The House of Representatives was originally intended to be one of the most responsive bodies of government to popular opinion. With short terms and high(er) representative-to-citizen ratios, it was thought that it would most closely reflect the will of the people. But even if, as happened in 2012, a majority of Americans vote for Democratic representatives, it’s unlikely that the Democrats will take back the House in 2016.
There are a handful of reasons why the House is such an uphill battle for Democrats. The most obvious (so much so that people often forget it) is that they started this election cycle at a significant deficit; they need to pick up 30 seats to take the House.
Predictions made by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi earlier this year about the Dems’ chances at retaking the lower chamber of Congress were originally laughed off, but after a particularly disastrous October for GOP candidate Donald Trump, the House looked like it might just be within grasp of the Democrats.
But with the polls tightening between Trump and Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, what was once thought to be an oncoming Democratic tidal wave might end up being more of a light chop. From my perspective, it seems like the prevailing forces of gerrymandering and geopolitical sorting are likely to keep the House firmly in control of the Republicans, pending some major bombshell erupting at Trump Tower — which, let’s be honest, isn’t completely out of the question.
While a 30-seat swing is not unprecedented, in the current era of more polarized politics, flipping a seat from red to blue is harder than it seems: in 2014, 96.4 percent of House members were reelected (despite the House having approval ratings somewhere between 13 and 14 percent around that time).
The other problems facing Democrats are more endemic to today’s House. The first is gerrymandering, the creation of bizarrely shaped congressional districts in order to group voters in such a way as to benefit one party or another. Both Republicans and Democrats are guilty of the practice, though more gerrymandered districts are thanks to the GOP. This partly helps explain why in 2012, Democratic House members received more votes in total, but still lost the House.
The other major problem — which is harder to solve than gerrymandering — involves what’s been termed “the Big Sort,” that is, Americans ending up wanting to live near other people who agree with them politically. Liberals tend to move to the cities, while conservatives tend to live in rural and suburban areas. As liberal voters move from a suburban district that might be, say, 51 percent GOP to an urban district that is 80 percent Democratic, the effectiveness of their vote is reduced. As a recent New York Times column suggested, “If you really want Democrats to win in Iowa, move there.”
Trump has probably put the House within closer Democratic reach than it has been in years, but if that’s not enough to get Dems control of the chamber, it may be a while before they have another opportunity like this one.