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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Emily Thornberry heckled by Labour MPs as tensions over Trident erupt

Shadow defence secretary's performance at PLP meeting described as "risible" and "cringeworthy". 

"There's no point trying to shout me down" shadow defence secretary Emily Thornberry declared midway through tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party meeting. Even by recent standards, the 70-minute gathering was remarkably fractious (with PLP chair John Cryer at one point threatening to halt it). Addressing MPs and peers for the first time since replacing Maria Eagle, Thornberry's performance did nothing to reassure Trident supporters. 

The Islington South MP, who voted against renewal in 2007, said that the defence review would be "wide-ranging" and did not take a position on the nuclear question (though she emphasised it was right to "question" renewal). She vowed to listen to colleagues as well as taking "expert advice" and promised to soon visit the Barrow construction site. But MPs' anger was remorseless. Former shadow defence minister Kevan Jones was one of the first to emerge from Committee Room 14. "Waffly and incoherent, cringeworthy" was his verdict. Another Labour MP told me: "Risible. Appalling. She compared Trident to patrolling the skies with spitfires ... It was embarrassing." A party source said afterwards that Thornberry's "spitfire" remark was merely an observation on changing technology. 

"She was talking originally in that whole section about drones. She'd been talking to some people about drones and it was apparent that it was absolutely possible, with improving technology, that large submarines could easily be tracked, detected and attacked by drones. She said it is a question of keeping your eye on new technology ... We don't have the spitfires of the 21st century but we do have some quite old planes, Tornadoes, but they've been updated with modern technology and modern weaponry." 

Former first sea lord and security minister Alan West complained, however, that she had failed to understand how nuclear submarines worked. "Physics, basic physics!" he cried as he left. Asked how the meeting went, Neil Kinnock, who as leader reversed Labour's unilateralist position in 1989, simply let out a belly laugh. Thornberry herself stoically insisted that it went "alright". But a shadow minister told me: "Emily just evidently hadn't put in the work required to be able to credibly address the PLP - totally humiliated. Not by the noise of the hecklers but by the silence of any defenders, no one speaking up for her." 

Labour has long awaited the Europe split currently unfolding among the Tories. But its divide on Trident is far worse. The majority of its MPs are opposed to unilateral disarmament and just seven of the shadow cabinet's 31 members share Jeremy Corbyn's position. While Labour MPs will be given a free vote when the Commons votes on Trident renewal later this year (a fait accompli), the real battle is to determine the party's manifesto stance. 

Thornberry will tomorrow address the shadow cabinet and, for the first time this year, Corbyn will attend the next PLP meeting on 22 February. Both will have to contend with a divide which appears unbridgeable. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.