There’s a long history of gerrymandering in this country, one that stretches back to the nation’s founding. As early as 1788, there are reports of Patrick Henry (of “Give me liberty or give me death” fame) carving up Virginia districts in an attempt to sabotage James Madison’s congressional campaign.
Playing with district lines has remained a time-honored tradition in American politics ever since. Both parties have done it, and both parties have benefited from it. But something changed in 2010.
The Republican Party, on the heels of a sweeping loss to Barack Obama in 2008, hatched a scheme it called REDMAP, short for Redistricting Majority Project. It was “the most audacious political heist of modern times,” writes David Daley, author of Ratf**ked: The True Story Behind the Secret Plan to Steal America’s Democracy, a new book about REDMAP.
The former editor of Salon, Daley is a liberal writer with obvious political leanings. Still, his approach in the book is reportorial: He talks to the Republican strategists involved in REDMAP, he interviews the wizards behind the mapping technologies, he examines publicly available documents, and he tours the districts in which the lines have been manipulated.
The story of REDMAP is surprisingly simple. In 2009, a Republican strategist named Chris Jankowski was reading a New York Times article and hit upon an insight: 2010 was more than a midterm election year; it was a census year. That meant there would be a reapportionment process during which state leaders would redesign legislative districts for the next decade. (The census is taken every 10 years.)
Recognizing the opportunity, Daley writes, Jankowski decided to “target states where the legislature is in charge of redistricting, flip as many chambers as possible, take control of the process, and redraw the lines.”
The strategy succeeded for two reasons. First, the Democrats weren’t prepared for it. Gerrymandering wasn’t new, but nothing on this scale had been attempted before. Second, the Republicans were simply better at this kind of thing. Jankowksi was a brilliant strategist with the right connections and access to new mapping technologies and databases that allowed for unprecedented targeting operations.
The results speak for themselves: Republicans gained close to 700 seats at the state level across the country — 72 more than the Democrats won in the aftermath of Watergate. More importantly, Democratic advantages in New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Alabama, and Wisconsin were wiped out, leaving Republicans in charge of the redistricting process.
(For more on how gerrymandering works, including some skepticism over how important it is in determining control of the House, see Vox’s Andrew Prokop's gerrymandering card stack.)
Back in October, I spoke with Daley about his book, what he learned about the GOP’s “political heist,” and why he believes Democrats have zero chance of taking back the House until 2030.
Here’s what he told me.
You start the book by recounting the jubilance of Democrats following Obama’s election in 2008. Here was this rock star Democrat who captured Republican strongholds across the country. Republican pundits were panicked. Demographic shifts, long underway, favored the Democrats.
But almost everyone missed the bigger, more consequential story: the redrawing of the American political map. What the hell happened?
Those jubilant Democrats did not understand that the 2010 election would carry even deeper ramifications than the election of 2008. Now that doesn't seem possible when you look back at 2008. We elected the first African-American president. The Democrats took a supermajority in the Senate. They retained the House.
The more consequential election would follow in 2010, however, and a handful of savvy Republican strategists figured this out. They realized they could use the gerrymander in a completely new way. They used it to lock in political control at the state level and at the congressional level. And they did it really inexpensively, for roughly $30 million, which is the amount of money invested in REDMAP.
That’s shocking when you consider it's not that uncommon for $100 million to be spent on a Senate campaign.
Yes, the example I love is that in Connecticut, a very small state, Linda McMahon spends $100 million on two losing senate campaigns.
So for $30 million, the GOP essentially secured control of the House of Representatives for at least a decade, which is when the next census would be taken?
They also locked in all of these state legislative majorities, which I think are overlooked sometimes. For example, the conservative politics right now in North Carolina, in Michigan, in Wisconsin, in Ohio, these are also a result of these maps that were drawn after the 2010 redistricting.
This is the most audacious political heist of modern times, and because it's completely legal, it happened right under our noses. The Republicans actually announced what they were going to do. Indeed, Karl Rove put it in bright neon lights in the Wall Street Journal in March 2010. He said, when you draw the lines you make the rules — and that’s what they did.
In the book, you say that the groundwork was laid down in 2010 and 2011, and in 2012 the elections are held with the new lines drawn. How successful was the firewall in that initial election?
It was a two-part plan. In 2010, they had to take control of all of the chambers. In 2011, they sat down with some of the most skilled mapmakers in the country, and they drew lines with the express intent of using redistricting as a partisan hammer to lock in control of the House for the next decade.
2012 is the first election run on these new maps. Democratic congressional candidates got 1.4 million more votes nationwide, but Republicans kept control of the House 234-201. Very rarely in our history does the party with the most votes not come away with control of the chamber.
A big part of this story is the advanced analytics and mapping technologies being used, right?
The technology has gotten so good that partisan mapmakers these days have access to volumes of census data, voting records, reams of consumer preferences, and these amazingly powerful computer programs that can just instantly calculate the likely results of moving a district line a block in any direction.
These mapmakers can calculate algorithms designed to withstand waves. And it's the data, the technology, and the ease and certainty with which they can be manipulated that makes this redistricting cycle fundamentally different from any other in the modern era.
The conclusion you draw in the book is that the GOP has basically used this technology to erect a firewall against the popular will.
When our democratic institutions cease to be responsive to the ballot box, they cease to be democratic institutions. These district lines were drawn so as to suppress the general will of voters in these states. Look, we are 40 days out from a presidential election and there is zero chance that the Democrats can take back the House. That has everything to do with the way in which voters have been strategically packed into districts.
This is something we ought to be outraged about this year. It's one of the things we've got to be talking about every single day. But we're not talking about it. We simply accept that this is politics as usual and that both parties do it.
To be clear, both parties have a history of manipulating redistricting for their own advantage. How was what happened in 2010 unprecedented?
This is not politics as usual. What happened in 2010 was different. It amounts to a firewall in the chamber of our government that is supposed to be the most directly responsive to the citizens' will. It is now completely insulated from that will.
You look at a state like Pennsylvania. Every poll right now shows Hillary Clinton up strong in Pennsylvania. They show Sen. Pat Toomey in a lot of trouble. Only one of 18 congressional seats in Pennsylvania is considered competitive, and that's an open race with a retiring Congress member.
So take a state like North Carolina, where the polls now show Hillary Clinton with a lead. They show an incumbent Republican senator behind by a couple of points. They show a Republican governor down by 8 or 9 points. There is not one congressional seat considered close.
And that’s not an accident.
Who is Chris Jankowski, and why does he deserve a place on the GOP’s Mount Rushmore?
Jankowski is an incredibly smart and sophisticated strategist, and he’s the one that engineered and executed this plan for Republicans. Jankowski is reading the New York Times one morning in 2009, and he comes across a quote about how it's a redistricting year. And because he has worked with state leaders for most of his career, he immediately sees the plan — the plan that escaped strategists and gerrymanderers from 1790 to 2000.
He had relationships with state-level operatives in every state. He knew, for example, that the Pennsylvania legislature was 102 Democrats to 101 Republicans, and that they could take control of the process by flipping a couple of seats. So he works with people in Pennsylvania to identify which local districts ought to be targeted in order to flip control of these chambers. He’s the guy who decided where to spend the money. And he did the same thing in states like Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan, and North Carolina.
He ran sophisticated focus groups and polls, trying to understand what issues might work in these states — in these tiny districts — in order to be effective and knock out these local legislators. And I think that's the key thing about this: Republicans took control of state legislative chambers so they could then fix the districts nationally.
I think that's an important point because I suspect some readers may not understand why all these gains at the state level matter in terms of national politics.
People say Obama lost 700 seats in the House of Representatives over these years. Well, yes, but he only had one horrible election in 2010. After that, the lines were changed to ensure that those seats stayed in Republican hands, despite the fact that Democratic candidates in a lot of these states got more votes.
So it's a very misleading fact that keeps being repeated when people talk about Democratic weakness at the state level. A lot of this was locked in intentionally, as a result of that one election.
What is the “unholy alliance” you describe in the book between African-American leaders and Republicans? This seems to me a largely unknown part of the redistricting story.
This is the brainchild of some of the same people who were involved in the 2010 redistricting scheme. But it dates back to the late 1980s and the early 1990s, when Newt Gingrich was ascendant.
Ben Ginsberg, a very savvy Republican attorney, came up with a plan to work with African-American groups in the South, and to use the Voting Rights Act in such a way as to create more majority-minority seats for Democrats — for African-American Democrats. But as a result, to create all of the surrounding seats for the Republicans. This is what laid the groundwork for the Republican takeover of the House in 1994.
Ginsberg, I think, was surprised to find a receptive audience among many African Americans in the South for this plan. But he did, and they worked with African-American legislators in states like North Carolina on the process of redistricting.
In the end, they created some of the biggest congressional black caucuses that we’ve seen since Reconstruction. But that came at a price for the Democratic Party. You would suddenly have a state like North Carolina, or a state like Georgia, in which Republicans took all of the surrounding districts. This was a terrific way for African Americans to increase their representation in Congress, but it had the consequence of cementing all of these Republican districts by making them whiter and ideologically monolithic.
I think a question a lot of people on the left have is why didn’t the Democrats see this coming? As you said, Karl Rove announced the plan on the pages of the Wall Street Journal. So how did they miss this? How did they get blindsided?
I'll never understand it. One, I think they believed what happened in 2008 was permanent. Two, the Democrats had their house on fire a little bit at that point in time because they were dealing with the Tea Party craze. They simply weren’t prepared for the 2010 elections.
Redistricting had always been a game of honor among thieves. The Democrats didn’t believe the Republicans would shift the paradigm so completely. They just missed it, and Jankowski made them pay.
Look, it was a catastrophic strategic failure, and it essentially ended the Obama administration's ability to do anything on domestic policy in November of 2010. It's been a six-year lame-duck session. It's been a six-year lame-duck presidency on domestic policy, largely because of this one election and the way the Democratic Party failed to see the consequences.
Has “big data” destroyed our democracy?
I don't know the answer to that. I would say that big data makes it very, very easy for determined partisans to rewrite the rules. And that we have to understand the way that all of this technology has changed the game. The media still acts as if this is just the way districts are drawn.
We have to grapple seriously with this because these districts are the building blocks of our democracy. And when these lines get perverted in such a way that they insulate politicians from the voters, and from decisions at the ballot box, we’re in a very dangerous place.
So what happens in 2020? Any chance the Democrats can undo the damage?
I think the best the Democrats can hope for is to begin to win back seats at the table. What the Republicans did so well in 2010 was they had the only seats in the room. The Democrats are not going to be in a position to force maps of their own in that way.
But if they can have one seat at the table in some of these states, they will end up with a result that is at least a little less bad. And honestly, I think that's the best they can hope for.
It is a long process. I don't think they can do all of it in 2020. And they're going to have to come back in 2030 for another piece of it, which would mean that the true cost of the 2010 election is a generation of Republican control of the House.