Changing Coalitions: Will GOP Have to Toss Its Medicare Plan?

ANALYSIS: In historic shift, Republicans now represent the most senior-heavy districts, with voters who consistently oppose restructuring Medicare.

Demonstrators, including many senior citizens, protest against cuts to federal safety net programs, including Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid on November 7, 2011 in Chicago, Illinois.  (National Journal)

More gray. Less green.

Continuing the reversal of historic political alignments, House Republicans in the new Congress represent most districts with the highest share of seniors--as well as a narrow majority of seats where the median income lags below the national average, a Next America analysis has found.

This counterintuitive alignment underscores the extent to which each party's congressional map increasingly tracks its performance at the presidential level. And it challenges common assumptions on each side about the nature of its coalition.

While congressional Republicans have been the leading advocates of both free trade and retrenching entitlements for the elderly, they now represent large numbers of both older and moderate-income districts with many voters skeptical of both ideas. That tension remains a source of potential vulnerability for House Republicans--though Democrats have emphatically failed to exploit it so far.

Top 50 congressional districts with highest median income

Source: U.S. Census Bureau 2013 American Community Survey

Conversely, House Democrats have almost universally opposed efforts to constrain spending on Social Security and Medicare, even as the districts with the most seniors have stampeded toward the GOP since 2010. And the party has increasingly gravitated toward an economically populist message although it continues to depend on congressional districts with incomes that exceed the national median for a substantial minority of its seats.

The realignment of both moderate income and older districts derives from the same larger dynamic: the collapse of Democratic support among working-class whites. As we reported earlier in this series, since 2009, Democrats have been routed in districts that trail the national average in both the share of minorities and the percentage of whites with at least a four-year college degree, based on results of the Census Bureau's annual American Community Survey. In the new Congress, Republicans hold an overwhelming 150 of the 175 House seats in what we've called "lo-lo" districts that are low in both diversity and white education levels.

Those districts also tend to be disproportionately older and lower-income, and the Republican gains in them have transformed the age and income profiles of the two parties in the House.

In the new Congress, Republicans hold fully 143 of the 209 districts where the share of seniors in the national population is greater than the national average of 14.1 percent. That means the GOP holds almost exactly two-thirds of such gray-tinted districts. Of the 52 districts with the very largest share of seniors, Republicans control 39 in the new Congress. Few of those 39 seats are even competitive by either party's definition.

This big GOP edge represents a dramatic reversal from the 111th Congress in 2009 and 2010. At that point, Democrats held 127 of the 224 seats in which seniors exceeded their share of the national population, or 57 percent.

By contrast, the change has been more modest since then in districts with a smaller-than-average percentage of seniors. Back in the 111th Congress, Democrats held 129 of 211 such seats, or just over 61 percent. In the new Congress, Democrats will still control of 122 of the 226 seats with fewer-than-average seniors, or 54 percent.

The Republican gains in these graying districts partially reflects their success in using the redistricting process in 2010 to create more favorable seats. But it also reflects the party's dominance over the past three congressional elections among both blue-collar and older whites. According to the Edison Research exit poll, in 2014 House GOP candidates won just over three-fifths of whites older than 45 and 64 percent of whites without a four-year college degree. About four-fifths of seniors today are white, census figures show.

What makes the House GOP gains in older districts since 2010 especially striking is that they have come while the party has repeatedly passed the federal budget proposed by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) that would restructure Medicare. The Ryan plan would transform Medicare from its current defined-benefit structure into a premium support or voucher system in which the federal government would provide seniors a fixed sum to purchase private insurance. Republicans from districts with large numbers of elderly have consistently supported the budget virtually en masse: When the House last approved Ryan's budget in April 2014, the only GOP representatives among the 40 with the largest senior constituency who voted no were Florida freshman David Jolly and New York second-termer Chris Gibson, each of whom represents highly competitive districts.

Polls show that a clear majority of seniors oppose Ryan's plan to restructure Medicare, and Democrats have lashed Republicans over it since the House GOP first approved it in 2011. But strategists in both parties agree that Republicans have effectively blunted these thrusts. That's partly because the Ryan plan has never advanced past the House. But it's also because Republicans have parried the Democratic attacks by criticizing President Obama's health care reform plan, which funded its expansion of coverage for the working-age uninsured partly by slowing the growth in federal spending on Medicare. That policy also faces preponderant opposition from seniors.

While acknowledging that Republicans have successfully "muddied the waters" over their Medicare premium support plan, one top Democratic congressional strategist predicts that if Republicans now pass a restructuring bill through both the House and Senate, it will have more impact in 2016--even if, as is virtually certain, Obama would veto such a plan. "I think there's a world of difference between a bill that never makes it out of Congress, that was largely the purview of coverage in the National Journal and Roll Call, and voters hadn't tuned into it being a real policy prescription of the Republican Party, versus when something is offered by either of the two branches of the government," said the strategist. "That's when voters key in on it and have a lasting memory of what that plan would do."

A similar pattern emerges when looking at the median age of districts. Republicans now represent 154 of the 230 districts, or two-thirds, whose median age exceeds the national average of 37.5 years; Democrats still hold 112 of the 205 seats, or 55 percent, where the median age is younger than the national average. The average median age in Democratic districts (36.6) is more than two years younger than in Republican districts (38.9).

Although Democratic districts are younger overall, the party--somewhat surprisingly--doesn't represent more children than the GOP. Republicans now hold 126 of the 205 districts with a larger-than-average share of residents under 18; Democrats are more competitive (109 of 230) in seats where the share of children trails the national average.

As noted above, the Republicans' strength in older districts is rooted in their overall advantage in working-class white America: fully three-fourths of all Republicans representing districts with an above-average share of seniors come from the "lo-lo" districts, with fewer-than-average minorities and college-educated whites.

That same "quadrant" of Congress has also keyed the GOP inroads in moderate-income districts. In the 111th Congress, Democrats held 149 of the 238 districts (or just over three-fifths) in which the median income trailed the national average. Today, Republicans hold 121 of the 230 districts (or 53 percent) whose median income trails the national average. Of the 121 Republicans representing those relatively lower-income districts almost exactly three-fourths also come from the seats low in diversity and white college graduates.

Republicans hold an even larger advantage today in the districts whose median income exceeds the national average: the GOP controls 126 of those 205 seats. Members representing these richer-than-average districts make up 51 percent of the Republican caucus in the new Congress, and a still-substantial 42 percent of Democrats.

In another reflection of income distribution, Republicans also control 154 of the 242 seats in which the share of residents in poverty is lower than the national average. Democrats hold 100 of the 193 seats in which the poverty rate exceeds the national average.

The continued Democratic hold on high-poverty districts underscores the complex upstairs-downstairs nature of the party's modern coalition--which relies primarily on socially liberal, college-educated, and often affluent whites as well as minorities, many of them lower- to moderate-income. In a revealing convergence, Democrats hold 30 of the 50 House districts with the absolute highest median income--and 31 of the 50 with the lowest. But Republicans--reflecting their commanding position among whites across the heart of the income distribution--hold a crushing 208 of the 335 districts in between.

Janie Boschma contributed to this article