House Republicans and Democrats Represent Divergent Americas

An Atlantic analysis finds that congressional districts’ racial makeup, and their residents’ level of education, largely determines which party represents them in the House.

House members are sworn in on January 3, the first day of the new Congress. (Jonathan Ernst / Reuters)

Across lines of race, education, age, and geography, Democrats and Republicans in the House of Representatives increasingly represent two distinct nations, with strikingly little crossover.

An Atlantic analysis of the latest census data shows that the House districts represented by the two parties overwhelmingly track the same demographic and economic fissures that guided the fierce presidential race between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. This widening chasm between the two sides will shape both the legislative debate over the coming two years and the next competition for control of the House in the 2018 midterm elections.

Mirror Images

In many ways, through their House delegations, the two parties now represent mirror-image Americas. Among the key distinctions:

Over four-fifths of House Republicans represent districts where the white share of the population exceeds the national average; over two-thirds of House Democrats represent districts where the non-white share of the population exceeds the national average.

Nearly three-fourths of House Republicans represent districts where the share of white adults with a college degree lags below the national average; nearly two-thirds of House Democrats represent districts where the share of whites with a college degree exceeds the national average.

Almost three-fifths of House Republicans represent districts where the median age is older than the national average; almost exactly the same proportion of Democrats represent districts where the median age is lower than the national average.

Likewise, almost exactly three-fifths of Republicans represent districts with more seniors than the national average, while fully two-thirds of Democrats hold districts with a smaller-than-average share of seniors.

The contrast extends to less obvious comparisons, too. Almost 54 percent of House Republicans represent districts with a higher-than-average share of adults (defined as age 16 and older) employed in manufacturing; almost two-thirds of Democrats represent districts with smaller-than-average manufacturing employment. And in a measure of urban density, nearly two-fifths of House Democrats represent districts where more people than average use public transportation to get to work; fully 97 percent of House Republicans hold districts where fewer people than average use public transportation to commute.

It’s perhaps even more revealing to examine how many seats each party controls among the total number of districts above and below the national average on these key measures. Seen from that angle, Republicans now control three-fourths of all the House districts where whites exceed their share of the national population, while Democrats hold three-fourths of the districts where minorities exceed their national population share. Republicans hold just over 70 percent of the districts where there are fewer white college graduates than average, while Democrats hold almost 66 percent of the districts with a greater-than-average proportion of white college graduates.

The structural problem for Democrats is that, because of both partisan gerrymandering and the way the population is distributed, there are significantly more districts in the categories the Republicans dominate than in the ones that favor Democrats. Most important, whites exceed their share of the national population in 259 seats, and Republicans hold fully 196 of those—which puts them on the brink of a congressional majority even before they begin to compete for the more diverse seats. And there are 244 districts where the white share of college graduates lags the national average, and Republicans hold 176 of those. (Most of them overlap with the districts where the number of minorities is also fewer than average.)

“It is very hard to argue that there isn’t a structural Republican advantage in the House, that the sorting of voters along lines of urban versus rural, educated versus non-educated hasn’t netted out favorably for Republicans, given the concentration of Democratic voters in a relative handful of districts,” said Patrick Ruffini, a GOP consultant who specializes in demographic trends.

Overall, Republicans hold 241 House seats and Democrats 194 in the new Congress, meaning Democrats must recapture 24 seats to regain the majority.

Like the stark divisions in the presidential race, these patterns underscore the shifting class and racial basis of each party’s electoral base. From the presidency through lower-ballot races, Republicans rely on a preponderantly white coalition that is strongest among whites without a college degree and those living outside of major metropolitan areas. Democrats depend on a heavily urbanized (and often post-industrial) upstairs-downstairs coalition of minorities, many of them clustered in lower-income inner-city districts. They also rely on more affluent college-educated whites both in cities and inner suburbs.

Tellingly, the analysis found, Democrats hold 30 of the 50 House districts with the highest median income—and 32 of the 50 with the lowest median income. But Republicans crush them by 203 to 132 in the districts in between those two poles.

In many respects, Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton merely raised to the presidential level the currents of race, education, income, and density that have shaped the House competition in recent years. Trump’s victory largely ran through the same smaller places that congressional Republicans earlier captured in the march to their House majority—while Clinton performed best in the major metropolitan areas that likely represent the Democrats’ best chance of overturning that majority in 2018 or beyond.

“What we saw in 2012 and 2014 with the demographic realities in congressional districts around the country is now manifesting itself through the Electoral College as well,” said Jesse Ferguson, a top communications strategist for Clinton’s campaign, who previously held the same role for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “Democrats still have a popular-vote advantage in this country, but when you allocate political strength by any measure of geography—and not demography—it is not advantageous to Democrats. That started … in the House, and via the Electoral College it was true in 2016 [in the presidential race].”

The Four Quadrants

To understand the impact of demography on the House, The Atlantic examined congressional district-level data from the Census Bureau’s 2015 American Community Survey. (The ACS data for 2015 does not take into account the recent court-ordered redistricting in North Carolina, Florida, and Virginia, so there may be some variation from the numbers reported here in the revised districts in those states.)

The contrast between the two parties’ demographic bases becomes most apparent by segmenting House districts based on two factors: whether the share of their non-white population exceeds or trails the national average of 38.5 percent, and whether the share of their white population with at least a four-year college degree exceeds or trails the national average of 34.2 percent. The numbers reflect the results for each district’s entire population. The analysis focused on the education level among whites, and not the entire population, because education is a more significant dividing line in the political behavior of whites than of minorities.

As we’ve written before, sorting congressional districts by the two variables of race and education produces 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 white 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”).

Hi-Hi Districts

The center of the modern Democratic House caucus is the hi-hi districts that exceed the national average in both share of racial minorities and share of white college graduates: Democrats hold fully 87 of the 108 districts that fit that description. That list divides between minority Democrats in districts with large non-white populations—such as Georgia’s John Lewis, Texas’s Joaquin Castro, and Illinois’s Bobby Rush—and primarily white members representing diverse but more affluent districts, such as Nancy Pelosi and Anna Eshoo of California, Diana DeGette of Colorado, and Jim Himes of Connecticut.

Hi-Lo Districts

Democrats also hold a less lopsided 44-to-24-seat advantage in districts that are high in racial diversity but are below the national average in white college graduates. That roster tilts heavily toward minority Democrats, such as Linda Sanchez and Lucille Roybal-Allard in California, José Serrano in New York, and Raúl Grijalva in Arizona. But it also includes some white representatives from diverse but middle- and working-class areas, like Dina Titus in Nevada.

Lo-Hi Districts

In turn, Republicans hold a decisive lead in districts where whites exceed their presence in the national population. The GOP leads by a narrow 44 to 39 margin in the lo-hi districts, where there are relatively fewer minorities but more white college graduates than the national average. This is the most closely contested quadrant. On the Republican side, it includes members representing affluent suburbs, such as Patrick Meehan in Pennsylvania, Kevin Yoder in Kansas, and Barbara Comstock in Virginia. The mostly white Democrats in this lo-hi group tend to represent urban centers or inner suburbs, too, such as John Yarmuth of Kentucky, Earl Blumenauer of Oregon, and Jared Polis of Colorado.

Lo-Lo Districts

The foundation of the GOP majority is the lo-lo districts, where the shares of minorities and whites with a college degree both trail the national average. In those districts with large populations of blue-collar whites, Republicans now hold a lead that is so lopsided as to be almost incomprehensible: They control 152 of these seats, compared with just 24 for Democrats. This quadrant houses almost all of the Republicans representing rural places—such as Kentucky’s Hal Rogers, Missouri’s Jason Smith, and Iowa’s Steve King—as well as the GOP’s growing contingent of members representing smaller metro areas, such as Bill Shuster of Pennsylvania and Jim Jordan of Ohio. It’s also the last redoubt for the few Democrats remaining in heavily rural districts, such as Minnesota’s Collin Peterson, or those representing largely blue-collar smaller cities, such as Ohio’s Marcy Kaptur and Tim Ryan or Pennsylvania’s Martin Cartwright.

Just as large margins in those rural and small-town communities powered Trump’s victory, so, too, have the gains there keyed the Republican House takeover. Compared with the 111th Congress from early 2009 to early 2011—when Democrats last controlled the majority—the Democratic Party has actually widened its advantage in the districts high in both diversity and college-educated whites (from 50 seats then to 66 now). Since then, Democrats have lost ground modestly in the high-diversity districts with fewer-than-average white college graduates (from a 28-seat advantage to a 20-seat edge now). The party has also skidded somewhat more sharply in the districts with low diversity and large numbers of college-educated whites (from an advantage of 19 seats then to a deficit of five now).

The big change, though, has come in the heavily blue-collar, lo-lo districts. Back in 2009, when the Democratic caucus still featured a large number of rural, culturally conservative “blue dogs”—like John Tanner of Tennessee, Ike Skelton of Missouri, and John Spratt of South Carolina—Republicans held a modest 20-seat advantage in these districts. After the 2010 election, the GOP exploded their lead in the low-diversity, low-education districts to 90 seats. The gap widened again to 125 seats in 2014, and edged up to 128 after 2016. The Republican success in hunting the blue dogs nearly to extinction presaged the big margins Trump marshaled from small places, particularly in interior states, to overcome Clinton’s advantages in the largest urban centers.

“If you look at where the Clinton drop-off was, it’s consistent with where House Democrats have been having more issues as we go through that Midwestern belt, on through Missouri and Iowa, and back through Western Pennsylvania,” said Tom Bonier, chief executive officer of TargetSmart, a Democratic voter-targeting firm.

As these lines of class, race, and density harden, the parties’ House electoral strategies increasingly focus on the stragglers left, in effect, behind enemy lines. The few Democrats remaining in low-diversity, lower-education districts often top the Republican target lists, while Democrats already planning for 2018 are intently focused on Republicans holding white-collar, largely suburban districts.

The historically sharp divisions surrounding Trump—who drew near-record support from blue-collar whites, but faced intense opposition from minorities and unusually widespread resistance from white-collar whites—appear certain to push each party further in targeting those opportunities. “By no means,” Ruffini said, in a view echoed across party lines, “are we finished with this process.” And that means the powerful electoral sorting that has left the two sides representing such divergent Americas in the House may only accelerate as the tumultuous Trump presidency takes shape.