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With Fewer Competitive Districts Comes Less Incentive To Compromise


For those who were hoping to find a way to end the government shutdown and break up partisan gridlock in Washington, you won't find much hope if you look at the electoral map of the U.S. House of Representatives. That map shows a deeply polarized country, covered in a lot of deep blue and deep red; so deep that the vast majority of House members are in seats considered safe.

David Wasserman of The Cook Political Report has been crunching the numbers in the country's congressional districts and he joins me now. David, welcome to the program.

DAVID WASSERMAN: Thanks for having me.

BLOCK: Now, as you look at that red-blue divide in the House, do you see it widening?

WASSERMAN: Yes. And what's more alarming than the fact that it's widened is that there is no sign that it's slowing down. Back in '95 and '96, the last time we endured this government shutdown, there were 79 Republicans who came from districts that President Clinton had won in 1992. And there were 20 House Democrats who came from districts that President Bush had won in 1992. There was some more incentive to compromise.

Today, there are only 17 Republicans who come from districts that President Obama won in the last election. And only nine Democrats from districts that Mitt Romney won. So the number of districts where there is some incentive to compromise, to come to the middle - these crossover districts, so to speak - has gone from 99, 17 years ago, to just 26 today. That's remarkable.

BLOCK: You also look at something that you call The Cook Partisan Voter Index. Now, explain what that measures and what it shows with the current House, compared with the House in that '95, '96 government shutdown that you're talking about.

WASSERMAN: The Cook Partisan Voter Index is an attempt to measure of the 435 congressional districts relative to the national average on a partisan scale. Back in '95 and '96, there were 164 districts, a plurality of all districts, that were between the political 40-yardline so to speak. They had very competitive congressional elections. And in those districts there was really some incentive to play towards the middle of the electorate.

Over the course of the last 17 years, for several reasons, that number has shrunk to 90 congressional districts - almost a fifth of the House. And so, the middle has slowly vanished and it could continue to vanish.

BLOCK: And those would be the districts that would be maybe pink or a light blue. They wouldn't be these deep colors that we're seeing now.


BLOCK: How much of an impact as redistricting had in creating these safe seats and the polarization that you're talking about?

WASSERMAN: Well, this geographic polarization in the House has really occurred in two steps. The first and perhaps more prevalent phenomenon that's gone underreported is the geographic self-sorting of the electorate of voters choosing - whether subconsciously or not - to live in places where the vast majority of their neighbors agree with them politically. And that effect has nothing to do with redistricting.

However, mapmakers through the redistricting process have capitalized and compounded that trend by carving increasingly conservative and liberal districts safe seats for themselves and safe seats for the other party, trying to maximize their political advantage. As a result, of the Republican-led round of redistricting after 2010, we estimate that Democrats would actually need to win 6.8 percent more votes for House nationally, in order to win the barest possible majority. That gives you an idea of just how uphill the battle is for Democrats across the country.

BLOCK: Do you see any indication that in the next election, there may be less polarization than we're seeing now, that we may be more purple than strongly red or strongly blue?

WASSERMAN: Well, you have to keep in mind that America and the electorate that we see out there hasn't really changed all that much, in terms of its ideological composition. What has changed is that the parties have become more homogenous, so as to leave out any incentive for compromise. And it's fostered an environment in which primaries are tantamount to election in many districts. And it's the most viable strategy for candidates running in party primaries to run as far to the left or right as possible.

Most Americans do not vote in primaries. And these very small turnout elections are largely what has created the group of members that are at loggerheads in the House today.

BLOCK: David Wasserman is the House editor for The Cook Political Report. David, thanks so much.

WASSERMAN: Thank you so much, Melissa.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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