Gerrymandering isn't the only thing giving Republicans a guaranteed majority in the US House and a bunch of state legislatures, but it is most of it. Clearly, what Democrats have been doing to counter that isn't working. Time for a rethink, and here's what I thought: we don't need to win seats gerrymandered to be unwinnable, nor do we need to win complete control of state governments so we can do the gerrymandering (many Democrats have an ethical problem with gerrymandering anyway, so there's a bonus). We just need enough control in the right states to block Republicans from gerrymandering.
This is a follow-up to Applying Moneyball to political campaigns, which I posted a few days ago. I explained the concept of moneyball in politics at length there, but since it's unreasonable to require anyone to read that other post before continuing with this one, pardon the recap. I suppose if you read the prior post, you get to skip the next couple paragraphs.
Moneyball is a book by Michael Lewis that could be about politics --- though it's actually about baseball. Broadly though, it's about a contest where money is important, and the contestants have greatly varying amounts of it. That means the party with less money either loses, or finds the inefficiencies everyone else is missing. In baseball, that's what the Oakland Athletics did while Lewis followed them during the 2002 season. They were willing to ask if they were measuring and valuing the right things. They challenged their experience and conventional wisdom with data. They used what statistics said were the best strategies. In the running argument between baseball insiders on one side, and outsiders who happened to be huge fans of both baseball and statistics of which baseball has many, Oakland was the first team to let the statisticians win the debates, and they found good players who were undervalued enough to be affordable. To see Democrats' problem, replace "baseball" with "politics", "Oakland A's" with "Democrats", and "New York Yankees" with "Republicans". Basically, Republicans have a collection of crank billionaires who can engage in unlimited spending, and we don't. They can throw money at problems and we can't. So we need to find the inefficiencies.
So Democrats need to ask the same questions. Are we measuring and valuing the right things? Are we putting data ahead of experience and conventional wisdom? Are we acting on assumptions rather than knowledge and thereby pursing suboptimal strategies? To answer those questions, I asked what we value, and what we could value instead. The answers were coming on two levels, a macro level like taking back Congress, and a micro level, meaning the groundgame where I spend much of my volunteer time. The first post was plenty long explaining the concepts without diving into the weeds of details, so I'm making separate macro and micro posts for detailed weediness. This is the macro post.
What have we been valuing? Votes. Seems obvious enough when trying to win elections. Somehow though, there are times when getting the most votes isn't getting us the most seats. Apparently, instead of valuing votes, we should be valuing seats. Seats are the real goal. Votes are just the main way of getting them, but not the only way. The other factors I mentioned were gerrymandering, voter suppression, partisan election officials, partisan judges, and election rules. Don't take the following focus on gerrymandering to mean I'm blowing off the rest. Of course they're important, or else we can't understand Florida 2000 where Al Gore won the election but George Bush become president. I'm focusing on gerrymandering because we're not making progress on that, which I suspect is partly because we have the wrong strategy, while Democrats generally understand the other problems. We don't always have the solutions, but at least we seem to be going in the right direction. I can think of opposing arguments to that last statement, but I've written about them before, and maybe again in a future post.
So when we comfort ourselves with having gotten the most votes, we're overvaluing votes, and undervaluing seats. What are these strategies for countering Republican gerrymandering that aren't working? Essentially there are three: 1. Rack up all the votes we can wherever we get them and hope they result in the most seats; 2. Make a big effort to win in districts gerrymandered to be safely Republican; 3. Try to win control of state governments so we can do our own gerrymandering. Strategy one turns out to have too inefficient a distribution of votes to work. Strategy two is very costly because of the money we have to pour in to move these districts the opposite of the way they're made to go, and maybe no amount of money would be enough, assuming we even have enough money to move enough districts, which is a questionable assumption. Strategy three is also expensive, and the Republicans need thwart us in only one house of the legislature, or just the governor in many states, to block a Democratic gerrymander.
Thus why I said at the top that we don't need to gain the ability to control redistricting, nor do we need to pound our heads against the wall of unwinnable seats. We just need to block the Republicans from being able to gerrymander, thereby forcing a non-partisan redistricting. That alone would make a whole bunch of seats winnable. Moreover, we don't need to do this in all states, but just enough big states.
Why just big states? It's not that I'm saying some states are more important that others, but, ... OK, I guess I am saying that, but only in terms of drawing congressional districts. I can understand someone with the DLCC (Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee) thinking one legislative seat is the same as another since winning as many as possible is their job, but for redistricting Congress, they're not equally worth pursuing. It would be nice to win the legislature in North Dakota, but North Dakota has one at-large seat, so there's nothing to gerrymander. Compare that to Texas, which has 36 seats, and is carefully gerrymandered to help Republicans. Just blocking the GOP in Texas would flip some seats. Do the same in the other big states where the GOP was able to gerrymander, and we're a long way towards regaining the majority of the US House. Winning anything in Texas has proven difficult, but winning something is still a lot shorter hill to climb than winning complete control. Notice the strategy here: focus on winning seats that make it more likely we win other seats. Winning in small states just doesn't make progress toward undoing congressional gerrymandering. Trying to win in just some states, even though they're big, is a whole lot cheaper than trying to win in all states. Winning something in a state, however difficult it is, is a lot cheaper and doable than winning everything.
Hopefully no one in North Dakota took offense. You have every right to care unapologetically about your own state legislature, given that you have to live with the public policy that results. Grassroots activists can individually have the biggest effect in their own districts. And of course legislatures do more than just redistricting, though I must point out my suggested GOP-blocking strategy would also block the GOP from passing the horrible legislation they're inflicting on the states they control. I do get the desire to have complete control so as to pass progressive legislation, but keep in mind we're thinking for right now purely about redistricting, so accepting the blocking of the GOP and the forcing of a non-partisan redistricting is a perfectly acceptable outcome.
So how do we block the GOP? There are four places where we might be able to block: governor, the upper house, the lower house, and a non-partisan redistricting commission. I say "upper house" and "lower house" instead of just "legislature" because if you're doing a rethink, it helps to break everything down into small units just to make sure you're not missing something. As it happens, in pretty much every state, the houses of the legislature have different dynamics, like getting elected in different years or having dissimilar districts, or a history of control by different parties. The effect is one house may be much more winnable than the other, and since we're looking to be efficient with limited resources, it may be wasteful to go after just any seat whatsoever.
Then of course, there's the catch-22 that the legislature is often already gerrymandered to be Republican, so we have to flip it to stop gerrymandering, but we can't because it's gerrymandered. Trying to win governor seems obvious since whole states aren't gerrymandered, but that works only if the governor can veto a redistricting plan. Many can, but not all states let the governor have any say. What this means is, as we're trying to win gubernatorial elections, states aren't equal. Governors who aren't involved in redistricting don't help. Again, that's just for redistricting; there are no governorships that are bad to hold. They're just not equally worth limited resources. Among those who can veto a redistricting plan, just like state legislative seats, we want big states first. It might be hard to tell that to the DGA (Democratic Governors Association) because if you work for them, your first job is reelecting Democratic incumbents since they presumably paid in. Competitiveness is presumably the only criteria for getting into other races. For the rest of us though, governors are not all equally valuable. Remember the general strategy: identify and gain seats that can get us more seats.
Non-partisan commissions aren't common, and the only one I know of for sure is California. Interestingly, Democrats actually gained seats under the non-partisan plan. Putting commissions in place entails giving up the chance to do the gerrymandering, but they sure can block the Republicans even if we fail to hold any part of the state government. So maybe we should think about more of these. Getting state legislators to give up that power is presumably difficult, but some states have citizen initiatives, though as we've seen sometimes, when Republicans have control, they just overturn initiatives they don't like, so these commissions ought to be done via constitutional amendment. I suppose it could be done through statute, and then dare Republicans to run for election after making a blatant power grab, but can anyone recall voters punishing a party over how districts were drawn? Me neither.
There might be hesitancy to change long-standing strategies at the DGA, DLCC, DCCC, DNC, or Democratic leaning independent groups, but one thing is for sure: the Republicans have been thinking strategically. Their success in state legislatures in 2010 was partly the luck of a red wave, but they had positioned themselves by focusing on state legislatures. Democrats, remarkably for a redistricting year, paid scant attention. It's as if the strategic thinking we see in presidential years just gets tossed in midterms. Democrats revert to the same strategies that fail just about every time.
However, I don't think we're stuck merely hoping the Democratic acronyms get it figured out. We can push. And it's not like volunteer time and small donations mean nothing. Probably anyone reading a post where the word "redistricting" gets used repeatedly already knows how their state does it, but if you don't, find out. Remember that your time and money are resources to be deployed strategically. Hopefully the candidates on the Democratic ticket will work together but if not, pick who gets your help. If you can't take the lower house, then with apologies to the really good lower house candidate, you have to go help the upper house candidate. If you can't take either house, try to help win governor. Support a push for a non-partisan commission. Work at home and in adjoining districts of course, but if sending money to candidates elsewhere, be strategic in picking who you help.
And if you can, give some help to Democrats in Texas. If the GOP loses Texas, it's in multiple forms of trouble. Obviously a tough state for Democrats, but wow, the impact if we can do something there.