News Column

Partisan Divide May Be Here to Stay

August 13, 2013
congress

Frustrated with the deep dysfunction in Washington, D.C.?

Get used to it.

Political analysts say evolving demographics may create a long-term stalemate by giving an advantage to Democratic presidential nominees in the near future, while the carefully drawn congressional districts by Republican state lawmakers in 2010 make it difficult for Democrats to take the U.S. House.

That leaves only the Senate in question. But regardless of its future, it seems a divided government is inevitable at least until 2022, when districts will be redrawn following the U.S. census.

"The political system is pretty calcified this way," said Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio. "And it's pretty inured to change."

"The polarization will continue," predicted Larry Sabato, a political-science professor at the University of Virginia.

Sabato said America's electorate is becoming on average 2 percent more racially and ethnically diverse every four years, which isn't great news for Republican presidential candidates who have traditionally polled better among white voters.

GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney received six percent of the black vote and 27 percent of the Latino vote in 2012, while 2008 GOP nominee John McCain received four percent of the black vote and 31 percent of the Latino vote, according to exit polls.

In 2004, meanwhile, George W. Bush received 11 percent of the black vote and 44 percent of the Latino vote and, in 2000, he received nine percent of the black vote and 35 percent of the Hispanic vote, according to exit polls.

Even as the nation has become more diverse, the white vote has declined. According to the census in 1996, 82.5 percent of the voting population was white and non-Latino. By 2012, that had declined to 73.7 percent.

"Demography and geography are destiny in politics," said David Wasserman of the Washington-based Cook Political Report. "Republicans actually made their districts whiter in redistricting by two points. What's remarkable is the country as a whole got five points less white in the last 10 years."

Meanwhile, Republicans dominated in redistricting fights in states across the nation, including Ohio, and even though Democrats running for U.S. House seats nationally received 1.4 million more votes in 2012, Republicans won 234 seats in 2012 compared with the 201 Democratic seats.

In Ohio, where redistricting culminated in Republicans holding a 12-4 edge in U.S. House seats, 2.6 million people voted for Republican House candidates compared to 2.4 million who voted for Democrats.

Wasserman said even though Republicans have "inflated" their advantage through redistricting, Democrats are typically too concentrated in cities and inner suburbs to gain an advantage.

"Democrats are ginning up huge margins in cities at the expense of their rural support," he said.

The pressure -- an environment that benefits Democrats nationally and Republicans on the congressional district level -- has resulted in virtually a perpetual standoff. It's being felt in House districts, where moderate Republicans must stick with conservative principles lest they face a primary challenge.

For example, while some Republicans are pushing for immigration reform -- in part to win the coveted Latino vote -- others in the GOP caucus, nervous about the possibility of primary-election challenges in districts drawn to easily favor Republicans, are often less inclined to embrace hot-button issues such as a path to legalization for the estimated 11 million immigrants illegally in the United States.

"Beyond contentiousness in Washington, there is a bit of risk aversion," said John Green, director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute at the University of Akron.

Brown said the fact that the government is divided isn't as daunting as how it is divided.

He's been in Congress since 1993 and has been in the minority and the majority. But never before, he said, has he seen the government so broken that formerly noncontroversial bills -- think transportation authorization and the farm bill -- have been mired in political fighting.

"We did this stuff in (the) past," Brown said. "Maybe we should've never done it ... maybe it was wrong that Congress did a farm bill every five years, a transportation bill every six years or whatever, the debt ceiling whenever it had to be. Maybe those were profligate, wasteful, wrongheaded days since World War II. I tend to think they're not."

GOP pollster Whit Ayres said the redistricting process has resulted in a House where Democrats are more liberal and Republicans are more conservative than their fellow partisans in the Senate.

"The ideological gulf between the Republican caucus and the Democratic caucus has become a chasm," he said.

While Ayres isn't bullish about the GOP's chances to retake the White House in 2016, he believes things could change.

"We will not be able to take back the presidency continuing on the course we're currently on," he said. "But a lot of people are in politics because they want to make a difference. And in order to make a difference, you have to win. At some point people get tired of losing and do something different."

Want proof? Look at Bill Clinton, he said.

When he won in 1992, Democrats had been shellacked in the three previous elections. Clinton -- who talked about changing "welfare as we know it," who criticized Sistah Souljah, who cast a moderate tone -- changed that.

"The outlook was every bit as bleak for Democrats in 1989 as it looks for Republicans in 2013," Ayres said. "But three short years later, they were back on top. Republicans can do the same thing."

jwehrman@dispatch.com

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