A map that shows what’s wrong with Washington

2008 Election Dot Map, NortheastThe recent government shutdown and flirtation with default has seriously deteriorated public trust in Congress, and in Washington more generally.  Disgust with Washington is often followed by bewilderment. How did things get this way?

While there is no single answer to this question, if I had to choose one, it would be current redistricting practices. There is a strong case to be made that political polarization (and associated intransigence and brinkmanship) are rooted in gerrymandered congressional districts.

Gerrymandering, the art and science of lawmakers choosing their own voters rather than the other way around, has ensured that most representatives in the U.S. House are safe from general election challenges.  Without those challenges, positions taken by elected officials are not exposed to debate and to the typically moderating effect of contested elections.  In contrast, in gerrymandered districts where it is clear that one party or the other has a more or less certain general election victory in hand, candidates from the opposing party opt out of running (or have little real chance of winning if they do). As a result, the only threats to these lawmakers come in contentious primary contests from the hard left and hard right.  Being “primaried” is now a common term among political strategists, and is often used to describe well-financed tea party challengers who unseat moderate Republicans. As moderation, from either side, is lost in primary challenges, the result is more rigidly ideological victors and the deadlock we see with increasing frequency in Congress.

This connection between redistricting, polarization, and legislative dysfunction is complicated, and as soon as political scientists start talking about the nuances of this subject the message sometimes gets lost.  So I decided to create a visual to help illuminate what is really going on…

Link to the full interactive Congressional Dot Map.

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New Demographic Data on the 2012 Presidential Election

The recent release of the Census Bureau’s Voting and Registration data from the Current Population Survey finally allows us to look deeper into the population that turned out to vote this last November.  And the results are quite astonishing.

For the first time, in a long history of disenfranchisement and suppression, African-American voter turnout surpassed the turnout rate among whites.  2012 was a low-turnout election overall, especially when compared to 2008, and the turnout rates among most of the major racial and ethnic groups went down from 2008 rates.  The turnout rate among blacks in 2012, however, went up.

National Turnout Rates for 2012 Election by Race

* Turnout is measured here as total votes divided by the voting-age citizen population. Data are from the CPS microdata for the Voting and Registration Supplement.

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New redistricting move proposes big changes to Virginia Senate districts

On Monday, the Virginia Senate narrowly passed (20-19) a new redistricting bill that will dramatically change the boundaries of the current Senate districts drawn just two years ago.  The plan, passed by Senate Republicans on a party-line vote when a Democratic Senator was away on Inauguration Day, has been criticized by Democrats as an overt attempt to give Republicans an advantage in future elections by “packing” and “cracking” black communities in Virginia in order to dilute their voting power.  Republican Sen. John Watkins, the legislator who sponsored the redistricting amendments, instead says the new plan would defuse possible Voting Rights Act legal challenges by creating a new minority-majority district and also cited improvements in district compactness.

The move by Senate Republicans is unusual, as such massive changes to a district map are typically reserved for redistricting sessions right after the decennial census.  As a result, this recent redistricting drama has garnered much national attention this week and was a top-ten story on Politico.com Wednesday.

The Virginia Public Access Project has made the proposed HB259 plan available for viewing on their interactive maps:

Virginia Map of Senate Redistricting Plan HB259

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Lower turnout in 2012 makes the case for political realignment in 2008

Now that most states have finalized and submitted their official election results (yes, it does take that long), we can take a closer look into state and local turnout rates for the 2012 presidential election.

But first, an overview of the results…

As we all know, Barack Obama will be starting his second term after he is inaugurated in a couple of days.  While it would probably be hasty to say that Obama received a huge “mandate” from the election back in November, it’s fair to say he defeated Mitt Romney handily, with room to lose battleground states and still win.  In fact, one of the more surprising results from the presidential election is how little the electoral map changed from 2008.  The county-level results for 2012 and 2008 below illustrates this point:

GIF Animation of Nation Election Outcomes 2008, 2012

Obama’s margins over his Republican challenger shrunk in most battleground states and was enough to flip Indiana and North Carolina, the only two states to switch between 2008 and 2012.  But despite the slow and tenuous economic recovery, high unemployment, a controversial health reform law, and a slew of other things Obama had going against him during the campaign, nothing much changed.  This was also despite lower turnout rates across the country.

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Virginia Votes 2012: Turnout across localities

About two-thirds of Virginians voted last Tuesday!

65.3% of eligible Virginians voted in last week’s presidential election (based on unofficial results and an estimate of the number of eligible voters in Virginia*).  This represents a modest decline from 2008, when 66.7% of eligible Virginians voted, but the drop off in 2012 is minor at less than 2% and turnout in 2012 is still on the high end for Virginia historically.

Graphic showing voter turnout in Virginia over the past three decades

How does turnout across the state in 2012 compare to 2008?

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Virginia Votes 2012

Now that the votes are cast, we have some real electoral data to explore. My first question was how the distribution of Obama’s vote in Virginia in 2012 compared to 2008.

Using the unofficial results currently reported by Virginia’ State Board of Elections (with 2,573 of 2,588 precincts reporting), I plotted the percent of votes cast for Obama in 2012 and 2008 by county. The diagonal line shows the point at which vote shares in 2012 are the same as in 2008.

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Forget Ohio, it’s all about Virginia…and demographics

In my humble opinion, the biggest news coming out of the election last night was not Ohio.  Instead, the polling results coming out of Virginia, that heavily favored Obama early in the evening, set the tone for the entire night.  The story of what happened in Virginia exemplifies where our politics in this country now stand.  Obama’s repeat victory in the Old Dominion underscores what was probably the biggest factor in the 2012 election: demographics.

For our regular readers, especially those who read our Red State, Blue State report back in July, this shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise.  Ohio, Florida, and other swing states are used to the attention and have been “purple” for a long time now. Obama’s repeat victory in Virginia, however, a state that has voted consistently for Republican presidential candidates before 2008, is really big news.  More than anything else, Obama’s victory in Virginia means that 2008 wasn’t a fluke, but rather represented a fundamental political realignment in the country.

That realignment is bad news for Republicans.  The Republican party has serious demographic problems.  Virginia’s shifting demographics, like that of the nation, have been dramatic in just the last few decades with Hispanics and Asians driving most population growth and changes in the electorate.  Republicans have had considerable difficulty gaining the votes of these groups.  In Virginia, most of the influx and growth in Hispanic and Asian populations is occurring around the Washington D.C. suburbs in Northern Virginia (NoVa).  It was therefore not surprising that NoVa was the focus of the national news media, and results from that region look more like those from 2008 than from 2004.

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“47 percent” and other statistics

Last week’s release of the now infamous Mother Jones video of Romney’s comments  on the “47 percent” of Americans who don’t pay income taxes has everyone talking about the U.S. tax system.  Despite this election cycle’s relative dearth of substantive, detailed policy discourse, the campaigns and the media have indeed provided the public with a lot of useful information on the way taxes work in this country.  The terms “Capital Gains” and “carried interest” have entered the common vernacular and it seems that everyone now knows about the “Buffet Rule” and the tax rates for certain types of income.

If any good has come out of Romney’s comments on the “47 percent,” it is that the public now has a better understanding of those folks who have been labeled by some on the right as “lucky duckies.”  The left has been quick to argue that these lucky duckies are actually not so lucky; and by now many of us have seen or heard the statistics complied by the non-partisan Tax Policy Center: Continue reading