One often used measure of a district’s vulnerability to takeover is its presidential vote, but the 2008 cycle has made matters confusing. What should we do with districts whose 2008 movement far exceeds the national movement?
For instance: Should national parties trying to decide how much attention to devote to IN-9 look to 2004 (an 18% Bush victory) or 2008 (a 1% Obama district) as most reflective of the district’s partisan leanings? That question can be translated in another way: Should we hold Obama’s over-average gain in that particular district as a fleeting consequence of ephemeral circumstances (for instance an unbalance in campaign spending) or as the reflection of a more fundamental demographic and partisan transformation?
This morning, Swing State Project published a fascinating analysis of congressional districts’ racial composition changes between 2000 and 2008 that helps answer that question. The post has lot of important demographic tidbits. First, clear evidence of the gentrification of urban districts, especially in New York: four of the ten districts with the biggest white gain (in terms of percentage) are in NYC. Second, confirmation that African-Americans are increasingly moving into the suburbs, especially in Georgia: the two districts that have seen the largest African-American growth are in the Atlanta suburbs.
There are a lot of ways in which to read this data, but the point of my post is to point out the electoral consequences: Some of these districts with big demographic changes are also on the list of those that swung to Obama by big margins. That means that their political movement is a long-term transformation - one that is likely to continue in the foreseeable future, very seriously endangering Republicans and solidifying Democrats who occupy these seats.
All of these questions are particularly important for the DCCC to ponder in California, where 9 districts (8 of them represented by a Republican) swung from Bush to Obama - all in large movements ranging from 15% to 20%. And 3 of these 9 are on the list of 25 districts in which the share of the white population decreased the most!
- One is represented by a Democrat: Jerry McNerny’s CA-11. It was 64% white in 2000, when it voted for Bush by 8%; it is now 51% white, and voted for Obama by 10%.
- Two are represented by Republicans: McKeon’s CA-25 and Lungren’s CA-03. The former was 57% white in 2000, when it voted for Bush by 14%; it’s now 44% white, and it voted for Obama by 1%. The latter was 74% white in 2000, when it voted for Bush by 14%; it’s now 63% white, and it narrowly went for Obama.
When deciding which California seats are worth targeting, the DCCC should look very closely at CA-25 and CA-03, as they can now point to a concrete demographic reason that these districts so dramatically swung to Obama in 2008. By contrast, the NRCC might reconsider the high priority it’s put on CA-11: The district’s quite dramatic demographic evolution over the past 8 years makes the GOP pointing to Bush’s victories inadequate. McNerny looks less vulnerable.
Similar conclusions can be drawn in other districts, starting with Dem-held districts where incumbents can breath easier:
- NV-03 (Titus): 69% white to 59% white; 1% Gore to 12% Obama
- VA-11 (Connolly): 69% white to 57% white; 7% Bush to 15% Obama
- CA-10 (vacant): 65% white to 55% white; 12% Gore to 32% Obama
Note that VA-11 is a very interesting case, as no one would point to the 2000 or 2004 results to argue that Connolly should be considered vulnerable. Northern Virginia’s blue drift has been accepted by most as a long-term phenomenon, and Obama’s 15% victory is recognized as a better indicator of Connolly’s (lack of) vulnerability. Also: I am only including CA-10 because a special election is coming up, and this gives us a useful indicator as to whether the GOP has a chance of defeating Lieutenant Governor Garamendi.
Then, we have GOP-held seats about which Republicans have reason to start worrying:
- FL-12 (Putnam): 72% white to 63% white; 10% Bush to 1% McCain
- TX-24 (Marchand): 64% white to 52% white; 36% Bush to 11% McCain
- TX-10 (McCaul): 66% white to 55% white; 33% Bush to 11% McCain
- FL-15 (Posey): 78% white to 69% white; 8% Bush to 3% McCain
- NJ-07 (Lance): 79% to 70% white; 1% Bush to 3% Obama
Pay particular attention to FL-12, which will host an open seat race in 2010 since Putnam is running for statewide office. Based on the district’s giving Bush two large victories - not only 10% in 2000, but 16% in 2004 - the district is described as hostile to Democrats despite the 2008 election’s near tie. However, the fact that the partisan evolution coincidences with quite a stark demographic change suggests that we should pay more attention to last year’s results when deciding whether Democrats have a chance at picking-up the seat.
TX-24 and TX-10 still remain too conservative to be top-tier opportunities for the DCCC, though Democrats are mounting a spirited challenge to McCaul. Yet, it is clear that the demographic evolution is so rapidly threatening GOP dominance over these regions that it is probably only a matter of time before Democrats grow truly competitive.
That gets us to one final observation: The demographic problem the GOP faces in these districts is only the preview of a broader challenge they’ll face nationally as the share of the white population decreases in the United States as a whole. This will be a problem for Republicans at the presidential level and at the House level; it’s not like other districts will get whiter in a way to benefit Republicans because the GOP is losing its grip on the district I listed above. Republicans have to urgently find a way to update their electoral coalition; that they’ve alienated Hispanic voters in recent years certainly won’t help.