The Democratic member of Congress from Austin, a city otherwise represented in Washington, D.C., by Republicans, says Democrats nationally got more votes in 2012, yet Republicans ended up with the House majority.
“During the last election, Democrats won over a million votes more than Republicans,” U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett said in a Nov. 4 talk at the University of Texas at San Antonio. “But because of the way districts are designed, the Republicans got 33 more members of the House of Representatives than the Democrats did.”
Doggett’s raw numbers proved accurate. Democrats outpolled Republicans in the 2012 House races, but Republicans ended up with a 33-seat House majority.
A December 2012 analysis by the Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan D.C. publication, said House Democrats out-drew their Republican counterparts by more than 1 million votes — 1.37 million votes to be precise, Cook’s House editor, David Wasserman, later calculated.
Between the two parties, Democrats won 50.59 percent of the vote while winning 46 percent of seats, leaving the Republicans with 234 seats and Democrats with 201.
But there is debate among political scientists over whether how districts were redrawn entirely explains the GOP majority.
Writing in December 2012, Wasserman pointed to two “unprecedented” factors that explained the GOP’s House grip: the thick concentration of Democratic votes in urban areas and the GOP’s wide control of drawing congressional districts.
A George Mason University political scientist, Michael McDonald, who later worked as an expert in a Texas Democratic Party challenge to how Republicans drew districts in Texas, noted in a April 2011 article published by the American Political Science Association that thanks to election results in 2010 and earlier, Republicans would dominate redistricting in more states than Democrats. Among the 43 states with more than one congressional district, he wrote, six would rely on bipartisan commissions to draw new districts, 16 would have Republicans in control, six would have Democrats in charge and 15 would act as a divided government.
But different, sometimes complex methods of analyzing the 2012 results generate different conclusions about the effects of the line-drawing, though all point to Republicans benefiting most:
• Just before the 2012 elections, a study by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University concluded that the way districts were drawn would give Republican hopefuls six seats more than they would have won if the election was carried out under the previous district lines. After the elections, a center analyst, Sundeep Iyer, wrote that the prediction mostly held up because five seats flipped from a Democrat to a Republican due to redistricting, he wrote, while six Republican-held seats were saved by redistricting.
“In states where Republicans controlled redistricting,” Iyer said, “Republican candidates for the House won roughly 53 percent of the vote and 72 percent of the seats.” Then again, Iyer wrote, “even under the old district lines, that disparity would have persisted, as Republicans still would have likely won about 65 percent of the seats.”
• A methodology devised by Princeton University neuroscientist and election forecaster Sam Wang concluded that redistricting cost Democrats 15 House seats in the 2012 elections.
• Washington University post-doctoral student Nicholas Goedert found that redistricting most likely cost Democrats seven races nationally.
• Political scientists John Sides and Eric McGhee also said redistricting cost Democrats seven seats, writing that they reached their figure by looking at what would have happened if the election took place in the pre-2012 House districts. Seven seats “is not nothing, but it’s far less than what the Democrats needed to take back the House,” the two wrote.
Sides and McGhee concluded that once they considered the effect of incumbency on the 2012 results, the seeming pro-Republican impact 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,” they wrote.
We ran the range of these analyses past Austin lawyer Steve Bickerstaff, who has advised legislative leaders about redistricting issues since the 1970s. Bickerstaff said by phone that the Republicans’ majority isn’t due solely to how districts were designed. “It’s more complicated,” Bickerstaff said.
Doggett said Democrats won over a million votes more than Republicans in 2012 but because of the way districts are designed, Republicans got 33 more House seats.
Democratic House nominees drew nearly 1.4 million more votes than Republicans and the GOP landed a 33-seat House majority. It also looks like redistricting was a major factor behind that result, but experts also diverge over whether how districts were designed was the key driver. Incumbency and the concentration of Democrats in congested cities also have been aired as significant.
We rate Doggett’s statement, which lacks this clarification, as Mostly True.