What We Lose When We Lose Competitive Congressional Districts
Competing congressional districts have been steadily disappearing for decades. In the current round of redistricting, six highly competitive constituencies in the House of Representatives have been eliminated. The Cook Political Report estimates that less than 8% of congressional districts will be competitive in November.
It is a problem. It’s not because competitive precincts are a powerful moderating force for our democracy – on the contrary, the decline of competitive precincts is a problem that reflects deeper causes of partisan polarization and leaves the overwhelming majority of Americans in places where their votes don’t matter, and where parties and candidates don’t have to work for anyone’s votes.
Governing in America requires compromise. But when more than 90% of congressional districts lean towards one of the two main parties, it means that most representatives have little incentive to compromise. In fact, representatives are under increasing pressure to be highly partisan, which has made governance very difficult.
But perhaps more importantly, when there is no competition, citizens and parties have little reason to show up and vote. Instead, it becomes the highly organized donors and activists who are engaged, while the rest of the district is ignored. It’s true that competitive districts may not produce particularly moderate candidates, but they are important when it comes to engaging and informing citizens. And this participation has valuable benefits for communities, well beyond our elections.
Four decades ago, more than a third of congressional districts shared tickets, and just 30 years ago, more than a third were potentially competitive. It was smart politics, in other words, to be “bipartisan”. Blurry party lines and candidate-centric elections meant that broad coalitions operated in what looked more like a four-party system, with many liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats voting together while many conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats also voted together.
Party leaders also did not have as much leverage in enforcing a party line, and true cross-party political agreements developed in part because parties overlapped so ideologically. In such an environment, compromise could thrive without threatening fundraising or re-election processes.
But driven by the geographic triage of parties, the nationalization of politics around divisive culture war issues, and the pursuit of close national elections, that overlap has disappeared; instead, hyperpartisan hate has come to dominate American politics, tearing major parties apart and pushing voters into two competing teams.
In the process, competitive and ticket-sharing neighborhoods have almost entirely disappeared. In the 2020 election, only 16 congressional districts supported a presidential candidate from one party and a House candidate from the other party, the fewest in 100 years. Meanwhile, the share of competitive districts – here, defined by the Cook Policy Report as having a Partisan Vote Index between D+5 and R+5 – has fallen from around a third of districts to less than one in 10. in 2018.
Perhaps the best way to understand what’s going on is to think of the district’s partisanship and competitiveness as two opposing forces, with a strong force and a much weaker one. Partisanship is the powerful force that further separates parties; it requires parties to take contradictory positions on issues and draw sharp contrasts. And it’s galvanized by the same forces responsible for the decline of competitive neighborhoods, including geographic partisan triage and the nationalization of culture war stakes.
The presence of competitive neighborhoods, on the other hand, is the weak force that brings parties together. These districts encourage incumbents to exhibit at least a modicum of bipartisanship. But trends that reinforce partisanship also make competitive constituencies even rarer, further undermining their potential ability to encourage partisan problem-solving.
Today, with few competitive neighborhoods and even fewer ticket-sharing neighborhoods, this weak compromise-seeking force is no match for the much stronger compromise –repulsive partisan strength.
Representatives who hold competitive constituencies still often seek a compromise between parties. More moderate members — as defined by DW-Nominate, which quantifies each congressman’s ideology based on roll-call votes cast during a legislative session — often come from more competitive districts, as you can tell. see in the table below:
Notably, however, the discrepancy between the voting records of Democrats in competitive districts and Republicans in competitive districts is actually quite large – far greater than the difference between, say, a Republican from a competitive district and a Republican from a safe neighborhood. Additionally, even though district partisanship and voting records are moderately correlated for both parties, there is considerable variation in how different members elected in 2020 from similar partisan districts voted, as evidenced below. above.
In short, competitive districts are somewhat of a moderating force. But Democrats in lightly Republican ridings are still miles away from Republicans in lightly Democratic ridings.
One reason is that most swing districts are just swing districts because they have roughly the same number of Republican and Democratic voters — not because they’re home to many swing centrists. As a 2015 article argued: “Reformers often idealize these moderate constituencies because they are thought to be the most conducive to political competition meant to produce moderate representation. … [However], the fact that these constituencies are more likely to be heterogeneous ironically dampens their ability to elect moderate legislators. In other words, swing neighborhoods are not inherently moderate.
Another study of House members who served between 1874 and 1996 found very little commonality between incumbents and challengers from the various parties running at the district level. Another study examining elections from 1946 to 2010 for Congress and from 1972 to 2010 for state legislatures found that even once elected, officials did not adjust their voting behavior to better match party-level ideology. district. In other words, candidates have still position themselves closer to their party than a candidate from another party, and even in hotly contested constituencies, they moderate very little. Plus, provided they keep winning elections, they really don’t need to moderate.
To be sure, some candidates moved closer to the middle than others in competitive ridings, and major challenges pushed candidates away from the center, even in competitive ridings. Between the 1940s and 1970s, when polarization was generally low and the two parties were ideologically inconsistent nationally, candidates converged modestly in the middle of their constituencies. But today, in a divided and polarized two-party system, the middle is a hard and lonely place, and an even harder place to reach as a candidate.
This disappearance of interpartisan compromise has made governance in America difficult. Without the ability to build broad legislative coalitions, little gets done in Congress on the most pressing issues, and that’s because all the most pressing issues inevitably become high-stakes issues for the next election, where the compromise would only blur the message.
But arguably the most damaging consequence is the number of Americans who don’t count in our elections — and how that drives broader disengagement. In competitive constituencies, parties and candidates must work to mobilize all sorts of voters for the general election, but in precincts where one party dominates — which is the overwhelming majority of precincts in the United States — that is not the case, because whoever wins the primary almost always wins the general election. General elections are a done deal, and parties and candidates are campaigning accordingly.
The strongest and most consistent finding in the voter turnout literature is that competition drives turnout. And as you can see in the chart below, turnout in 2018 was, indeed, higher in competitive neighborhoods:
The effects go beyond participation. Citizens who live in competitive electoral areas tend to be more interested in public affairs. They are more politically informed. They are even more likely to volunteer and participate in community activities. These markers of a healthy civic life decline in uncompetitive neighborhoods.
The decline of competitive districts is a real problem for American democracy. With an overwhelming majority of voters living in constituencies where their general election votes don’t matter and parties and candidates don’t have to muster support to win, it’s too easy for many voters to verify. Competitive constituencies may not guarantee moderate representation, but they engage voters in a meaningful election, with powerful civic engagement benefits. How to reverse this decline is a more complicated matter of debate. But the problem is real, and our democracy has a lot of work to do to fix it.