“Create More Competitive Seats to Limit Extremism” Part I

In Real Clear Politics, I published a longish essay arguing that one direction political reform should take to limit the forces of extremism in our politics is the creation of more competitive election districts. I will blog about the analysis in that essay in two parts. Here are some excerpts for Part I:

With the Census Bureau having released the 2020 population numbers, which trigger the start of states’ redistricting process, this is the moment to focus on the importance of emphasizing political competition when the states create their new maps of congressional districts. Competitive districts have generally been defined as those in which the winning candidate receives 55% of the vote or less. (Given increasing partisan loyalty among voters, which means fewer voters shift back and forth between the parties, swing districts today might have to include no more than 53% of likely voters for one party to be competitive.)…

As a recent report from the Unite America Institute notes, in the 2020 election, 83% of candidates to the U.S. House were elected from safe seats. Only 17% of members were elected from seats in which they faced significant competitive pressure from the other party’s candidate – a dramatic decline from the late 1990s, when 38% of districts were competitive.

 The dynamics and incentives for candidates running in competitive districts are dramatically different than those candidates face in safe districts. For competitive seats, candidates know they must win over enough voters in the center, who might swing to either party, while also holding on to their base. If they move too far toward the wings of their party, they risk losing the centrist voters needed to win. These dynamics not only weaken the power of the wings of each party but also create incentives for more centrist candidates to run in the first place. Competitive districts also make legislators more responsive to changes in voter preferences; if public opinion on important policies shifts by five points, legislators who want to keep or gain office will need to respond to that change.

In safe seats, by contrast, incumbents’ main threat comes from being “primaried.” Given the make-up of primary voters, that threat mostly comes from the ideological poles of their party. As the authors of a recent book titled “Rejecting Compromise: Legislators’ Fear of Primary Voters” find: “Legislators believe that primary voters are much more likely to punish them for compromising than general election voters or donors.” This point was made in characteristically bald form in Donald Trump’s Jan. 6 speech on the Ellipse when he mainly attacked Republicans who would not vote to object to the counting of electoral votes: “[I]f they don’t fight, we have to primary the hell out of the ones that don’t fight. We primary them.”

When the major competitive threat that safe-seat incumbents face is from the ideological wings of their party, little incentive exists to appeal to the center of the political spectrum. Primary voters in safe-seat districts also have less incentive to compromise and back moderate candidates because the party’s candidate will win the general election regardless of where they fall along the party’s ideological spectrum; In turn, moderates are less likely to run in the first place, because they know they can’t survive the primary electorate. The overwhelming dominance of safe seats in Congress contributes significantly to a Congress that is much more polarized than are citizens themselves.

Over the last decade, gerrymandering has received broader public attention than ever before. And the political system is responding, at least to some extent. Through direct democracy, voters in a number of states have adopted independent commissions to take over redistricting. A centerpiece of the massive voting-reform bill that has passed the House and is now before the Senate are provisions that would require independent commissions to do redistricting and would impose standards of “partisan fairness” on plans. These are moves in the right direction; I have long argued that we should take redistricting out of the hands of the most self-interested actors – partisan legislatures – and use independent commissions.

But the substantive standards in H.R. 1/S. 1 risk giving short shrift to the importance of competitive districts. A plan can be fair in terms of the partisan outcomes it is likely to generate and yet still result in every officeholder being elected from a safe seat. Indeed, when government is divided and both parties have a say in redistricting, it’s not uncommon to see “sweetheart” gerrymanders, in which politicians from both parties agree to give one another safe seats. Incumbents want to be in safe seats – the safer the better (this can be in tension with the party’s goal to maximize its prospects overall). But that’s not good for creating a Congress actually capable of governing, one in which members have incentives to compromise and forge the coalitions needed to enact most major legislation.

In Part II, I respond to some standard critiques of this view.

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