White-Out: Where Democrats Lost the House

In 2009, 76 Democrats represented primarily white working-class congressional districts. Just 15 of them are still in the House today.

National Journal

Republicans have surged to their largest majority in the House of Representatives since before the Great Depression by blunting the Democratic advantage in districts being reshaped by growing racial diversity and consolidating a decisive hold over the seats that are not.

Compared with 2009 and 2010, when Democrats last controlled the House, the Republican majority that takes office this week has essentially held its ground in districts where minorities exceed their share of the national population, a Next America analysis has found. Aided by their control of redistricting after the 2010 census, Republicans over the past three elections have simultaneously established an overwhelming 3-1 advantage in districts where whites exceed their national presence, the analysis shows. Those white-leaning districts split between the parties almost equally during the 111th Congress, in 2009-10.

A majority of the GOP gains since then have come from the Democrats' near-total collapse in one set of districts: the largely blue-collar places in which the white share of the population exceeds the national average, and the portion of whites with at least a four-year college degree is less that the national average. While Republicans held a 20-seat lead in the districts that fit that description in the 111th Congress, the party has swelled that advantage to a crushing 125 seats today. That 105-seat expansion of the GOP margin in these districts by itself accounts for about three-quarters of the 136-seat swing from the Democrats' 77-seat majority in 2009 to the 59-seat majority Republicans enjoy in the Congress convening now.

The GOP dominance in these predominantly white working-class districts underscores the structural challenge facing Democrats: While the party has repeatedly captured the White House despite big deficits among the working-class white voters who once anchored its electoral coalition, these results show how difficult it will be to recapture the House without improving on that performance. "The question is: Are we at rock bottom here?" says Tom Bonier, CEO of the Democratic voter targeting firm TargetSmart Communications.

These trends present Republicans with a mirror-image challenge. The vast majority of their House members can thrive without devising an agenda on issues—such as immigration reform—that attract the minority voters whose growing numbers nationally have helped Democrats win the popular vote in five of the past six presidential elections. "When you can go out screaming 'amnesty' and not get any pushback in your districts, you are more prone to scream 'amnesty,' " says veteran GOP pollster Whit Ayres. "It leads to an attitude of: 'problem, what problem?' "

To understand the role of demography in the House's shifting balance of power, Next America has analyzed data from the Census Bureau's American Community Survey dating back to the 111th Congress, the last time the Democrats held a majority. To produce a demographic portrait of the districts represented by Republicans and Democrats, the analysis examined the ACS results for the first year of each Congress from 2009 to 2013; for 2015, it uses the 2013 ACS, the most recent available.

For each Congress, the analysis segmented House districts based on whether the share of their nonwhite population exceeded or trailed the national average, and whether the share of their white population with at least a four-year college degree exceeded or trailed the national average. That exercise produced what we call the four quadrants of Congress: districts with high levels of racial diversity, and high levels of white education (what we call "hi-hi" districts); districts with high levels of racial diversity and low levels of education (hi-lo districts); districts with low levels of diversity and high levels of white education (lo-hi districts); and districts with low levels of diversity and low levels of white education (lo-lo districts). (For a more detailed description of these quadrants, and typical members in each one, look here.)

The number of districts in each quadrant has shifted from Congress to Congress, partly because the national averages of diversity and white education levels have changed, and also because the 2010 redistricting substantially redistributed voters in many states. And because this study used a different methodology than when National Journal first examined these dynamics in 2009, the districts in each quadrant differ slightly from that earlier assessment as well.

Overall, since 2009, the balance of power in Congress has radically tilted from the 77-seat Democratic advantage of 256-179 in the 111th Congress, to the 59-seat GOP edge of 247-188 in the Congress convening now.

The story over that period is nuanced in districts where minorities exceed their national share of the population. (The analysis looks at the total population in each district; the minority share of the total vote is almost always lower.)

In 2009, Democrats held a 50-seat advantage (73-23) in the "hi-hi" seats that combine larger than average numbers of both minorities and white college graduates—two groups central to their modern coalition. After the 2010 redistricting, the number of seats in that quadrant increased, and Democrats maximized their edge there with a 64-seat (83-19) advantage in the 113th Congress (2013-14). In November, Democrats lost three seats in this quadrant, but they still hold a solid 58-seat lead (80-22) there.

Since 2009, Democrats have slightly lost ground in the "hi-lo" seats that combine a higher than average number of minorities with fewer than average white college graduates. In these districts, Democrats have slipped modestly from a 28-seat (52-24) advantage in 2009, to an 18-seat (44-26) lead in the new Congress. (Democrats lost one seat in this quadrant last November.)

Overall, these results mean the two parties have held their ground in the high-diversity seats. In 2009, Democrats held a 78-seat edge (125-47) in those districts and controlled 73 percent of them; in 2015, they hold a 76-seat edge (124-48) and control 72 percent of them.

It's reasonable to argue that Republicans have scored a tactical victory by preventing House Democrats from deriving more benefit from growing diversity. The quadrants are a relative measure tied to the national averages in diversity and education, and the absolute numbers are steadily growing on both fronts: From 2009 through 2013, the cut-off point between the high- and low-diversity districts rose from a minority population of 35.1 percent to 37.6 percent. That population increase should have strengthened Democrats not only in the high-diversity seats but also in places just below the national average in minority population that we classify as low-diversity.

Yet, as we'll examine in the series' next installment, Republicans have remained surprisingly competitive in the districts that are clustered just above and below the national average in their minority population level. The failure to generate more gains from growing diversity represents a critical opportunity cost for House Democrats. "Just because we have demographic change is no assurance that Democrats will win everything," says Ayres.

Still, the GOP's march to a House majority has come almost entirely through districts where whites exceed their national numbers.

In 2009, the last Democratic majority held a 19-seat advantage (55-36) in the largely suburban "lo-hi" districts with fewer than average minorities and more than the national share of white college graduates. Redistricting and the wave of 2010 allowed Republicans to invert that to a GOP edge of 19 seats in 2011 (54-35). Democrats did well here in 2012, regaining six seats, but gave back two in November, and Republicans now lead in this quadrant by 10 seats (49-39).

The epicenter of the earthquake that has transformed the House, though, has been the working-class "lo-lo" districts with fewer minorities or college-educated whites. These districts (as we'll explore more later in the series) also tend to be older and less affluent than the nation overall.

In 2009, Republicans held 96 of these districts and Democrats 76, for a 20-seat GOP edge. As University of California (San Diego) political scientist Gary C. Jacobson points out, given the Democrats' difficulties with working-class white voters at the presidential level dating back to 1968, even that showing probably represented an unsustainable high point for Democrats. It was driven, he notes, by the party's gains in working-class districts during the 2006 and 2008 elections held while then-President George W. Bush's popularity fell to its nadir.

The Democratic collapse in these districts since then has been monumental. The big change came in the 2010 election, when redistricting and the white working-class recoil against President Obama's first two years hit Democrats from these places with gale force: After that election, Republicans opened a 90-seat edge (128-38) in these districts. Strikingly, Democrats lost further ground in these districts even during Obama's solid reelection victory in 2012 and again last November, when they surrendered seven more seats in this quadrant. The result has left Republicans holding 150 of "lo-lo" seats and Democrats just 25. From 2009, when Democrats held 44 percent of the seats in this grouping, the party's share has plummeted to just 14 percent. That's a far greater percentage decline than their erosion since then in each of the other three quadrants.

In a measure of the party's collapse on this terrain, of the 76 House Democrats who represented these working-class "lo-lo" districts in 2009, just 15 remain in the chamber today.

In all, Republicans now hold an astounding 135-seat advantage (199-64) and fully 76 percent of the House seats in which whites exceed their share of the national population. In 2009, when Democrats last controlled the House majority, the two parties split such seats almost exactly in half, with Republicans holding 132 and Democrats 131.

Eventually, the continued growth and dispersal of the minority population could change the equation for House dominance. But to win back the House in any near-term future, these numbers suggest there is no alternative for Democrats than to improve their performance among the white voters who have provided Republican congressional candidates with almost exactly three-fifths of their votes in each of the past three elections.

"Relying on demographics takes a lot of patience," says Jacobson. "Eventually, people will move around and the districts will become more diverse in states that used to be overwhelmingly white. But that's a very slow process "... and careful gerrymandering can allow you to hold on for quite a while."

Next: Demography Is Not Destiny for Democrats

Janie Boschma contributed to this article