So how did Republicans expand their House majority despite more Americans voting for the other party? How does Congress enjoy a 90 percent incumbency rate despite a 10 percent approval rating? Gerrymandering. Extreme gerrymandering.
Gerrymandering is a primary cause of the crazy bi-polar politics we are seeing. After Republicans swept into power in state legislatures in 2010, the GOP gerrymandered key states, redrawing House district boundaries to favor Republicans.
In Pennsylvania, Democrats received half of the votes in House contests, yet Republicans hold about three-quarters of the congressional seats. In North Carolina more than half of the vote went for Democrats, yet Republicans fill about 70 percent of the seats. Democrats drew a majority of votes in Michigan, yet hold only 5 out of the state's 14 congressional seats.
The idea behind gerrymandering is to create safe House seats for the party doing the redistricting. It has been done for years by both parties. But lately the conservatives have successfully drawn geographically nonsensical district maps around pockets of political extremists, thereby creating electorally unassailable, extremely (and unrealistically) conservative districts. Political scientist Larry Sabato published an analysis finding that 375 of 435 seats — 86 percent — are safe. So even if incumbents' aggressive, extremist bargaining positions poll terribly nationally, back home in their districts they are heroes. "The electoral threat of them angering anybody outside of their base is pretty low," Gary C. Jacobson, a political science professor at the University of California, San Diego, tells the National Journal, meaning "incentives for most House Republicans would encourage more — not less — confrontation as the standoffs proceed."
Indeed, these incumbents can do anything they want without fear of electoral reprisal. The vast majority of GOP lawmakers are safely ensconced in districts that would never think of electing a Democrat. Their bigger worry is that someone even more conservative than they are -- bankrolled by uncompromising conservative groups -- might challenge them in a primary. In fact, this is already happening: a few House Republicans are facing serious threats from within their own party. In each of these upcoming races, Republican incumbents will have to answer criticism that they’re insufficiently conservative and haven’t done enough to combat the Obama agenda. In short, most of the Republicans behind the shutdown have no reason to fear that voters will ever punish them for it, and in fact would be punished for not digging in.
Compared to the last U.S. government shut downs in 1995-96, Republicans in the House represent much safer, more homogenous districts, where the only challengers are other conservative Republicans. Comparing today's 232-seat Republican majority with the 236 seats Republicans held in 1995-96 underscores the extent to which GOP legislators have succeeded in fortifying themselves into homogeneously conservative districts.
On every measure, Republicans today represent constituencies that lean more lopsidedly toward their party. According to David Wasserman, who analyzes House races for the Cook Political Report, 79 of the 236 House Republicans serving during the last shutdown resided in districts that Clinton won in 1992. Today, just 17 of the 232 House Republicans are in districts that Obama won in 2012. According to the Cook Political Report's Partisan Voting Index, in 1995 the average district held by House Republicans had a GOP advantage of roughly 6.6 points. Today the average district held by House Republicans has a GOP advantage of roughly 11.1 points. These changes are the results of extreme gerrymandering, not changing political views.
Look at the leaders of the defund-Obamacare effort in the House: Georgia Rep. Tom Graves, a Tea Party Caucus member, represents a district where Obama won just a quarter of the vote. Fewer than two in five voters in Kentucky Rep. Thomas Massie’s district backed the president for reelection. And Idaho Rep. Raul Labrador, a poster child of the conservative Club for Growth, is in a district where Obama got just 32 percent.
We saw the conservative political echo-chamber in full effect in 2010 when Karl Rove and Romney and others were completely blind-sided by the Democrat's sweep. And now their echo-chamber has been amplified for a large number of incumbents who are representing artificial, geographically nonsensical districts that don't reflect the actual demographics of their states, nor even accurately reflect the demographics of the geographic regions they supposedly represent.
Added to the echo-chamber amplification, is the reality that even if a widespread public backlash does develop against a shutdown or potential government default, many Republican incumbents are well insulated against electoral consequences and are less sensitive to shifts in public attitudes that could threaten their party's national image or standing in more closely contested parts of the country. These guys are beholden only to their base of extremists and can do extreme and unreasonable things with impunity.
And the frustrating and sad thing is, there is no clear way out of this mess since the forces at play seem only to want to make things worse.