Friday, May 19, 2006

Begala, Gerrymanding and The Wave

Stirling Newberry has an excellant (and long) analysis of the problem of Begala. I won't summarize it but I would like to hilight this one point:

The reality is that Begala's weapon is a pistol - he can shoot it at the map and put a hole in one congressional district. Maybe a full magazine will make it 10 districts, or 25. But that is it, it is a retail attempt to locate districts that swing the election. This is why there is such despair among consultants, as the price of barrages has gone up, and the country has gotten more geographically hardened politically, it gets harder and harder to swing an election. Just two months ago, most insider Begala types were saying that the Republicans would probably hold both houses of Congress.

What people don't realize is that this is normal for Congress. Look back over the 20th century, and you find that normally only a few seats change hands. The House itself doesn't change hands with a few seats - instead, it tips with large shifts. The DLC-DCCC-DSCC strategy of trying to incrementally win back the House a few seats a year may have looked like the "safe" play, but in fact, it was quite radical - it had never been done before.

I recently posted about how Gerrymandering has increased the partisanship in the House as the Representatives have come to be more closely identified with the Red/Blue populations in their districts. I received an interesting response to that post that pointed out an ironic fact: while redistricting makes districts "safer" in times of relative stability in political attitudes, it makes them more vulnerable to transition when political attitudes shift by any significant margin.

Let me quote the response since it explains it so well (it originally appeared on DailyKos here):

Gerrymandering does something else weird. It encourages status quo in status quo times, but when change is apparent, it actually amplifies it. That is to say, one way to gerrymander yourself into more districts is to make all of the districts weaker, and give some of your "extra" voters to a district that used to lean the other way, to swing it your way.

Let's imagine a state with three congressional districts. District #1 is 60% R and 40% D. So is district #2. District #3 is 55% D and 45% R. If you gerrymander the state to favor the Republicans, one way to do that would be to change both districts #1 and #2 to 55 R 45 D, and give the "extra" Republicans to district #3-which would make it 55 R 45 D too. This works great for them-they get an extra district.

Until there's an eight point shift towards the Democrats.

Suddenly, every district is now 53 D 47 R. Had they not gerrymandered the state, two of the districts would be 52 R 48 D, and they would have lost zero seats. But now they lose two (well, three, including the one they gained from the gerrymander).

Stirling's point that the Democrats attempt to regain the Congress by incremental wins being the radical approach is apt in light of this "weirdness".

Our country is poised for a monumental shift in political power, possibly rivaling 1994. But I fear we won't make it if the Democrats are dominated by this "take it easy" approach.


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