The results of such gerrymanders appear undeniable. In Pennsylvania, Michigan, and North Carolina, Democrats won 54, 53, and 51 percent of the overall votes for state houses of representatives, respectively, but only picked up 45, 47, and 45 percent of the seats. In Wisconsin, the situation is perhaps even more extreme. Evers won by 1 percent of the popular vote, but only won in 36 of the state’s 99 legislative assembly districts. Assuming that a preference for Evers roughly correlates with a Democratic voter, it means that the shape of the assembly districts confers at least a 20-seat majority to Republicans in the legislature alone. Republicans won a 27-seat majority this fall.
Gerrymandering is not the only thing at work here. Those who downplay the importance of gerrymandering point to the “big sort” hypothesis promoted by the journalist Bill Bishop in his eponymous 2008 book. As that theory goes, increased spatial “self-sorting” over time between liberal and conservative voters has created widening geographic boundaries between Republicans and Democrats, boundaries that necessitate gerrymanders and lock most of the Democratic voting strength in a few districts in every state.
But it’s possible that much of what is believed to be self-sorting could be a mirage, and could be shaped by discrimination and housing segregation. As Richard Rothstein, the author of The Color of Law, told Slate in 2017: “Racial polarization partly contributed to Donald Trump’s victory and it is attributable to residential segregation.” That is to say: In the end, it comes back to race.
That’s a key point when considering what it takes to build a party that is now de facto based on a single racial identity. With the hopes of a robust interracial coalition all but abandoned, ensuring political advantage must necessarily entail securing racial advantages, too. That means benefiting from voter suppression, and implementing voter-ID policies and other voting laws that “target African-Americans with almost surgical precision,” as a federal judge once said about North Carolina’s voter-ID law. It means chasing the specter of “voter fraud,” and embracing a national strategy that in just about every case decreases the size of the electorate.
The Constitution and the Founding Fathers intended for anti-democratic institutions to counterbalance the will of the majority—with the subtext being that those anti-democratic institutions also protected racial dominion and the rights of slaveholders. Winning with a narrowing voter base of white conservatives means embracing and expanding those institutions, and often to the same effect.
Read: The Republicans’ midwest ‘power grab’
It’s unclear how viable this iteration of the GOP grand strategy is. The “blue wave” of 2018 also served as a reminder of the contemporary popular wisdom that high-turnout elections favor Democrats, and provided evidence of significant mobilizations of low-turnout populations in some states. There’s even evidence that the drumbeat of allegations of voter suppression and ballot discrepancies in places like Georgia can motivate voters of color to turn out at higher rates. In all, it would seem there’s something of a hard limit to how small and homogenous of a voting base the GOP can put together and still hope to hold the islands of power at key positions in swing states that have held up its policy-making dominance for the past two decades.
But, as Wisconsin, Michigan, and North Carolina show, power is not easily conceded, and the stakes aren’t likely to get lower in the future. If the Republican Party is in a long retreat—and that’s far from certain—the withdrawal will likely be scorched-earth.