Hey AP: Incumbency Also Explains Why The GOP Has Held Onto Power

Posted: Jul 03, 2017 1:45 PM

So, the Republican Party is the most dominant political force in the country. They control the White House, Congress, two-thirds of the governorships, and 69/99 state legislatures. They have at least 4,100 state lawmakers in office, the most since the party was founded. It’s a far cry from the 2008-09 commentaries on the party with the election of Barack Obama, which predicted: Conservatism is dead. The GOP is DOA. 

Well, after the stimulus and Obamacare, the red tide swept in for the 2010 midterms. What a difference a year does make. In 2012, there was a setback with the defeat of Mitt Romney, but conservatives hunkered down and retook Congress in the 2014 elections. Trump won the presidency in 2016. We didn’t riot in the streets. We didn’t set dumpsters on fire. We focused on where we could win.

The state-level is where the underreported war between Left and Right is being waged. It’s where the new talent is found and cultivated. It’s where the rank-and-file of the party can be replaced when time eats away at the current leadership. Right now, Democrats have a small talent pool, their leadership is devolving into the geriatric brigade and there doesn’t appear to be any heavyweight capable of taking the reins who isn’t over the age of 65. For the GOP, long after Trump, there will be top-tier candidates for national elections. Was this done through gerrymandering? Was the GOP’s rural offensive partly due to gerrymandering? There are different theories. The Associated Press certainly thinks so [emphasis mine]:

The AP scrutinized the outcomes of all 435 U.S. House races and about 4,700 state House and Assembly seats up for election last year using a new statistical method of calculating partisan advantage. It’s designed to detect cases in which one party may have won, widened or retained its grip on power through political gerrymandering.

The analysis found four times as many states with Republican-skewed state House or Assembly districts than Democratic ones. Among the two-dozen most populated states that determine the vast majority of Congress, there were nearly three times as many with Republican-tilted U.S. House districts.

Traditional battlegrounds such as Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Florida and Virginia were among those with significant Republican advantages in their U.S. or state House races. All had districts drawn by Republicans after the last Census in 2010.

The AP analysis also found that Republicans won as many as 22 additional U.S. House seats over what would have been expected based on the average vote share in congressional districts across the country. That helped provide the GOP with a comfortable majority over Democrats instead of a narrow one.

Republicans held several advantages heading into the 2016 election. They had more incumbents, which carried weight even in a year of “outsider” candidates. Republicans also had a geographical advantage because their voters were spread more widely across suburban and rural America instead of being highly concentrated, as Democrats generally are, in big cities.


The AP’s findings are similar to recent ones from the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, which used three statistical tests to analyze the 2012-2016 congressional elections. Its report found a persistent Republican advantage and “clear evidence that aggressive gerrymandering is distorting the nation’s congressional maps,” posing a “threat to democracy.” The Brennan Center did not analyze state legislative elections.

There are a lot of alarms raised by gerrymandering. Yet, The Washington Post published two analyses that pushed back against the power of gerrymandering in 2013 and 2016. The 2016 analysis showed that incumbency, not gerrymandering, might be protecting GOP majorities. In 2013, George Washington University’s John Sides and Danny Hayes noted how gerrymandering played a very insignificant role in the 2012 election, adding that incumbency was more of a factor:

What if we “re-run” the 2012 House election, but using the old districts? We have done that simulation, using the 2008 presidential vote in both the old and new districts to capture how the redistricting might have moved partisans around. If we assume that nothing else affects House election outcomes but the partisanship of the districts—in other words, if we allow redistricting to have its maximum possible effect—we find that the 2011 redistricting cost Democrats 7 seats in 2012.  


The effect is even smaller if we incorporate other important factors. Incumbency is the most important of these: lots of Republicans who were running as challengers or in open seats in 2010—and then won—ran as incumbents for the first time in 2012. We know that incumbency is a powerful factor in House elections, bringing candidates greater visibility, adding to their campaign coffers, and deterring quality challengers from running. On average, an incumbent in 2012 ran five percentage points ahead of a non-incumbent candidate from the same party in a similar seat. Sixty-one seats were were decided by less than this margin.

More important, once we took incumbency into account, the apparent effect of gerrymandering vanished. That is, the ability of Republicans to retain the House majority may have been due to incumbency advantage, not new and more favorable districts.


We’ve written cautionary notes about redistricting several times in the past months. Simply raising the possibility that redistricting isn’t always as powerful or pernicious as its critics suggest sometimes leads people to conclude that we are “gerrymandering deniers” who think redistricting has no partisan consequences whatsoever.

That is not the case. The analysis above does not confirm the worst fears about the “great gerrymander” of 2012. But given the challenge of answering, “compared to what?” we would not argue that the 2011 redistricting gave the GOP no advantage whatsoever.

Incumbency is a huge advantage in a member of Congress’ ability to remain in office for years. Moreover, even in elections where there is anti-incumbent sentiment, those polled usually like their current representative, which is why except for a few, most incumbents who faced primary challenges won—and why those who ran for re-election in 2010, were given another term on the Hill.

Now, let’s play with the gerrymandering angle for a second. Democrats have no one to blame but themselves. Every election is key. Former DNC chair Howard Dean understood this and his 50-state strategy post-2004 yielded his party political gains. That has been swept away and the mechanisms to find new candidates who can compete in right-leaning districts are no longer there. They dropped the ball on the state and local races, and this is what happens. Also, it’s not just Republicans who are prone to gerrymandering. In Maryland, which was included but buried in the AP piece, Democrats in the deep blue state admitted using this method against their opponents. Does it disprove the incumbency theory? No. Democrats only picked up one seat, axing Republican Congressman Roscoe Bartlett. It mostly exposes that gerrymandering is a fact of life in politics, and that parties will do what they can to maximize their chances at clinching the majority. Hence, why winning state and local races is key. These are the folks who decide the maps after all, but the power of incumbency appears to be an equally legitimate theory to support why the GOP has been able to keep the majority thus far. 

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