After a COVID-19-related delay in getting out the census data, states across the country are now moving to draw new lines for congressional districts and for state legislative districts. The stakes could not be higher, since the new maps will dictate politics for years to come.
Not surprisingly, many people want to know which party is gaining an advantage as a result of this redistricting. Let’s look at the possible changes in the U.S. House of Representatives.
At the heart of any attempted forecast is a paradox. Republican states picked up the most congressional seats and Republican legislatures control the process in the most states, but Republican counties lost population while Democratic counties gained.
The following table shows the states that will pick up seats and the states that will lose seats, organized by their partisan inclinations.
Table 1: Congressional seats gained/lost after 2020 census, by state political leaning
When the data was finally released, many drew conclusions that signaled a newfound GOP advantage. This sentiment was captured by the following headlines, for example:
- “The census is a lucky break for Republicans,” CNN (4/27/21)
- “New census numbers shift political power south to Republican strongholds,” The Washington Post (4/26/21)
- “New Census data could lead to a Republican landslide in midterm elections,” Fortune (5/7/21)
In addition, data from the Cook Political Report shows that Republican legislatures will have the final say over the redistricting process in 20 states covering 187 congressional districts, while Democrats control the process in just eight states with 75 districts. The remaining states draw maps using independent commissions, are composed of a split government, or are at-large seats (which aren’t subject to a redistricting process). The GOP advantage here is another reason why forecasts lean toward the Republicans.
The paradox comes in however, when one looks at other census numbers. The new numbers show another pattern, one that tilts in the opposite direction. Overall, rural counties steadily lost population over the past 10 years, and rural counties tend to be strongly Republican. “The average county with a FiveThirtyEight urbanization index below 8 lost 3.1% of its population between 2010 and 2020,” a recent FiveThirtyEight article reads. “This encompasses the 1,430 most rural counties in America–1,302 of which voted for former President Trump in 2020 and only 127 voted for President Biden.” And while rural counties lost population, urban and suburban counties gained population, according to that piece. The pattern of rural losses and suburban/urban gains surprised many who assumed that the exodus to the cities and suburbs would have slowed in the past decade.
The other notable takeaway from the 2020 census is that the white population is shrinking. My Brookings colleague, William Frey, points out that there has been an absolute decline in the white population as minority populations increase everywhere. Frey notes, “During the 2010-20 decade, 95% of all U.S. counties registered declines in their white population shares.” These facts indicate that redistricting could benefit Democrats, as non-white voters tend to vote at significantly higher rates for Democrats.
These findings are meaningful because the Constitution requires that congressional districts must be uniform in size. (Following the 2010 redistricting, each congressional district had about 710,767 people.) That means that, regardless of which party controls redistricting, counties that have lost population will need to go looking for people. The suburban and urban districts that have too many people may need to put some of their people in the rural districts that have lost population. In other words, some red districts are likely to get an influx of blue voters–in some cases, it could be enough to make those districts less red, purple, or even blue.
Hence the paradox: Republicans will have to figure out how to create new Republican districts and retain old ones with voters from Democratic or swing districts, and Democrats will have to figure out how to take advantage of the growth in traditionally Democratic areas.
How will this round of redistricting play out?
In state capital after state capital, district by district, the battle is on. Expect to see a replication of some of the hardcore tactics that Republicans perfected during the post-2010 redistricting. Following the 2008 presidential election, the Republican Party, under the leadership of former RNC chairman Ed Gillespie, invested $30 million dollars to try and win seats in 16 legislatures. By winning an enormous number of state legislative seats and control of 20 additional state legislatures, the Republicans set themselves up to control the map drawing process in approximately 200 congressional districts. The effort, which caught the Democrats and the Obama team flat-footed, consisted of packing as many Democratic voters as possible into the same district. The result is the stuff of political legend. REDMAP (Redistricting Majority Project), as the effort was known, resulted in a solid Republican House majority in 2010, even while Democrats got more votes nationally. For instance, in the state of Pennsylvania, Democratic congressional candidates won 2,793,538 votes, which gave them only five congressional seats; Republicans netted fewer votes, 2,710,070, but accrued 13 seats!
There are three reasons why it will be harder for Republicans to achieve the kind of victory this time around than they did in 2010. One is simply that they did such a good job in 2010 that their options are somewhat limited. Second, as noted above, is the fact that so many Republican counties lost population and will thus need to reorganize voters in even more creative ways. The upshot for Democrats is their potential ability to pick up enough seats to nearly offset the Republican gains. For example, even though New York state lost a congressional seat, the Republican districts in the state lost enough population that Republicans could lose as many as four seats. The Cook Political Report does this kind of analysis on a state-by-state basis. As of this writing, they project Democrats losing 1.5 seats nationally and Republicans gaining 1.5 seats, hardly the stage for a Republican blowout. And third, Democrats have been mounting a concerted national effort aimed at redistricting. Once out of office, Eric Holder, President Obama’s attorney general, founded The National Democratic Redistricting Committee, Democrats’ answer to REDMAP. The organization’s goal is to gain back some of the power Democrats lost in 2010 by disrupting Republicans’ total control over redistricting in key states. The organization has been supporting candidates, ballot initiatives, and lawsuits related to gerrymandering—an effort that will make it tougher on the GOP to gain an advantage in the redistricting arena.
Ultimately, forecasting the results of redistricting will be difficult because it depends on state-by-state legislative maneuvering. A scene that played out in Oregon last week provides a good example. At the beginning of the process, Democratic Speaker of the House Tina Kotek gave the Republican minority a veto over redistricting maps in return for cooperation on her legislative agenda. National Democrats reacted angrily, given that Oregon is the only Democratic state that was going to gain a seat and they wanted that new district drawn blue. After negotiations over the map failed, Kotek ignored her Republican members and put a redistricting map on the floor that gave Democrats five out of the six congressional districts in the state. Republicans then cried foul and threatened to deny the Oregon legislature a quorum by walking out. In the end, Kotek compromised and brought a plan to the floor: It looks like Oregon will have five Democratic seats, one competitive seat, and one Republican seat.
The paradox of 2021 may well come down to who can play hardball best in the realpolitik that is redistricting.
Thanks to Selene Swanson, research intern at Brookings’s Center for Effective Public Management, for research assistance on this post.