The Democratic federal elected officials are gathered in Baltimore right now, discussing the future of their party and ways to recapture much of the political territory they lost in the 2014 elections. A clear theme settling around their US House predicament is redistricting, and how the Republican-drawn boundaries, they say, in what are typically Democratic states have unfairly cost them large numbers of seats.
North Carolina Rep. David Price (D-NC-4) spoke at length about redistricting and how it affects the party. According to an article on Yahoo News, Price said, “Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Virginia display the most egregious examples of gerrymandered districts for congressional and state legislative races.” His solution is to continue the process Democrats are using in several states, which is to sue over the current congressional boundaries contending that the district boundaries are “racially biased”. Except for Virginia, where a court has already declared the map unconstitutional for this reason, it will likely be difficult to make such a case in places where the minority districts have actually been maximized.
The 2014 electoral statistics cast a different light on the situation, however. Let’s take the case of freshman Rep. Gwen Graham (D-FL-2). She won a Republican-leaning seat in what was the worst of years for Democratic congressional candidates. The fact that she was able to defeat a Republican incumbent in a 2014 district where President Obama scored only 46.5 percent of the vote and trailed Mitt Romney by 5.8 percent causes us to look further at this district as a prototype, then overlaying its result over the rest of the country.
Using FL-2 as a benchmark, let’s examine similar districts that fit Rep. Price’s gerrymandering criteria. In 11 Obama 2012 victory states where Republicans hold the congressional delegation majority or at least break even (Colo., Fla., Iowa, Mich., Nevada, NH, NJ, Ohio, Pa., Va., and Wisc.), 37 districts fit the FL-2 profile. The president scored at least as well in each of the 36 other districts as he did in the seat Rep. Graham claimed. The Democratic win record in this subset? Just two of 37. Even the Washington Redskins have a better win percentage than do the Democrats in these swing seats.
Therefore, one can make an argument that Democrats have far greater problems than simply being redistricting victims. While district lines are clearly important, they do not tell the entire story.
Candidate recruitment and the lack of strong campaign operations, it can be argued, played a greater role in determining the Democrats’ fate in these swing districts than did redistricting.
In the 37 districts we studied, Democrats fielded a small number of competitive candidates, and in 22 of those 37 districts spent under $700,000. In five of the districts, the Democrats either didn’t file a candidate or spent exactly zero dollars. In three of the five uncontested seats at the congressional level: FL-13 (Rep. David Jolly); FL-25 (Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart); and FL-27 (Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen), President Obama actually scored a majority of the vote. In fact, within this universe of the 37 districts, Obama topped 50 percent 10 times, broke 49 percent twice more, and scored 48 percent or better in an additional eight CDs. Democratic congressional candidates won none of these 20 districts.
If the Democratic Baltimore retreat produces the conclusion that redistricting is the key reason the party fared so badly in the 2014 congressional elections, then it appears the party leaders may misunderstand what actually occurred last year.