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The Two-Mandate Myth: An Ohio View

Posted by Peter M. Shane on November 8, 2012

Within moments of President Obama’s apparent victory in both popular and electoral votes, Speaker Boehner was claiming that Republicans enjoy their own mandate from the 2012 elections – Republicans kept control of the House. I’m searching in vain for a polite word for this argument.

With unemployment still near 8 per cent and a majority of voters thinking the country is on the wrong track, the Democrats nonetheless not only retained the White House, but increased their majority in the Senate and racked up a string of victories, coast-to-coast, for unmistakably progressive causes and candidates. They won these victories because, in a head to head contest with opposing views, the Democratic or, more generally, the progressive, view proved more appealing.

The reason why the Republicans still have the House is simple: gerrymandering. According to NYU’s Brennan Center for Justice, Republicans used their complete control of 17 state governments after the 2010 elections to pack Democrats into fewer “safe” Democratic districts and create 11 additional “likely” seats for Republicans – that is, seats where the GOP could be expected to routinely receive 55-60% of the vote in a two-party contest.

Not surprisingly, the Rothenberg Report, using its own definitions and polling data, found the GOP with 205 safe seats on the eve of the election; they needed to prevail in only 13 competitive races to maintain control of the House.

Consider the case of Ohio. President Obama won by two points. Sherrod Brown beat  Josh Mandel by a little over 5. With 16 congressional seats up for grabs, it would stand to reason, would it not, that the districts would split perhaps evenly?

Instead, Ohio’s House delegation will go 75% to the Republicans, with only four seats going to Democrats. All four Democrats won in packed Democratic districts. Indeed, the 11th District was so uncompetitive for Republicans, and the 8th District – John Boehner’s – so hopeless for Democrats, that those two representatives ran unopposed. Only 3 of the 16 elected representatives won by under 55 per cent of the vote. Counting the two unopposed incumbents, 8 won by over 60 per cent. Mapmaking is a beautiful thing.

Another way to look at this is to compare the total votes cast for each party’s congressional candidates. Of the 4,849,628 Ohioans who voted for a Democratic or Republican candidate for Congress in 2012, 2,545,368, or 52.5 percent, voted for a Republican and 2,304,260, or 47.5 percent voted for a Democrat. Apply these percentages to a 16-seat delegation and you get an 8-8 split if the delegation is apportioned according to the popular vote.

In gerrymandering the state, Ohio’s Republican legislature and governor not only gave the party an unearned gift of four congressional seats, but probably made it harder to recruit the strongest Democratic candidates for all contested elections. Running as a candidate in a district where voting registration favors the other party by a 20-point margin means you will not only lose, but you are unlikely to get the kind of funding or volunteer support necessary to stave off total embarrassment.

So let’s not be confused. November 6, 2012 provided a conspicuous electoral mandate for a progressive agenda in the United States. The Republicans could stack the deck for House elections (although they still lost seats, mind you). But when the dealer working a stacked deck gets a full house — or, in this case, a full House — it’s not a mandate for the dealer. It’s just the fruit of (in this case, lawful) cheating.

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