With control of Congress on the line for potentially 10 years, the 2021-22 redistricting process was a pitched battle between the two sides. Both sides fought to install cards that were favorable to them, but in the end their efforts largely failed. The new map of the National Congress that has emerged has largely preserved the (republican-leaning) balance of power that existed at the end of the last decade.
What if it had turned out differently? What if Democrats or Republicans — or even nonpartisan reformers — had won every redistricting battle this cycle? How different would the National Congress card be?
We don’t have to imagine. Thanks to the FiveThirtyEight redistricting tracker, we have a record 365 potential Congressional cards that were officially offered last year. And we can use each state’s best Democratic, best Republican, and most competitive proposal to imagine what was each side’s best-case scenario for this redistricting round.
To be clear, this is not what the national map of the House of Representatives would look like if one party had free rein in gerrymander in every state. (We’ve done this project before.) Instead, it’s the best cards for each side that theoretically could have resulted from the redistricting process as it actually unfolded.class=”footnote-text”> Curious what these alternative political universes would look like? Use the interactive below to switch between them:
Choose cards that were:
partisan tendency of the districts:
Needless to say, a Democratic proposal would never realistically pass a Republican-controlled legislature, or vice versa. But examining the actual maps that have been offered reveals some basic truths about redistricting and the constraints on either side of this cycle. For example, on Earth 2, where the Democrats got everything they wanted, the party was still held back by not controlling the redistricting process in enough states. Meanwhile, on Earth 3, the Republicans drew fierce gerrymanders to themselves – but oddly, it ended up being more secure Democratic neighborhoods too. Let’s take a trip to the multiverse, shall we?
What if the Democrats had passed their best cards?
A blue seat for Salt Lake City and suburban Milwaukee? No Republican-leaning seats in Maryland? A second majority black seat in both Alabama and Louisiana? Swivel seats in Arkansas and Montana? The preservation of their aggressive gerrymander in New York? Welcome to the Democrats’ dream scenario for the 2021-22 redistricting.
If the best proposal for the Democrats had passed in each state, the country would have ended up with 28 more Democratic-leaning seats and 23 fewer Republican-leaning seats than the current true map.class=”footnote-text”>
Yet even in this best-case scenario for Democrats, it wouldn’t have been a overwhelming number of Democratic-leaning seats. The country’s median congressional seat would have always been highly competitive, with a partisan bias of D+4. In contrast, consider that the middle seat of Congress here in the real world (North Carolina’s 13th District) has a partisan bias of R+3. In other words, even in their best-case scenario, the Democrats could have put him in little better position than the Republicans are in right now.
This reflects how far behind the eight-ball Democrats were in the redistricting process early on. For example, the Democrats were completely excluded from the redistricting process in Texas, so the map most “favorable” for them was drawn by the Republicans and is heavily biased in favor of the GOP. Redistricting commissions, meanwhile, have helped several states attract more democratic charting this cycle, but has prevented many of these same states from drawing more Democratic Plans. And because these commissions exist disproportionately in states where Democrats enjoyed complete control over state government, Democrats were not allowed to lure maximalist gerrymanders in states like California, Colorado , Virginia and Washington. Instead, these maps were all relatively fair maps drawn by commissions.
What if the Republicans had passed their best cards?
On the other hand, imagine a world where the state supreme courts of North Carolina and Ohio let Republicans pass their most egregious gerrymanders, or where the redistricting commissions of Michigan and New York passed some of their early Republican-friendly drafts. In this best-case scenario for the GOP, we would be looking at 227 red seats nationwide and only 174 blue seats.
This is then much better for Republicans than the Democrats dream scenario is for Democrats (a map with 215 blue seats and 185 red seats). Additionally, the middle congressional seat on the GOP map would have a partisan bias of R+7 — enough to put control of the House out of reach for Democrats. Again, this asymmetry reflects that, between political geography and controlling more map-drawing entities, conditions were simply better for Republicans this round of redistricting.
But paradoxically, there’s one way the Republican dream card is good for Democrats: It creates two After class=”footnote-text”> seats solidly blue than the Democratic dream map (149 vs. 147). This may sound counter-intuitive, but it illustrates the tried-and-true technique of “gerrymandering” — that is, packing as many of your opponent’s voters as possible into the fewest number of ridings. For example, Pennsylvania’s most pro-Republican map created five solidly Democratic districts in order to make the other 12 winnable for Republicans.
The other striking thing about the best-case scenario Republican map is the fact that it’s only a few good Republican maps away from the national map we actually got. It’s only 19 more Republican-leaning seats and 13 fewer Democratic-leaning seats than the real map, showing how much has gone well for Republicans in the redistricting this year (even if that could have gone even better). For example, the best party maps in Texas and Florida (two of the three states with the most congressional districts) were very close to those that were eventually adopted.
What if the most competitive maps had passed?
The Democratic and Republican dream maps — and, for that matter, the maps that have passed — sacrifice highly competitive seat counts. But on Earth 4, those of us who like competitive elections can really be happy. Not only does this map increase the number of competitive seats by 28, but it also creates an almost perfectly balanced National House map – one where Republicans have a negligible five-seat advantage.
Unlike the real world, where the lack of competitive districts means we should only expect narrow House majorities for the foreseeable future, this super-competitive map could produce drastic shifts in the makeup of Congress parties. If the Democrats won every highly competitive district on this map, they would emerge with a 249-186 majority; if the Republicans did, they would sit at 254-181. That’s a bigger majority than either party has held in the House since the huge Democratic majority that followed the 2008 election.
But those 68 highly competitive seats would still not be as plentiful as the House had as recently as the 2000 election, when there were 102 such constituencies. Again, this reflects a cold, hard political reality: Competitive districts are on the decline in this country — and not just because of gerrymandering.
Granted, in states like Georgia and Texas, the politicians who drew every proposed map this cycle had no incentive to encourage competitive seats — but even in states where nonpartisan entities like commissions and courts have drawn up proposals, the most competitive map still has a surprisingly small number of highly competitive seats. Minnesota’s most competitive map only had one, for example. Virginia only had two. California has six, but that’s only 12% of the state’s 52 districts.
Simply put, political polarization has made it more difficult to secure competitive seats. There are fewer swing voters than before, and political realignment along urban-rural lines means most parts of the country are either solidly red or solidly blue. And there’s no alternate universe where that’s not true.