Why Democrats Can’t Win the House

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from The New York Times,

Democrats, packed into urban districts, give the G.O.P. an edge.

Republicans and Democrats are struggling for control of the Senate in this November’s midterm elections. But there is no real fight for control of the House of Representatives.

The Republicans are all but assured of retaining control of the House, despite last fall’s unpopular government shutdown and the party’s dismal ratings.

“The Republican hold on the House is the graveyard of the hopes of Democratic policy change,” says Neera Tanden, president of the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress. It has stifled not just President Obama’s agenda, but also the aspirations of his coalition of young, secular and nonwhite voters, who have represented a majority in presidential elections.

How is it possible that the Democrats, who have won the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections, are at such a disadvantage in the House, theoretically the most representative body of government? It is the biggest paradox in American electoral politics.

Democrats often blame gerrymandering, but that’s not the whole story. More than ever, the kind of place where Americans live — metropolitan or rural — dictates their political views. The country is increasingly divided between liberal cities and close-in suburbs, on one hand, and conservative exurbs and rural areas, on the other. Even in red states, the counties containing the large cities — like Dallas, Atlanta, St. Louis and Birmingham — lean Democratic.

The best example may be Pennsylvania. President Obama won the state by five percentage points in 2012, thanks to a whopping 83 percent of the vote in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, where Democrats combine nearly unanimous support among nonwhite voters with large margins among young and well-educated liberals.

The hundreds of thousands of wasted Democratic votes in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh typify the electoral challenge facing House Democrats, which has become more pronounced during the Obama years. Mr. Obama’s strengths among nonwhite and young voters allowed him to build overwhelming margins in heavily populated urban areas, wasting more Democratic votes. In fact, nearly all of Mr. Obama’s gains over Al Gore’s showing in 2000 came from 68 metropolitan counties that already leaned Democratic. The rest of the country, in the aggregate, barely budged.

The Obama campaign was the first to fully embrace a diverse metropolitan coalition. He unabashedly campaigned on social issues, like gay rights and funding for contraception, that past Democratic candidates would have tiptoed around for fear of alienating more conservative, rural voters. This helped him run up votes in cities, but ensured cataclysmic losses in formerly Democratic stretches of West Texas and West Virginia, where restrictions on gun ownership and mining, and support for gay marriage and immigration reform, are deeply unpopular.

Over all, the number of districts that voted within four points of the national margin in presidential elections, like Florida and Ohio, dropped to 29 in 2012, from 71 in 1992.

The Democrats currently stand on the edge of getting locked out of the House. The party would gain a bare majority only if it were to win Republican-held seats at the same rate that it did in 2006 or at the same rate that Republicans flipped seats in 2010. But it is unclear whether Democrats can replicate those gains, given that at least seven of the 12 Republicans who lost safely Republican districts in 2006 were implicated in corruption or other scandals. Republicans made almost all of their gains in 2010 by defeating Democrats who represented Republican-leaning areas; the G.O.P. made few inroads into Democratic-leaning districts.

For now, the best-case scenario for Democrats might be gaining a small majority. But even that narrow path to victory might close if the Republicans pick up a dozen seats this November, as some analysts say they might if everything breaks their way.

The role of partisan gerrymandering in all of this is hotly debated. It has indeed allowed Republicans to squeeze extra districts out of states like Michigan and Virginia, and strategically reinforce vulnerable incumbents.

The political scientists Jowei Chen, of the University of Michigan, and Jonathan Rodden, of Stanford University, estimate that gerrymandering costs Democrats about six to eight seats in the House. Even so, “by far the most important factor contributing to the Republican advantage,” Mr. Chen says, “is the natural geographic factor of Democrats’ being overwhelmingly concentrated in these urban districts, especially in states like Michigan and Florida.”

If Democratic losses in that part of the country are irreversible, Democrats might be forced to wait for demographic and generational change to spread beyond urban centers and suburbs, giving the party a chance to build a more decisive majority. Until that happens, the long-anticipated Democratic majority has little chance of enacting the most ambitious elements of its agenda.

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