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Show Them the Money: The Key to Taking Back the House

The Democrats can't take back the House because of redistricting, right? In fact, redistricting has reduced the number of competitive seats so drastically that the Democrats must wait until after the next round of redistricting (that is, 2012) to even have a chance of taking back the House (and that's only if this future redistricting is done far differently than the previous round of redistricting).

Pretty depressing, if true. But there's a huge problem with this argument, accepted as gospel by so many political observers: the idea that redistricting has destroyed competition for House seats is dead wrong. That's what Alan Abramowitz, Brad Alexander and Matthew Gunning of Emory University's Political Science department show in their new paper "Incumbency, Redistricting, and the Decline of Competition in U.S. House Elections", to be presented at the forthcoming meeting of the Southern Political Science Association. They present evidence that suggests very strongly that redistricting has almost nothing to do with the decline of competitiveness in House elections. And if that's true, then redistricing can't be the root of Democrats' difficulties in taking back the House and the whole argument about having to wait 'til 2012 falls apart.

But if redistricting isn't the cause of decreased competitiveness in House elections, what is? And what, if anything, can Democrats about it?

Abramowitz, Alexander and Gunning provide a clear answer to the first question:

The evidence presented in this paper indicates that declining competition in U.S. House elections is explained by two major factors: a shift in the partisan composition of House districts and a decline in the ability of challengers to compete financially with incumbents. Since the 1970s, and especially since 1992, there has been a substantial increase in partisan polarization among House districts. The number of marginal districts has been declining while the number of districts that are safe for one party has been increasing. Redistricting appears to have little or nothing to do with this trend: almost all of the change in district partisanship has occurred between redistricting cycles....

The effects of increasing partisan polarization have been reinforced by the second trend uncovered by our study—the decreasing financial competitiveness of House challengers. Not only are there fewer incumbents in high-risk districts, but even in these districts, incumbents running for reelection are less likely to face financially competitive challengers. Fewer and fewer challengers are able to raise the amount of money that is now required to wage a competitive campaign against a well-funded incumbent. As a result, competition is now confined to open seats and a handful of races involving exceptionally vulnerable incumbents and/or exceptionally well-financed challengers.

Got that? It's not redistricting, it's partisan polarization and (lack of) money. Since Democrats can't do much about the first problem (at least, in a purposive way), I suggest they concentrate on the second. Find high-quality challengers and show them the money. To hell with waiting for 2012.


Sorry, without having read the paper I might quibble: What's the difference between "a shift in the partisan composition of House districts" and partisan redistricting?

Also, it seems entirely likely that focusing on just the the 1st elections after redistricting may under-emphasize the impact of redistricting. With the power of incumbancy (and with successful presidential coattails) it is not surprising, for instance, that many Democrats won in 1992 despite redistricting.

To illustrate the point, look at Georgia in 1992 which redistricted to strengthen the power of black Democrats (and white Republicans, incidentally). Redistricting in 1992 did help Republicans increase their position by shrinking the 9-1 Democratic advantage in 1990 down to a 7-4 Democratic advantage. But it wasn't until 1994 that white Democrats were purged from the delegation leaving just 3 Democrats to the 8 Republicans.

Of course their were other factors in Georgia than just redistricting- but I think the point holds that the first year of the redistricting may not show the impact. But the impact exists.

I refuse to give up on the problems with redistricting line so easily, partly because it fits perfectly with what i think the dems should do in general: embrace electoral reform. Improve voting conditions and vote counting and support non-partisan districting.

So my question - not having read the paper, where conceivably this is answered, but that's the fun of blog commenting! - is whether the fact that increases in "partisanship" have been noted between redistricting cycles only suggests that the redistricters knew how to draw their lines cleverly to take advantage of existing trends. Does this get addressed?

It is simple:
Political Science has also shown that 1/3 rd of challengers succeed when the spend at least $900,000. This goes up in down depending upon the whether the electoral climate if favorable or not.

So, if we wanted to raise $1 million for 100 House races, that would equal $100 million. We have 18 months to raise it.

So we need to raise roughly $5.6 million a month.

If we could get 250,000 people to sign up, we could raise it with each person donating $22.40 a month....

Every month that goes by we lose time.

It's a chicken and the egg thing: Which came first --the partisanship or the redistricting? The "partisan nature" of the CD didn't suddenly materialize from thin air. CD's that are not drawn by "neutral" commissions or courts are drawn up by legislatures which, since 1990, have become much more partisan. While money helps greatly, you still need a candidate (or party) that stands for something.

Don't quibble about the nature, or validity of the conclusions - pick the targets!!

Taking back control of the House could become much like any other multi-player video game. Set up the battlegrounds, put up the profiles of the incumbents, have locals and outside activists comment on how best to defeat them, get creative and begin undermining the target even before the opponent is chosen. And then concentrate forces needed, finances and boots on the ground.

Know in advance how many votes will be needed for our candidate to win, and then go and recruit them.

Our experience with the Web has increased 10 fold just in this past year. We can increase its power even more so in 2006.

I largely agree, although there's a simple answer to the redistricting problem: elect Democratic majorities in state legislatures. And it's not a bad farm system for developing talent. Consider Sen. Obama, who held the same title in the Illinois Senate.

Also in Illinois, note that Melissa Bean defeated one of the longest-serving Republican congressmen, Phil Crane. It was, I think, her second campaign against Crane. Even strong candidates sometimes need multiple tries before they build up enough name recognition and organizational skills to beat an incumbent.

In the district bordering Bean's, the moderately Republican lakeshore 10th, the Democrats put up a weak candidate against Mark Kirk, who was running for a third term and barely won his first race in 2000. This was a winnable seat in a district that's home to a lot of wealthy Democrats. But the Democratic candidate wasn't interested in raising money and winning, only in some bizarre notion of noble defeat. This kind of candidate has to be kept off ballots.