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Has the shutdown leveled the House playing field?

October 11th, 2013, 10:08pm by Sam Wang

Tomorrow at 4:00pm ET, I’ll be on MSNBC’s Disrupt with host Karen Finney and E.J. Dionne. In addition to the sharp swing in the last week (now a median of D+8% in the generic Congressional, n=5 surveys), I’ll mention this:

These are the 36 districts with GOP representatives surveyed by MoveON/PPP [data]. Gray symbols are from states I have previously identified as gerrymandered to maximize the number of GOP seats. All but one of the black symbols are nongerrymandered (one is a D gerrymander in Illinois).

It’s so rare to have nice, matched controls in polls. All of these districts were surveyed by the same organization on the same days. Even if the whole dataset is biased, differences between groups can be teased out. And there is a difference.

Red shading is likely GOP retention in an election today, blue shading is a Dem win. The black dots are both above (seven) and below (eight) the diagonal. But the gray dots are almost all below the diagonal (4 above and 13 below). Those representatives are in deeper trouble at the moment.

Two questions:

  • Why are the gerrymandered districts swinging so hard? Are they full of persuadable independents?
  • Has anger over the shutdown momentarily erased the gerrymander advantage?

If true, that would level the playing field. Basically, gerrymandering is a good way to lock in gains when opinion varies a little…but not when it varies a lot. The levee might be breaching at this moment in time. But…for how long?

Alternate interpretations in comments, please!

Tags: 2012 Election · 2014 Election · House

13 Comments so far ↓

  • bks

    I love your optimism, but I wonder if stalling or reversing the weak recovery leading to another recession prior to the 2014 elections won’t play into the hands of the GOP *even though they caused it themselves*. The regular readers of this blog will remember but will the hoi polloi?

    • Mike


      I do recall a piece by Nate Silver where he inferred that a bad economy is particularly bad for house candidates regardless of party circumstances. In other words, a bad economy still hurts the house even if they try to blame it on the president. We do have a good case to make that any economic woes were caused by the GOP incumbents in the house.

  • Omar Wasow

    One thought is that there are two competing interests with gerrymanders: 1. maximize the number of seats and 2. create safe seats. Those two goals are often in tension. An optimal maximization strategy would win with as few wasted votes as possible (where wasted votes are essentially anything above the margin of victory). A safe seat, by contrast, typically means wasting lots of votes to ensure a wide margin of victory. So, I think your persuadable independents/Democrats argument is a good bet. If some of the highly gerrymandered seats are optimized for seat maximization, then they have to be less securely Republican and include more swingy voters.

  • Amitabh Lath

    Look at those districts in the bottom right of the scatter plot, that went R by ~20%. They have drifted D+ by ~25%, so now they are in the blue shaded region.

    Think about it: R+20% districts might go D. Wow.

    Each congressional district is about 700k constituents, and the average congressman gets about 200k votes. So a shift of this magnitude corresponds to few to several tens of thousands of people in each congressional district changing their minds.

    It would be worth checking up on these deeply red districts that went R > 20% in 2012, but are now drifting D. If such a tectonic shift is going on, there must be indications on the ground. People writing letters to the editor to local papers, local radio/TV talk shows speaking about it, etc.

  • Omar Wasow

    Oops. I just noticed that you already made the same argument in a prior post that I offered in my comments. GMTA?

    • Sam Wang

      Indeed Great Minds may Think Alike.

      I am still tinkering around to figure out why this argument would hold for artificially arranged districts, but not for naturally close Republican-leaning districts. I believe it has to do with strong sorting of D’s vs. R/I’s.

      Do the following thought experiment: a whole state will swing by X points due to the shutdown. If D’s are packed into a few districts, those districts won’t swing much because constituents are OK with their representative’s stance. Therefore the rest of the swing is occurs somewhere – in the non-packed districts. By this argument, in the extreme, if D districts have no swing, then R districts have up to twice the swing, 2*X.

  • Don S

    It seems that few of these swingable districts have Representatives who are deeply Tea Party (FL 10, MI 7, MI11 the only exceptions I believe), more of traditional GOP conservatives.

    If the GOP loses many seats but primarily those who are traditional conservatives, the result may be a GOP House even more dominated and controlled by by a minority extremist perspective that characterizes traditional and somewhat pragmatic GOP conservatives as much “the enemy” as Democrats.

    Just a sobering thought.

    Sam, thank you for the great service you provide to all of us.

    • me

      These moderates you speak of may get primaried, but I doubt very seriously that Tea Party candidates will have any chance whatsoever in the general election of these swing districts.

      Unless mass amnesia occurs.

  • Devin Lavelle

    Geographic differences?

    I’d strongly suspect gerrymandered districts correlate strongly to certain states (one being Virginia). They likely also correlate to suburban areas.

    Perhaps those states are moving more significantly than other states and/or suburban areas (which tend to have more independents) are moving more significantly than other areas?

  • Wheeler's cat

    Game Theory:
    Kicking the can into 2014 is the very worst outcome in the GOP payoff matrix
    Voters have short memories
    This will refresh them
    Absolutely stunning fail of the first law of Bidding Theory
    Never proffer a bluff you can’t follow through on

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