The 2012 congressional redistricting cycle following the 2010 Census is just about over and done with. And it seems likely to make much less difference than many of us expected.
Redistricting is when state legislatures, governors and/or commissions draw new lines for congressional districts after the 435 seats in the U.S. House are reapportioned according to a statutory formula into which are plugged the figures from the 2010 census.
I predicted that this cycle, like the 2002 cycle, would produce significant gains for Republicans. Their success in electing governors and legislators in 2010 gave them control in big states like Texas, Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Georgia and North Carolina. And voters in Democratic California approved a ballot measure turning redistricting over to a nonpartisan commission.
But the Republican gain turns out to be modest to nonexistent. Charlie Cook's Cook Report estimates the net Republican gain from redistricting at exactly one state. My own estimates track with Cook's in just about every state and come up with a one-seat Republican gain.
One reason is that Democrats in control of redistricting in Illinois adopted a very aggressive plan that's likely to cost Republicans four seats. Democrats stretched Chicago districts out through the Cook County and Collar County suburbs to the downstate prairie and squeezed out Republicans there.
The most aggressive Republican plan was in North Carolina, where it replaced an aggressive Democratic plan adopted 10 years ago and seems sure to oust three or four Democrats.
In the other big states mentioned above, Republicans concentrated on bolstering current incumbents rather than creating new districts. Big Hispanic population increases in Texas and Florida forced Republicans to create new Democratic districts.
Another reason for Republicans' limited success is that Democrats successfully gamed the supposedly nonpartisan redistricting commissions in California and Arizona. Democrats will likely gain one seat in Arizona and two in California, even though for the first time in history that state gained no seats through reapportionment.
A third reason is the effect of the prevailing interpretation of the Voting Rights Act. Republicans have been helped by its insistence on the creation of black-majority districts. That crams heavily Democratic precincts into a few districts, leaving Republicans a better shot at districts next door.
But the law also insists on Hispanic-majority districts, although few Hispanics have ancestors subject to discrimination in this country and although many are non-citizens ineligible to vote. In Texas, where Hispanics are less Democratic than elsewhere, Republican redistricters adjusted by creating several elongated districts linking Hispanic-majority areas with heavily Republican counties.
All these results tend to refute some conventional wisdom about redistricting.
It is said that partisan redistricting can swing dozens of seats the way of one party through the creation of grotesquely shaped districts. But most grotesque districts in the current cycle owe their shape to the Voting Rights Act. Otherwise partisan districting has produced pretty clean lines.
A few years ago, many lamented that crafty redistricters could prevent serious competition and lock in party control. But that's only true when political alignments are static, as they were between 1996 and 2004.
When voters change their minds, redistricters can turn out to be too clever by half. Many districts designed to elect Republicans elected Democrats in 2006 and 2008. Many districts designed to elect Democrats elected Republicans in 2010.
The less aggressive redistricting plans adopted this cycle show that even strong partisans have absorbed the lesson that if you create a bunch of 53 percent districts you can lose them when your side's support goes down by 4 or 5 percent.
In addition, patterns of support can and usually do change at some point in the 10-year interval between censuses, as issue focus changes and presidents and presidential candidates give parties different images. Democratic areas can become marginal or even Republican, while some marginal areas can trend toward Democrats; and vice versa.
Currently the realclearpolitics.com average of recent polls shows a 44 to 44 percent tie between the parties on the generic ballot ("which party's candidate for the House would you vote for?"). That question has underpredicted Republican performance in the election in the past, though not in 2010.
But assuming the popular vote is evenly split, Republicans are likely to retain their House majority -- primarily because the Voting Rights Act packs too many Democrats into too few districts. Redistricting turns out to matter less than we thought.