Redistricting, elections: Surprises await, and no perfect roadmap

Image of the California state flag, showing the cracks and fissures representing political differences. (Illustration: helloRuby, via Shutterstock)

For the past two years, redistricting experts and politicos, myself included, have been building toward the 2022 election cycle.

A big part of this included building tools for analyzing potential new districts for their partisan breakdown and likely voting behavior. Getting these kinds of metrics was critical to the drawing of lines by legislatures that still have the control, and performing advocacy before commissions in states, like California, that have transitioned to a public and open redistricting process.

Just 10 years ago there were few who could distill this kind of information, and for the most part the analysis around these districts was kept under wraps.

As always, the redistricting experts don’t have the final say. The voters do.

But for 2020, the information was everywhere.

Websites like Dave’s Redistricting App and PlanScore could give instant partisan breakdowns of new potential districts. Twitter was flooded with the opinions of experts such as David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report who, in the intervening decade, actually redrew every congressional district in the country based on population estimates, voting rights act rules and partisan factors, and through his publication developed likely maps and analyzed final maps for every state that has more than one congressional district.

National pundits immediately launched their hot takes after the final California lines were drawn. They announced that Democrats would gain congressional seats, despite California losing a district, going from 53 to 52 congressional members, due to relative population loss compared to the rest of the country.

But, as always, the redistricting experts don’t have the final say. The voters do. And while prognosticators want to say “this is a Democratic seat, and that’s a Republican seat,” the fact is that it’s nobody’s seat until someone gets elected there.

And, for those of us with experience looking closely at these districts, there was always a caveat within the analysis. We had great tools for analyzing based on past elections, but, in this redistricting we have some of the worst past elections to serve as baselines for future performance.

In 2011, we had experience with the 2006 and 2008 presidential races along with the 2010 gubernatorial contest, and we felt that those were somewhat stable elections with built-in patterns of partisanship and voter choices that could carry through at least most of the decade.

While the machinations of this mid-term election cycle were shaped, the redistricted maps were being analyzed mostly by the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections.

Additionally, the 2011 redistricting was being followed by a presidential election cycle in 2012 – and presidential elections, with their higher turnout, are more uniform than midterm elections that have more volatility.

However, this 2021 redistricting is going to be followed by a mid-term election cycle – one that was the first mid-term election for a new president of a different party, and on the heels of a narrow 2020 Senate flip to Democrats.

Historically, this spells disaster for the party in control.

While the machinations of this mid-term election cycle were shaped, the redistricted maps were being analyzed mostly by the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections, and the 2018 gubernatorial election.

It’s hard to think of three elections in our lifetimes that are as erratic as those – the realignment of voters through the initial Trump victory in 2016, plus a massively high Democratic-leaning reaction midterm election, and a 2020 election that was shaped by nationwide protests over the killing of George Floyd.

Using those elections as the basis for predicting tight races in this coming midterm cycle could turn out to be very problematic.

In just the handful of months since the passage of the redistricting plans we have already seen a rise in inflation, skyrocketing gas prices, and a war in Europe. Polling has shown a public very anxious about the economy, worsening homelessness, and voters are holding the current administration responsible.

Polling shows  a drop in favorability for President Biden and suggest Democrats could be losing their grip on Latino voters – all factors that wouldn’t be present in the data from past elections used to analyze these redistricting plans.

The electorate is in transformation; world and national events are taking over, and our perfectly tuned analysis of districts is rapidly eroding.

Then, adding to the mix, we knew something major would be coming out of the Supreme Court.

There were three cases that had the potential to change the political landscape going into this midterm election cycle.

These are a case out of New York State regarding gun control, which could impact the ability of states to regulate weapons; a case regarding a website designer that doesn’t want to work for gay people (similar to the baker who didn’t want to bake gay wedding cakes in a prior decision), which could weaken LGBTQ protections and even begin to erode the landmark decision on gay marriage; and, of course, the case out of Mississippi that could eliminate the abortion protections under Roe v. Wade.

Any of these cases, but especially the Roe decision, could polarize the electorate and upend the likely outcome in critical swing districts around the country. They could flip the script in districts that were either constructed for an explicit political outcome in states that were gerrymandering for partisan control, or change the political pundits’ expectations in districts which were drawn by non-partisan commissions.

And that’s where we find ourselves today.

While the lines are fairly well set, the electorate is in transformation — world and national events are taking over, and our perfectly tuned analysis of districts is rapidly eroding.

Campaigns are going to be forced to face the challenges in these new districts without a perfect road map.  And the campaign tactics and messaging that could have won in 2018 or 2020 may not provide the playbook for 2022.

Even something that worked last week may not work in June, and probably won’t get it done in a tight race for November.

Editor’s Note: Paul Mitchell, a regular contributor to Capitol Weekly, is the creator of the CA120 column, vice president of Political Data and owner of Redistricting Partners.


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