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Opinion

City liberals lose out to rural Republicans for control of House

Folks in the hinterlands who complain that they want their country back should stop whining. They have a lock on the House of Representatives and a good shot at owning the Senate, too. Meanwhile, the majority of Americans, who live in cities and close-in suburbs, are stuck with having their government tilted in favor of the rural minority.

That may be hard for aging conservatives out in the cornfields and cow pastures to believe, but the numbers show it is true. Demographically, the United States is changing rapidly – the number of nonwhite voters is steadily increasing, and younger citizens of all races do not share their elders’ fears of gay marriage, secularism and dark-skinned newcomers – yet the Republican advantage in the House has actually gotten bigger.

How can this be? Well, an analysis in the New York Times by Washington correspondent Nate Cohn gives a good explanation. “Democrats often blame gerrymandering, but that’s not the whole story,” Cohn writes. “More than ever, the kind of place where Americans live — metropolitan or rural — dictates their political views. The country is increasingly divided between liberal cities and close-in suburbs, on one hand, and conservative exurbs and rural areas, on the other. Even in red states, the counties containing the large cities — like Dallas, Atlanta, St. Louis and Birmingham — lean Democratic.”

And most of those cities do more than lean: They are overwhelmingly supportive of Democrats. What that means is that a Democratic presidential candidate can roll up big numbers in the cities where the young, liberal and nonwhite voters tend to live and win the electoral votes of swing states such as Pennsylvania and Florida. But in the non-urban areas of those states, Democrats are in shorter supply and have a tougher time winning congressional seats.

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Here’s how that works. Imagine a state with three congressional districts and assume that two-thirds of the state’s voters are Democrats. You’d guess that two of the three members of Congress would be Democrats. But you just might be wrong.

If most of those Democrats live in a large city located in one of those districts, that means the rest of the Democrats are divided up in the other two districts where Republicans will probably outnumber them. The result is two GOP congressmen and one Democratic representative, even though Democrats are the big majority in our hypothetical state. 

A real-life example of this phenomenon is Pennsylvania, where President Obama carried the state in 2012 by running up huge vote totals in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Obama beat Mitt Romney by 5 percentage points in the state, which would indicate that a majority of Pennsylvania voters favor the Democratic Party. And yet, of the state’s 18 House members, 13 are Republicans.

This phenomenon is repeated through much of the country. Add to that a slight bias toward giving small states more representation than their populations merit, plus Republican success at drawing district lines that favor the GOP, and the Democratic Party is left with a daunting problem. If they cannot recapture the kind of support they once had in farm communities and small, working-class towns, Democrats will find it nearly impossible to win back a majority in the House for years to come.

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The Senate, by design, is already tilted in favor of less-populous states that, these days, tend to be more conservative. With several Democratic senators on the edge of losing their seats in the autumn election, Republicans could ride into 2015 with full control of both chambers and a lame-duck Democrat in the White House.

That scenario may not be the will of the majority of Americans, but that is what we have come to in our curiously divided republic.


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