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The Countless, Confusing, Sometimes Contradictory Takeaways Of The 2021-22 Redistricting Cycle

Many analyses of congressional redistricting so far have tried to sum the situation up into a single sentence. While we understand the urge, it’s increasingly the case that there is no one takeaway from the 2021-22 redistricting cycle. In reality, the picture is complicated: Democrats have gained seats based on partisanship alone … but Republicans have gained when you factor in which party currently holds the seat. The House map’s long-term Republican bias has lessened somewhat … but it’s still not an even playing field. Swing seats are getting redrawn to be safer for Democrats … but light-red seats are also being redrawn to be safer for Republicans. 

Since we last took stock of redistricting in early December, eight more states — including some of the biggest and swingiest states in the country — have finalized their congressional maps for the next 10 years. In all, 26 states have now completed the congressional redistricting process (not including the six states with only one congressional district). Of the 268 congressional districts drawn so far, 128 have a FiveThirtyEight partisan lean1 of D+5 or bluer, while 119 have a FiveThirtyEight partisan lean of R+5 or redder. Only 21 are in the “highly competitive” category between D+5 and R+5. 

That’s a net gain of seven Democratic-leaning seats over the old maps in those 26 states, while the number of Republican-leaning seats has increased by only one. Since the old House map had 208 Republican-leaning seats and 181 Democratic-leaning seats overall, that means redistricting has chipped away at — though certainly not erased — Republicans’ structural advantage in House elections. 

However, when you take incumbency into account, it’s actually Republicans who should gain ground in the short term. By my calculations, redistricting has put Republicans in a good position to flip as many as three seats in the 2022 midterms.2 On the other hand, I calculate that redistricting has put Democrats in position to gain one seat, lose one seat or stand pat.3 

This seems counterintuitive, but it’s really not. Democrats are coming off a pretty strong election cycle in 2020 — one that gave them a House majority despite the fact that the median congressional district has a partisan lean of R+2.3. In other words, Democrats are overexposed on the congressional map as it stands today, with 24 Democratic incumbents occupying Republican-leaning seats. (By contrast, only seven Republican incumbents hold Democratic-leaning seats.) That means even if the median congressional district moves closer to the center to become, say, R+1, there are still several Democratic incumbents on reddish turf. (And that’s before accounting for the signs that point toward a Republican-leaning national environment in 2022.)

Whichever way you measure them, though, the partisan shifts due to redistricting so far this cycle have been fairly small. The biggest takeaway has instead been the continued disappearance of competitive seats. The number of swing House districts has been dwindling for decades now, and that pattern is certainly continuing this year. By our measure, there are already six fewer highly competitive seats in these 26 states than there were last cycle.

But even that statistic understates the severity of the decline. The number of somewhat competitive seats — which we define as having partisan leans between D+15 and R+15 — has dropped by 10. That’s mostly due to Republicans making their own districts even safer: The number of light-red seats has decreased by 12, while the number of dark-red seats has increased by 13.

Number of competitive seats in the House drops

The number of “solid” and “competitive” seats under the old and new House maps in states that completed congressional redistricting by Jan. 18, 2021, at 5 p.m. Eastern

Category Old Map New Map Change
Solid D 100 99 -1
Competitive D 21 29 +8
Highly Competitive 27 21 -6
Competitive R 32 20 -12
Solid R 86 99 +13

“Solid Democratic” seats have FiveThirtyEight partisan leans of D+15 or bluer; “competitive Democratic” seats have partisan leans between D+5 and D+15; “highly competitive” seats have partisan leans between D+5 and R+5; “competitive Republican” seats have partisan leans between R+5 and R+15; “solid Republican” seats have partisan leans of R+15 or redder.

Partisan lean is the average margin difference between how a state or district votes and how the country votes overall. This version of partisan lean, meant to be used for congressional and gubernatorial elections, is calculated as 50 percent the state or district’s lean relative to the nation in the most recent presidential election, 25 percent its relative lean in the second-most-recent presidential election and 25 percent a custom state-legislative lean.

SOURCES: U.S. CENSUS BUREAU, THE UPSHOT, VOTING ELECTION AND SCIENCE TEAM, RYNE ROHLA/DECISION DESK HQ

By contrast, the number of light-blue seats has actually increased by eight as the number of dark-blue seats has decreased by one. But that’s not because Democrats have been redistricting saints. While Republicans, who went into redistricting with a better starting position, have adopted a defensive redistricting strategy (i.e., shoring up already-red seats), Democrats have adopted an offensive strategy of maximizing the number of seats that are any shade of blue. In states such as Nevada and New Mexico, this has meant eliminating safe Democratic seats and spreading their voters out to neighboring red or purple seats to give those districts a Democratic lean, too.

These are the takeaways of redistricting so far — but we must emphasize the “so far.” Eighteen states have yet to finalize their new maps, and some could genuinely scramble the math above. For instance, how aggressive will Democratic cartographers be in New York? Republicans in Florida?

And then there’s the fact that even those 26 states may not be done with redistricting. Lawsuits over the new maps loom in at least eight of those states, and one other state’s map (Ohio’s) has already been overturned. Just under two-thirds of the districts whose lines are being challenged (73 out of 110) were drawn by Republicans, too, so there could be substantial upside for Democrats here — enough that some analysts believe the House’s Republican bias will disappear completely. It’s too early to know for sure, though, so if there’s one piece of advice we can give you, it’s not to draw any conclusions about redistricting until the ink is dry on the last state’s map.

Footnotes

  1. Partisan lean is the average margin difference between how a state or district votes and how the country votes overall. This version of partisan lean, meant to be used for congressional and gubernatorial elections, is calculated as 50 percent the state or district’s lean relative to the nation in the most recent presidential election, 25 percent its relative lean in the second-most-recent presidential election and 25 percent a custom state-legislative lean.

  2. The gory math behind this calculation: Five or six blue districts have been redrawn to favor Republicans (two in Arizona, one in Georgia, one in Michigan, one in North Carolina and potentially one in New Jersey), but four or five red districts have been redrawn to favor Democrats (two in California, one in Illinois, one in Michigan and potentially one in New Mexico), for a net addition of between zero and two seats. Through reapportionment, Republicans have also gained one seat in Montana, one in North Carolina, one in Texas and potentially one in Colorado, but they’ve also lost one seat in Illinois, one in Michigan and one in West Virginia, for a net reapportionment gain of maybe one seat.

  3. Through reapportionment, Democrats have gained one seat in Oregon and one seat in Texas but lost one in California, for a net gain of one. Then just add that to the zero-to-two seats they will probably lose to Republicans through the redrawing of existing districts.

Nathaniel Rakich is a senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

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