Submitted by Charlie on Wed 13 Jul 2016 - 08:18
2012 House Election Results, Only One Of These Numbers Should Be Bigger Than The Other

 

"I've said it before and I'll say it again: democracy simply doesn't work." - Kent Brockman

 

NOTE: This is the second of three articles about the 2016 U.S. federal election. The first bathed in the schadenfreude created by Donald Trump's win on America's Next Top Republican Nominee. Today's is about the House of Representatives, which is considerably less fun to talk about. The third article will return things to happier ground by discussing the Senate.

On election night 2012, Obama won by 5% overall and racked up 332 Electoral Votes. He could've lost Virginia, Ohio, and Florida and still stayed President. It wasn't as big a blowout as 2008 had been, but the networks all called the election shortly after 11:00pm Eastern, and could've done so much earlier if they weren't unofficially required to wait for polls to close on the West Coast. (Screw you, Alaska and Hawaii!) The House, which has no such restriction, was called for the Republicans almost three hours earlier, as soon as polls closed on the East Coast. 

Sadly, just as that early House call was a turd in 2012's punchbowl, it's likely going to be repeated this November. Yes, it's possible that a truly yuge Trump defeat could flip the House, but - for extremely depressing reasons that will shortly be clear - for that to happen Clinton would have to win not just by more than Obama did in 2012, she would need more (a lot more, in fact) than even his historic blowout in 2008.

To understand why, allow me to take you on a brief tour of my home state of Michigan. After the 2000 election, Republicans controlled both houses of the legislature and the governor's office, so they got to draw the next decade's maps all by themselves. This was especially bad because Michigan lost a Congressional seat to reapportionment after that year's census, dropping us from 16 to 15.

The effect on both the state and federal levels was profound. With the Republicans in complete control of redistricting and a new map of only 15 U.S. House seats, losing at least one Democratic seat in 2002 was a foregone conclusion. But the lines had been so finely drawn that the Democrats lost 3 seats, despite winning a narrow (30,000 vote) majority of the popular House vote. It was the first time Michigan had a majority Republican House delegation since Watergate.

Four years later, the 2006 wave in which the Democrats picked up a whopping thirty-one (31!) House seats nationwide saw precisely zero change in Michigan's delegation, it remained 9-6 Republican despite the fact that Democratic candidates won 300,000 more votes overall (an 8-point win).* Democratic governor Jennifer Granholm romped to re-election by 14-points and the State House flipped from Republican to Democratic control.

(*One Republican lost a primary, but the seat itself stayed Red.)

But that otherwise fine election was tainted by a disappointment with which Democrats here in Michigan are long accustomed: the State Senate stayed Red. Michiganders cast 350,000 more votes (a 10-point margin) for Democratic State Senators than Republican ones, but it didn't matter. In fact, it barely even budged. The nationwide Democratic wave that swept away six U.S. Senators and those thirty-one U.S. House reps managed to sink just a single Michigan state senator. The chamber itself went from a 22-15 Republican majority to a 21-17 Republican majority. Hooray.

The post-2000 lines had been so well drawn that the 2008 Obama election, which saw a further 21 Democratic gains overall, produced a mere 2 pickups in Michigan. A nearly 9-point win and a margin of 400,000 votes got the Democrats just over the hump to an 8-7 majority, which was swiftly reversed back to 9-6 Republican in 2010.

The Great Mid-Term Disaster was also the next time the State Senate was up, and you don't need me to tell you how that went. Along the way, the Democrats lost the State House and the governor's office (Granholm was term limited), meaning the Republicans regained unified control just in time to redistrict themselves twice in a row. Once again, Michigan lost a House seat to reapportionment, and the Republicans made sure it didn't come out of their column.* In 2012, the first year on the new maps, the Democrats lost a U.S. House seat in Michigan despite earning 240,000 more votes and a 5-point margin.

(*Yeah, flee to warmer climates now. Your kids will all be back here in twenty years when Florida's underwater and Arizona's dry as a bone.)

Of the fourteen remaining districts left in 2012, only a single one was close. Michigan's 1st (mostly the Upper Peninsula) elected Republican Dan Benishek by just 0.5%. Only two other Republican winners were even in single digits, the closer of which was Kerry Bentivolio in the 11th. Thanks to unfettered control of redistricting, that seat is one of the most absurdly gerrymandered in the country. To see how, check out the .gif below:

Michigan's heavily weird 11th Congressional District

That is the Census Racial Dot Map overlaid with the 11th District in red. The blue dots are white people and the green dots are black people (Asians are in red, Hispanics in yellow). Note the way it artfully curves around the largely black city of Pontiac while managing to include predominantly white Bloomfield Hills. (That sea of green in the lower right is Detroit.) The little carve out for Farmington is even more ridiculous.

Now, the 11th isn't quite a must win for a Democratic House, but since 2014 blasted them into an historic hole, it's close. And winning it (even with Trump at the top of the ticket) is going to be very tough. In 2012, Romney went down by nearly 10-points statewide, but the 11th went for Romney by 5.4 points (52.3-46.9) while Bentivolio defeated the Democratic hopeful by 6.4 points (50.8-46.4). Bentivolio lost a primary challenge in 2014, but his successor, Dave Trott, scorched the Democratic challenger by 15.4% (55.9-40.5). Cook Political rates the race as "Likely Republican" and has the district as a whole at R+5, but that doesn't tell the whole tale.

The 2016 electorate is going to be the most diverse in history, with white people (the only ethnic group that goes Republican) making up just 69% of eligible voters nationwide. But in Michigan's 11th, it's a lot less 2016 than it is 1980. White people make up 83% of the total population, or roughly 3% more than the country as a whole that year. So even though Trump is deeply unpopular, Dave Trott will be competing in a district that looks the way America did when Il Duche still had most of his original hair.

Since the Republicans have a 59 seat advantage in the U.S. House, the Democrats need to pick up 30 seats to get to a bare majority. To do that, they're going to need seats like Michigan's 11th, plus equally gerrymandered ones in states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. That's a very tall order because the 11th, and there are a lot of districts like it nationwide, was drawn specifically to withstand not just Romney's 2012 drubbing, but a 2008 level meteor strike.

With their unified control of the 2010 redistricting, Republicans "ratfucked" the 11th so exquisitely that even in Obama's crowning moment of 2008, it still would've had a Republican House rep. Which means that if Clinton somehow equals Obama's almost unfathomable 17-point statewide win in 2008, it won't be enough.

And that, sports fans, is why the House is almost certainly going to stay Red: Clinton doesn't just need to equal 2008, she needs 2008+. Is it possible? No votes have yet been cast, so anything's possible. But unless Trump starts actually wearing a Nazi armband, or lots of dyed in the wool Republicans suddenly stop hating Hillary Clinton, it's hard to see how.

Even lacking a majority, however, margins still matter. A Democratic gain of 15 seats would be okay, but a gain of 20 or 25 would mean that Nancy Pelosi, and her hapless sidekick Paul Ryan, would only need to pick off a handful of Republicans to pass everything from spending bills to big ticket items like immigration reform. A Republican majority of ~10, all of whom will have just eked out wins by a couple of points, is going to be a lot more useful to the country than a majority of 20 or more, most of whom cruised to easy victories.

Right now, Cook Political sees a likely net gain of 4 seats for the Democrats, with 17 Republican seats rated as tossups. Larry Sabato thinks the Democrats can count on 6 likely pickups, with 15 Republican tossups. Rothenberg & Gonzalez have 3 likely Democratic pickups, with 10 Republican coin flips. Add those up, and (assuming the Democrats can hold their tossup seats) the maximum number of Democratic pickups each rating house currently predicts is:

Cook: 21
Sabato: 21
Rothenberg & Gonzalez: 13

All of those numbers are smaller than the 30 needed for control, and of the three predictions, only Cook even lists Michigan's 11th, and it's "Likely Republican". The other two consider it a sure thing. Welcome to the gerrymander.

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