interim – but no Democrat would have stood a chance without a substantial campaign. And with serious resources, she surely would have given Cunningham more of a race in 2004.
New York State is another good illustration of how these factors play out. The Democrats are reportedly planning to target as many as six of the nine seats held by the GOP. They targeted none of them in 2004, spending just under $12,000 in all nine combined. And, none of the Democrats came within 10 points of the Republican winner.
Obviously, party leaders feel that 2006 offers better opportunities – even though district lines are unchanged – and they are probably right. If they back that up with money, the candidates they help will have a better chance of competing and winning.
Therein lies the danger for Republicans in recent polls. If the polls convince the Democrats that they can win in more places, they might just try. And, if they try, more of their candidates will do better. The lottery motto applies: you’ve got to be in it to win it. That advice applies equally well to both parties. The difference is that the Democrats, as the minority party, have more to gain by maximizing their pick-up opportunities. And if either party is going to pick up many seats in 2006, it will be the Democrats.
That is why all the rhetoric about redistricting is so counterproductive, especially for the Democrats. The perception that competition is impossible in so many places gives parties, candidates, groups and the media an excuse for ignoring these races, and leaves most voters without any real choice for Congress. Coincidently, that perception also happens to be wrong. Politicians and their allies just need to believe that they can make a race of it in many areas, and they probably can. The question for 2006 is whether the Democrats will believe.
Jonathan Krasno is an associate professor of political science at Binghamton University.
By Jonathan Krasno