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.