As we approach what is shaping up to be a contentious set of midterm elections, it’s worth examining how our political system has come to be so polarized. In an opinion piece for the Washington Post last month, Brookings Senior Fellows Thomas Mann and William Galston point to a number of causes but downplay the role of redistricting, stating that, “contrary to widespread belief, reducing the gerrymandering of Congressional districts would only make a small dent in the problem.”
My analysis of the situation, however, shows otherwise. To illustrate the point, think about what Congressmen Henry Waxman, Jesse Jackson Jr. and John Boehner might have in common. One’s first reaction would be that they could have nothing in common given their places on opposite ends of the ideological spectrum.
But there is one common thread here that not only links all three together but also illustrates what’s wrong with the American legislative system. According to the National Journal’s yearly rankings of how liberal or conservative House members are based on their voting records, Waxman and Jackson were among the most liberal members of Congress, while Boehner was among the most conservative, and all three were re-elected in 2008 with over two-thirds of the vote.
Correlations of the National Journal’s rankings from the 2005-2009 with election results from 2004, 2006 and 2008 reveal a growing and worrisome problem. House members who receive overwhelming majorities tend to be more partisan, while those elected in close races tend to be more moderate. Where competitive races tend to produce more moderate elected officials, noncompetitive races produce the most liberal and conservative members of Congress.
In the last three election cycles, the 50 most liberal members of Congress received an average of over 79 percent of the vote, while the 100 most moderate members received an average of only 62 percent. The median rank on the National Journal’s list of Democrats elected in 2008 with less than 55 percent of the vote was 198th most liberal while the median rank of Democrats elected with more than 65 percent was 90th most liberal.
The same dynamic is also true for Republicans although not quite to the same extent. The 50 most conservative members of Congress received an average of around 67 percent of the vote during the last three election cycles, and Republicans receiving 65 percent or more of the vote consistently ranked 40 to 50 places more conservative in the rankings than those elected with 55 percent of the vote or less.
So, what does this all mean? The most obvious answer is that redistricting over the past three decades has become more prevalent and more partisan. Much has been written about the pervasiveness of gerrymandering on both sides, and this data buttresses that argument. Not only have races become less competitive—the margin of victory has been at least 20 points in over 74 percent of U.S. House elections since 2004—but the members of these less competitive districts have moved closer to their ideological bases and further from the center.
It makes perfect sense. Without having to fear a competitive electoral fight, there is little incentive for members of Congress to moderate their positions and the country suffers as a result. If we want to move back towards the center and bring a spirit of cooperation back to Congress, reevaluating how we do redistricting—especially with the 2010 Census ongoing—will be vital. The production of more competitive districts should yield candidates closer to the ideological center, hopefully reversing the partisan trending that has crippled our legislative bodies this decade.