Can the Republicans gerrymander their way into the White House?

Republicans should stop focus on winning more support, not changing the electoral rules.

It's the oldest electoral trick: if you don't like the result, change the rules. To some Republicans, it is central to their strategy for regaining the White House in 2016.

The term "gerrymandering" was coined in 1812, after Governor Gerry of Massachusetts redrew Congressional boundaries so unfairly it was said to resemble the salamander monster. Gerry's idea was simple: concentrate his opponents' support so they piled up a few huge majorities, while spreading his own party's out so they could win more districts, resulting in more Congressmen.

The same tactics have been a feature of US politics ever since - and it's only getting worse. Look at Slate's list of the 21 "most rigged" districts around today. It's certainly not just the Republicans at work: two of the worst examples - Illinois's fourth Congressional district and Maryland's third - are the result of Democrat-controlled state legislatures. But because the Republicans' mid-term win in 2010 coincided with redistricting following the census, their support was very efficiently distributed in 2012. In total, they won 234 House seats to the Democrats' 201 - even though the Democrats won the popular vote by 1.5 million. Imagine the outrage if this had been an African country.

So far the practice hasn't extended to presidential elections. With the exception of Nebraska and Maine (which only control nine of the 538 Electoral College votes between them), states award all their votes to the winner of the state overall. This may throw up anomalous results - like in 2000, when Al Gore won the popular vote while losing the presidency - but Congress-style gerrymandering is even worse. And that's exactly what Republicans are now proposing be replicated in the White House race.

In five crucial states that Obama won in 2012 - Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin - Republicans in the state legislatures have floated plans to award the state's electoral votes according to the winner of each Congressional district. It sort of makes sense - until you remember that the districts themselves reflect intricate gerrymandering. 

In Virginia, a bill to award electors by districts recently advanced through a subcommittee in the Virginia Senate, under which Mitt Romney would have won nine out of 13 electoral votes - even though Obama won the state by 150,000 votes. However, the Republican Governor of the state is strongly opposed, reasoning that this would dilute the attention - and money - that the swing state receives in presidential elections.

Pennsylvania is where the plans are most likely to transpire. Despite being regarded as a swing state, it hasn't given its electoral votes to a Republican candidate since George Bush Sr in 1988. After years of trying, the Republicans look to be making progress towards changing the way the state allocates its electoral votes - ensuring that the party could win a significant amount of Pennsylvania's electoral college votes even without coming close to winning the state itself. While the results wouldn't be as egregious as in Virginia, the motives are equally clear.

Reince Priebus, the newly re-elected chair of the Republican National Committee, recently said he was "pretty intrigued" by the idea of states changing the way they award their electoral college votes and "in some cases they should look at it". It's easy to see the appeal for Republicans, with changing demographics meaning that the party's traditional coalition is no longer sufficient to win the presidency. Yet ultimately voters seldom reward parties so lacking in confidence in their own ideas that they appear more concerned with changing the rules; even Paul Ryan has spoken out against the plans. If Republicans want to win in 2016, they should focus on winning more support, not manipulating the electoral system.

Even Paul Ryan opposes the Republicans' redistricting plans. Photography: Getty Images

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.

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Justin Trudeau points the way forward for European politics

Is the charismatic Canadian Prime Minister modelling the party of the future?

Six months after Canadian election day, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party continues to bask in the glow of victory. With 44 per cent of support in the polls, the Liberals are the most popular party amongst every single demographic – men and women, young and old, and people of all educational backgrounds. 

While most European mainstream parties only dream of such approval, this is actually a small dip for the Liberals. They were enjoying almost 50 per cent support in the polls up until budget day on 21 March. Even after announcing $29.4 billion in deficit spending, Canadians overall viewed the budget favourably – only 34 per cent said they would vote to defeat it.

Progressives around the world are suddenly intrigued by Canadian politics. Why is Justin Trudeau so successful?

Of course it helps that the new Prime Minister is young, handsome and loves pandas (who doesn’t?) But it’s also true that he was leader of the Liberals for a year and half before the election. He brought with him an initial surge in support for the party. But he also oversaw its steady decline in the lead up to last year’s election – leadership is important, but clearly it isn’t the only factor behind the Liberals’ success today.

Context matters

As disappointing as it is for Europeans seeking to unpack Canadian secrets, the truth is that a large part of the Liberals’ success was also down to the former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s extreme unpopularity by election time.

Throughout almost ten years in power, Harper shifted Canada markedly to the right. His Conservative government did not just alter policies; it started changing the rules of the democratic game. While centre-right governments in Europe may be implementing policies that progressives dislike, they are nonetheless operating within the constraints of democratic systems (for the most part; Hungary and Poland are exceptions).

Which is why the first weeks of the election campaign were dominated by an ‘Anybody But Harper’ sentiment, benefitting both the Liberals and the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP). The NDP was even leading the polls for a while, inviting pundits to consider the possibility of a hung parliament.

But eight days before election day, the Liberals began to pull ahead.

The most important reason – and why they continue to be so popular today – is that they were able to own the mantle of ‘change’. They were the only party to promise running a (small) deficit and invest heavily in infrastructure. Notably absent was abstract discourse about tackling inequality. Trudeau’s plan was about fairness for the middle class, promoting social justice and economic growth.

Democratic reform was also a core feature of the Liberal campaign, which the party has maintained in government – Trudeau appointed a new Minister of Democratic Institutions and promised a change in the voting system before the next election.

The change has also been in style, however. Justin Trudeau is rebranding Canada as an open, progressive, plural society. Even though this was Canada’s reputation pre-Harper, it is not as simple as turning back the clock.

In a world increasingly taken by populist rhetoric on immigration – not just by politicians like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and other right-wingers, but also increasingly by mainstream politicians of right and left – Justin Trudeau has been unashamedly proclaiming the benefits of living in a diverse, plural society. He repeatedly calls himself a feminist, in the hope that one day “it is met with a shrug” rather than a social media explosion. Live-streamed Global Town Halls are one part of a renewed openness with the media. Progressive politicians in Europe would do well to take note.

Questioning the role of political parties today

Another interesting development is that the Liberal party is implicitly questioning the point of parties today. It recently abolished fee-paying, card-carrying party members. While this has been met with some criticism regarding the party’s structure and integrity, with commentators worried that “it’s the equivalent of turning your party into one giant Facebook page: Click ‘Like’ and you’re in the club,” it seems this is the point.

Colin Horgan, one of Trudeau’s former speechwriters, explains that Facebook is “literally a treasure trove for political parties”. All kinds of information becomes available – for free; supporters become easier to contact.

It was something the Liberals were already hinting at two years ago when they introduced a ‘supporters’ category to make the party appear more open. Liberal president Anna Gainey also used the word “movement” to describe what the Liberals hope to be.

And yes, they are trying to win over millennials. Which proved to be a good strategy, as a new study shows that Canadians aged 18-25 were a key reason why the Liberals won a majority. Young voter turnout was up by 12 per cent from the last election in 2011; among this age group, 45 per cent voted for the Liberals.

Some interesting questions for European progressives to consider. Of course, some of the newer political parties in Europe have already been experimenting with looser membership structures and less hierarchical ways of engaging, like Podemos’ ‘circles’ in Spain and the Five Star Movement’s ‘liquid democracy’ in Italy.

The British centre-left may be hesitant after its recent fiasco. Labour opened up its leadership primary to ‘supporters’ and ended up with a polarising leader who is extremely popular amongst members, but unpopular amongst the British public. But it would be wrong to assume that the process was to blame.

The better comparison is perhaps to Emmanuel Macron, France’s young economy minister who recently launched his own movement ‘En Marche !’ Moving beyond the traditional party structure, he is attempting to unite ‘right’ and ‘left’ by inspiring French people with an optimistic vision of the future. Time will tell whether this works to engage people in the longer term, or at least until next year’s presidential election.

In any case, European parties could start by asking themselves: What kind of political parties are they? What is the point of them?

Most importantly: What do they want people to think is the point of them?

Ultimately, the Canadian Liberals’ model of success rests on three main pillars:

  1. They unambiguously promote and defend a progressive, open, plural vision of society.
  2. They have a coherent economic plan focused on social justice and economic growth which, most importantly, they are trusted to deliver.
  3. They understand that society has changed – people are more interconnected than ever, relationships are less hierarchical and networks exist online – and they are adapting a once rigid party structure into a looser, open movement to reflect that.

*And as a bonus, a young, charismatic leader doesn’t hurt either.

Claudia Chwalisz is a Senior Policy Researcher at Policy Network, a Crook Public Service Fellow at the University of Sheffield and author of The Populist Signal: Why Politics and Democracy Need to Change