The Downballot: Nerding out on redistricting, with Nathaniel Rakich (transcript)

The Downballot: Nerding out on redistricting, with Nathaniel Rakich (transcript)

This week on The Downballot, we nerd out with Nathaniel Rakich of FiveThirtyEight, whose path from hobbyist to full-time election analyst closely mirrors the Daily Kos Elections story. Rakich discusses how gerrymandering might have made for a more equal congressional playing field but not necessarily a fair one; what kind of redistricting commissions have actually worked best; and some of the key bellwether districts he’ll be looking at to judge what sort of night Democrats can expect in November.

Co-hosts David Nir and David Beard also dig into a hard-to-explain decision by a major Democratic super PAC to take sides in an Oregon House primary; what the 2022 version of a well-established prediction model says about the midterms; New York’s truly screwed-up system for electing and replacing lieutenant governors; and the results of the first round of France’s presidential election.

If you haven’t already, please subscribe to The Downballot on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts.

David Beard:

Hello and welcome. I’m David Beard, contributing editor for Daily Kos Elections.

David Nir:

And I’m David Nir, political director of Daily Kos. The Downballot is a weekly podcast dedicated to the many elections that take place below the presidency from Senate to city council. If you are listening to The Downballot on the Daily Kos website, we would be grateful if you would subscribe as well—that way you’ll get new episodes of our show on your mobile device whenever they drop each Thursday morning. We would be especially appreciative if you would subscribe on Apple Podcasts or anywhere else that you listen to podcasts.

David Beard:

So let’s dive into today’s episode. What are we going to be covering this week?

David Nir:

So first up, we’re going to be talking about a very unusual involvement by a major Democratic group in a Democratic primary out in Oregon. We’re also going to be discussing a model of this year’s elections that has often been very successful in predicting elections in previous cycles. There’s also the fallout from the resignation of New York’s lieutenant governor following an arrest on corruption charges.

David Nir:

And finally, we’re going to recap the first round of the French presidential election. This week, we have as our guest, Nathaniel Rakich, who is a senior elections analyst at the website FiveThirtyEight. We’re going to be talking about redistricting and several other topics with Nathaniel. So stay tuned.

David Beard:

Great, that’s a lot to cover. So let’s start.

David Beard:

So Nir, I think you’re going to kick us off this week for the weekly hits with a pretty controversial story about some advertising out in Oregon. What’s going on there?

David Nir:

Last week, we interviewed Ali Lapp, who’s the founder of the House Majority PAC (HMP), which is the largest group that spends on House races on the Democratic side. And several days later, HMP took action in a race out in Oregon, like you were saying, in the 6th Congressional District that really has everyone scratching their heads and has also left a lot of people extremely angry.

David Nir:

So this is a brand-new district that the state won thanks to population growth in reapportionment; it’s in the Portland suburbs. Joe Biden would’ve carried it by about a 55-42 margin. So it’s a blue-leaning district, not a safe blue district. There are a number of Democrats—seven of them in total–who are seeking the nomination for this new seat in Oregon 6.

David Nir:

One of them is economic development adviser Carrick Flynn, who hasn’t run for office before. And HMP this week started spending at least $1 million on ads boosting [Flynn’s] campaign. And this came as a total shock for a whole lot of reasons. One of which is the fact that HMP has never gotten involved in a partisan primary in this way before. So why is it picking sides? Another huge factor that’s really generated a lot of anger here is that many of the other candidates running are women. Several are women of color.

David Nir:

The candidate who’s probably the leading candidate, state Rep. Andrea Salinas, who has received endorsements from the governor. And most of the major progressive groups and unions are women of color. She’s a Latina. She would be the first Hispanic person to represent the state in Congress. Carrick Flynn is a white man, and no one really understands what on Earth HMP is doing.

David Nir:

They put out a statement that really just was impossible to believe. They said that they’re “Dedicated to doing whatever it takes to secure a Democratic House majority in 2022. And we believe supporting Carrick Flynn is a step toward accomplishing that goal.” That really doesn’t pass the smell test because there’s nothing so special about Flynn that he simply has to be the Democratic nominee in order for Democrats to win this seat.

David Nir:

And like I said earlier, HMP has never gotten involved in a primary in this way. They spend almost all of their money on general elections, running negative ads to beat Republicans. They have helped in a couple of open seat races in California. They have helped a couple of Democrats, but in those cases, the party was worried about getting locked out of the general election because of California’s special top two primary rules. That simply doesn’t apply here.

David Nir:

Whoever wins the Democratic primary will be the Democratic nominee in November. No one really understands what HMP is doing. But there is a lot of speculation and none of it is really helping HMP. Carrick Flynn prior to this had received almost 6 million in outside support from a super PAC called Protect Our Future that’s run by a 30-year-old billionaire named Sam Bankman-Fried who made his fortune creating a cryptocurrency exchange, and has this year started spending heavily on a number of Democratic races apparently to influence policy in D.C.

David Nir:

He’s supposedly worth $24 billion according to Forbes. There have been a number of arguments made about why Bankman-Fried has been helping Carrick Flynn. Supposedly it’s because the two of them care a great deal about pandemic preparedness. It’s really hard to understand why that alone would be enough of a reason for a billionaire to spend $6 million on an untested candidate who at best will be a very junior member of a caucus that’s likely to be in the minority next year.

David Nir:

But what a number of folks have hinted at, including the campaign manager for one of the other candidates, [and] including Andrea Salinas herself, is people are wondering whether Sam Bankman-Fried offered to give a huge donation to House Majority PAC, which can accept unlimited donations in exchange for HMP deciding to boost Carrick Flynn. Even that feels very strange because Bankman-Fried can obviously dump as much money as he wants into his own super PAC. So why would he need to sort of get involved with HMP here, unless he’s really looking to exert even broader influence over a major arm of the Democratic Party?

David Nir:

Again, this is all speculation. But the problem is we aren’t getting any clear answers. I read HMP’s statement earlier. It really doesn’t make any sense. But what’s more, the super PAC doesn’t have to report its financial transactions for the month of April until May 20. And that’s three days after the Oregon primary. So we’re probably not going to get a straight answer on this any time soon, perhaps not until it matters.

David Nir:

HMP could of course provide records of its donations right now, if it wanted to, of course. That’s not going to happen, but like I said, Democrats, both in the district and in D.C., are pretty furious about this. Senator Jeff Merkley called HMP’s actions, “Flat out wrong.” The congressional Hispanic caucus, which is backing Andrea Salinas, is really hopping mad about this. And they have donated $6 million to HMP in the decades since it was first formed.

David Nir:

So really House Majority PAC is potentially burning relationships with a number of partners. And there’s also still a really good chance that Carrick Flynn, despite all this money, is going to lose this primary. And really what is HMP going to say if they have to support a different nominee in November in our district that Democrats really do need to win to have any shot at holding on to the House?

David Beard:

Yeah. And I think the biggest thing to me from all of this is the reputational risk that HMP has taken on by doing this because obviously these things can always be mended and we’ve seen sort of people get mad at each other and that get fixed before. But independent expenditure PACs like HMP is, it’s very much the wild west. HMP has built itself on its reputation as the super PAC that fights for Democrats in general elections where everyone can go where they can direct traffic, where they can coordinate with everyone because their focus is on electing Democrats for the general election and their influence in primaries have been these very rare exceptions, like you mentioned the top two issue in California that was directly related to needing to get a Democrat into the top two so they could get them elected in the general election.

David Beard:

And to then sort of toss that aside to a degree, to invest in this race and choose the not-establishment candidate, when it’s despite being a super PAC—very much of the establishment, super PAC to pick Carrick Flynn to spend this money on behalf of him when all of the other establishment is on this other side is just seemingly reckless. Obviously, we don’t know all the situation that’s going on here and we maybe never will, but it seems like a very strange decision all around.

David Beard:

So with that, I’m going to take us to another topic where political scientist Alan Abramowitz has released a model of this year’s midterm over at our friends at Sabato’s Crystal Ball. He released a new article. This is something that he’s done in past cycles as well, and it’s always an interesting thing to look at and see how it matches sort of growing expectations for how the cycle is going to turn out.

David Beard:

So this model uses the generic congressional ballot as sort of its baseline, which is historically, as the article says, more accurate for midterm elections and presidential approval. And it also factors in the size of the congressional majorities and which Senate seats are up for that cycle. Because obviously that’s a big influence in how Senate elections go is which seats are up in each cycle. So congressional generic ballot polling is when a pollster asks their respondents, “If you were to vote for a Democrat or Republican for Congress this year, who would you vote for?”

David Beard:

It doesn’t include any names. So obviously, sometimes someone might say, “Oh, I would vote for the Democrat.” But when they actually go and vote, they know their Republican congressman. He’s an incumbent. They like him for whatever reason. So they might vote for him. But on average it usually averages out pretty well. If you take the generic ballot of, “Would you vote for a Democrat for Congress or would you vote for a Republican for Congress?” And translates usually particularly for the House result—translates pretty well into the result.

David Beard:

Based on the current generic ballot polling, Republicans are leading by about two points right now. And when you factor that into the model that Abramowitz developed, it’s actually for me surprisingly good. I would’ve expected worse news than it put out. It predicts a 19-seat loss in the House. So that would take from a plus five Democratic majority currently to a plus 14 Republican majority, which is not good. Obviously we don’t want that, but it’s relatively narrow and something you can look towards 2024 to winning back.

David Beard:

And in the Senate, it’s even better due to sort of the makeup of the Senate elections that are up in 2022. It would predict no change in the Senate for an R plus two generic congressional ballot. So for me, I think no change in the Senate would be great news given the cycle that we’re facing.

David Beard:

Now a big caveat here is that generic ballot polling can change, and it often does from, say, April of 2022 to November of 2022 when the election actually takes place. It can very often move against the party in power. We’ve definitely seen that happen before over the course of the election. So we can’t sit here and be like, “Oh, great. It’s R plus two. So maybe it’ll even be better.” And maybe it will be. That’s not impossible. But we also have to prepare for the idea that maybe it’s R plus four. Maybe it’s R plus six.

David Beard:

But even in those scenarios, the model is not that bad, largely due to the fact that the majority is already so narrow in the House. And because of the Senate seats that are up there, only a few really great targets for Republicans to try to pick up in the Senate. And there are some surprisingly good targets for Democrats to go after, states like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

David Beard:

That’s some surprisingly good news in my view. Obviously, and we don’t want to lose the House, but if the model ends up being correct and the generic ballot, say, it’s not that bad, I would take what they’re giving out at R plus two right now in a heartbeat.

David Nir:

So shifting gears once more, let’s talk about what just went down in New York this week. Lieutenant Governor Brian Benjamin, a Democrat, just resigned his post. He was arrested on charges of corruption that he had supposedly steered state money while he was state senator to a real estate investor in exchange for political contributions. And those contributions also appear to have been straw donations, which themselves are illegal.

David Nir:

It’s a total mess. Brian Benjamin does not have a happy future. But what I want to talk about is Kathy Hochul’s future and New York state’s future. Kathy Hochul is the governor who originally picked Benjamin. So of course she was elevated to the top job when Andrew Cuomo resigned in disgrace and she had the opportunity to tap her own replacement. And so she picked Benjamin who had earlier last year badly lost a race for city comptroller in New York City.

David Nir:

The difficulty here is that New York’s primary is a couple of months away, but the filing deadline has already passed. New York uses a totally bizarre and completely stupid system for electing lieutenant governors. People have referred to it as a “shotgun marriage.” What happens is that candidates for governor and candidates for lieutenant governor run in separate primaries, but the winners of each primary get stuck together on the same ticket in November.

David Nir:

What happens is that you have candidates who try to run as informal tickets before the primary, but you could still get stuck with someone. You could win the nomination for governor and get stuck with someone who you don’t like, or you’re totally at odds with. This has happened in New York. It happens a lot in Pennsylvania, which is one of only a half a dozen other states that uses this system.

David Nir:

Now there are a couple of other candidates running for lieutenant governor, but they are linked to the two other candidates who are challenging Hochul for the gubernatorial nomination. And Hochul is almost certainly likely to win renomination. The polls show her far ahead. But she could wind up getting saddled with someone who really doesn’t like her very much.

David Nir:

In fact, one of the other candidates for LG, Ana Maria Archila, said that, “The governor announced she would bring a new day and I’m not sure that’s the case.” This is someone who could wind up on the same ticket as Kathy Hochul. So that system totally needs to be changed. In fact, Alaska was one of the states that used to do this, but they just changed their whole system. So New York ought to follow suit. But there’s another bigger issue for the state as a whole, which is the way that New York handles the succession when there is a vacancy in the lieutenant governorship.

David Nir:

Under the state constitution, there’s actually no provision dealing with vacancies in the LG slot. And what happened was that over a decade ago, when David Patterson was governor, he became governor after Eliot Spitzer resigned in disgrace. The LG slot was open. And so he just said, “You know what, I’m going to cite this other provision of state law that’s sort of a catchall for vacancies and I’m going to unilaterally name my own LG to fill my own vacancy in that position.”

David Nir:

He named Richard Ravitch to that spot and it was challenged in court. And rather surprisingly, the state’s highest court upheld that decision on a very narrow four-three ruling. So if the state’s top court hadn’t issued this decision or had gone the other way, then New York would have a permanent vacancy every time the LG slot became open. And what’s even more absurd is that like I said, under this provision of state law that Patterson used and that Hochul used when she tapped Benjamin, the state legislature doesn’t get a confirmation vote.

David Nir:

It’s a totally unilateral decision by the governor. So let’s say that Hochul were to leave office early, or, had Patterson left office early, which he very well could have. He was mired in scandal himself. Then an LG who was picked unilaterally without any vote by the public, without any confirmation vote by the legislature could then pick their own LG who would be elevated to the post in the same way. You could have the top two officials in New York state chosen by one person, both of them.

David Nir:

The only way to fix this is with an amendment to the state constitution. It’s one of those things that absolutely should be fixed and that state lawmakers probably just don’t care enough about because they’re the ones who would have to put a new amendment on the ballot, but it’s really bad for democracy to put yourself in a situation where the governor of New York could literally be handpicked and neither elected nor confirmed by anyone in the state.

David Beard:

Yeah. It’s one of those quirks of the law that I think clearly wasn’t thought out when it was originally enacted. And now that’s the situation. And as you said, the constitutional amendment is really the only way to get it fixed in New York. So I’m going to wrap us up with weekly hits with another trip across the Atlantic, over to France, where, as we talked about a little bit last week, the first round of their presidential election occurred this past Sunday, April 10.

David Beard:

So the top two candidates from the first round will advance to the runoff, which takes place two weeks later. So it’s going to be taking on April 24. So very soon, they do not have a long period here where they campaign and runoff. It’s pretty much as soon as you could get the next round ready, they go ahead and do it. So incumbent president centrist Emmanuel Macron took first place with 28% of the vote, and far-right candidate Marine Le Pen took second place with 23% of the vote.

David Beard:

And that was pretty much expected. The real surprise of the first round was left-wing candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon took a surprisingly close third place with 22% of the vote. And when you really break it down and see sort of all the candidates who got a few percent here or there, it’s really possible that Mélenchon could have advanced over particularly Le Pen depending on how the different candidacies would’ve worked out.

David Beard:

There were a number of left-wing candidates that took anywhere from 2 to 4% who were really never viable when most of the left of France ended up trending towards Mélenchon. So as a result, there were a number of left-wing votes that ended up essentially not getting counted when the third-place candidate could have used those votes, obviously to advance into the top two runoff.

David Beard:

Now, of course there was also another far-right candidate that took 7% away from potentially Le Pen. So you can’t exactly one-to-one this, but it does show that I think for a long time it was basically taking for granted that Macron and Le Pen would advance to the second round as they did five years ago. And what we’ve seen is as with these sort of situations where there’s a top two, voters can vote tactically, and we saw a lot of voters move towards these three candidates, but in Mélenchon’s case, not quite enough to make it into the top two runoff.

David Beard:

So we’re left with a Macron versus Le Pen battle, which is really the center versus the far-right. A number of other candidates have already endorsed Macron, or as Mélenchon did, he didn’t endorse Macron, but he said, “Don’t vote for Le Pen, whatever you do.” So basically saying you could vote for Macron or you could stay home, but don’t vote for Le Pen, which is not an endorsement, but is I guess better than nothing, or obviously better than endorsing Le Pen.

David Beard:

One of the big issues here is that Macron proposed raising the retirement age a few weeks ago from 62, what it currently is in France, to 65 over the next 10 years. And that is obviously something—particularly in the current stage where there’s a cost of living crisis—that a lot of voters we’re not happy with. And you see this a lot in continental Europe where the centrists are the ones who are sort of most economically conservative the way we think about it in America, whereas both Le Pen and Mélenchon opposed raising the retirement age. And the far-right in Europe—there are many, many very bad things about the far-right, but they’re usually not into taking away money from old people in Europe or doing things like raising their retirement age.

David Beard:

So there is some risk that you could see some disaffected left-wing voters who voted from Mélenchon going to Le Pen in the runoff. And that’s why we’ve seen the polls really narrow. Macron currently has sort of a mid-single-digits lead somewhere between sort of 3 to 8%, which I think there’s a good chance he wins. I think he’s definitely still the favorite. But we’re definitely in a scenario where you can’t totally rule out Le Pen winning. And that’s a very scary thing, because she is very much in the far-right despite her attempts to [be] moderate.

David Beard:

She has very extreme views. She’s been friendly with Putin. She’s been very anti-European Union. There’s all sorts of concerns with her. And so it’s very important that Macron wins and you don’t let a far-right candidate lead one of the most important countries in Europe. But we’ll see how it goes. Again, that election is in a little under two weeks from now and we’ll definitely be covering the results as they come in when that happens.

David Nir:

Five years ago when Macron and Le Pen faced off for the first time, Macron wound up winning that in a massive two-to-one landslide. So the fact that he’s only pulling in the single digits in terms of his lead—that feels scary in and of itself, even if he wins.

David Beard:

Yeah. It’s definitely a big shift. He had a bigger lead earlier. I think this retirement age issue is a big deal. We’ve seen it in the past. We’ve seen it here in America when Republicans have from proposed cutting Medicare, cutting Social Security; we saw it in 2017 in the U.K. when Theresa May proposed some taxes that would hit older homeowners [with] raising costs, either by raising their retirement age or raising taxes or cutting benefits on older voters before an election is a really, really terrible idea. They will punish you for it.

David Beard:

So we’ve seen Macron’s poll numbers go down. We’ve seen the race narrow. Hopefully, by all accounts, he will still pull it out. And I think what happened was is that Macron had a big lead a month or two ago and felt like he could propose this, win anyway, and then have sort of a mandate to then roll out this retirement age expansion. But it hasn’t worked out that way. Hopefully he’ll still win because again, you don’t want Le Pen to be president of France, but it’s a risky situation.

David Nir:

Well, that’ll wrap us up for our weekly hits. But please stay with us. We are going to be talking with someone that we have been a great fan of for many years, Nathaniel Rakich, a senior elections analyst for FiveThirtyEight. So please come back and join us after the break.

David Beard:

Joining us this week is Nathaniel Rakich, senior elections analyst for FiveThirtyEight. Welcome, Nathaniel.

Nathaniel Rakich:

Hey, guys. It’s great to be here. Congratulations on launching a podcast.

David Beard:

Thank you. Yeah, I’ve been a long time fan of the FiveThirtyEight podcast. So it’s great to have you on,

Nathaniel Rakich:

Well, I’ve been a long time fan of the Daily Kos Elections newsletter and other offerings. So it’s very appropriate.

David Beard:

Great. Well, before it becomes too much of a love-fest, let’s get started. So tell us a little bit about how you came to your current position. I know you originally started blogging about baseball, so how did you grow from sort of that point a number of years ago to where you are now?

Nathaniel Rakich:

Yeah. So my kind of origin story is not all that different from you guys. I came on to the blogosphere—I would say maybe the tail end of when the blogosphere was still a thing. Now it’s Substack and all that stuff. So I graduated from college in 2010 and I was always a politics nerd. I was also a sports nerd, but I majored in government and thought that meant I had to work in government itself. So I had several odd jobs including working for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, my home state. I worked on a campaign. I worked for a think tank or two and really was kind of dissatisfied with those jobs.

So in the evenings, I would go home and I would blog. I started this blog, Baseballot, in 2011. And as you can tell from the name, it was a combination baseball and politics blog, baseball plus ballot, and would just kind of write about whatever struck my fancy and I would read other blogs as well. And this was around the time that I discovered you guys at Daily Kos Elections. I’ve been a reader, not since The Swing State Project days, but basically since you guys started having Daily Kos Elections in 2011 and kind of emulated, kind of focused in on local races, the way that you did guys did.

I found that stuff fascinating, much more interesting than the presidential. Started tracking special elections, getting on Twitter and doing following election results live. That was and remains my jam. And from there, my blog started to snowball. It started to accumulate a bit of a readership, including Micah Cohen at FiveThirtyEight at the time. And kind of one thing led to another. I eventually quit my day job and became a full-time freelancer through the Micah connection. I started freelancing for FiveThirtyEight in 2017 and then they hired me full time in 2018.

David Nir:

That is a fantastic path, and is indeed so similar to the one we’ve tried here at Daily Kos Elections. But why don’t we get down into talking about some actual elections that are going to be taking place. You have covered redistricting in depth this cycle as have we, and you have some fantastic tools on FiveThirtyEight that show all of the various maps and the ramifications of those maps and the districts that are going to be used this year.

David Nir:

So what are your broad takeaways at this point in the redistricting cycle now that we’re basically complete? We still have a few maps left, but what are some of the things that maybe we didn’t know going into this redistricting cycle?

Nathaniel Rakich:

Yeah. So as you mentioned, we’re almost done with redistricting. Only three states have yet to pass new maps, although there are court challenges pending in other states like Kansas and New York. And what I would say, my overall takeaway, even at this point, I think we can … Even no matter how Florida, and New Hampshire, and Missouri go, I think we can say that the overall congressional map is going to be pretty evenly divided between the two parties in a way that it really hasn’t been in recent decades.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the map is fair, right? So we did this calculation over at FiveThirtyEight. We have our metric FiveThirtyEight partisan lean, which basically says whether it’s kind of similar to Cook PVI, which says whether a district leans 5 points toward Republicans relative to the nation or 10 points for Democrats or something like that.

And we estimate that there will be about 220 to 223 districts to the right of the nation as a whole and 212 to 215 districts to the left of the nation as a whole. So that’s pretty evenly split, especially when you consider this enduring Republican bias that’s been in the House lately. So for instance, we also calculated that the median seat of the House for the last several elections has been about 5 or 6 points to the right of the nation, which means in practical terms that in theory, and kind of throwing out candidate quality things, that Democrats need to win the House popular vote by 5 or 6 percentage points in order to take control of the chamber.

Obviously, that’s a strong Republican bias that’s due in no small part due to gerrymandering after the 2010 elections. This year, that bias, it still exists. There’s still slightly more Republican seats probably than Democratic seats, but it’s down to maybe 1 or 2 points depending on kind of how things break, especially in Florida. And so that is definitely historic and it means that the House will be fought on this kind of balanced playing field for the first time in a long time.

But the reason that those districts or that the map is relatively balanced is that Democrats really stepped up their gerrymandering game this year in states like New York, as you guys have covered on the newsletter and on the podcast. And they’ve really kind of matched Republicans’ fire on that front. So if you look at some of the individual maps, you see a lot of really high efficiency gaps, which is this metric that you can use to measure gerrymandering, which is kind of a notoriously difficult thing to pin down.

You know it when you see it, kind of like pornography. Efficiency gap can hint at it. Other things, median seat bias, lots of other things. But a lot of these maps, I think you can point at as being quite gerrymandered. So New York is a good example on the Democratic side. Texas on the Republican side, even though they didn’t necessarily gain a lot of seats from that, it’s a very defensive gerrymander where they had a lot of competitive Republican-held seats that they really locked down for Republicans.

Other states like Ohio, even with its new map, after it was overturned in court is still a pretty gerrymandered map. Georgia, et cetera. So nobody should be looking at the House map and saying, “Oh, that’s super fair.” It’s just kind of the fact that these two parties have been kind of at loggerheads. And I don’t know what the right metaphor is. They’re at a stalemate, stand down, stare off type of thing. Another thing I want to mention too that often I think does not get covered as much in the preoccupation with the horse race and partisan gerrymandering is also the racial gerrymandering that we see.

Things have not necessarily gotten better for people of color and their representation in Congress. So a lot of Southern states—for example, Alabama. There was a court case about whether they could draw a second Black majority seat, which just geographically, cartographically is very possible. But the Supreme Court basically said no. And if that case is still open, but I think the writing is on the wall there. That has implications for other states too, like Louisiana.

A state like Texas is a state that has ballooned in population in recent years. They gain two congressional seats this cycle, the only state to gain more than one. That growth was due almost entirely to people of color, and yet no new predominantly nonwhite districts were created in that redistricting process.

So basically, there is a lot of work to be done on getting kind of fair and representative maps nationwide, even if for the next decade … Or actually, I shouldn’t even say decade, but maybe next year, because there’s a good chance I think of some mid-decade redistricting could change this calculation. But at least in 2022, I think that there’s a good chance that the party that wins the national House popular vote will win the House majority, which is a small victory, but still a lot of work to be done.

David Nir:

I think it’s maybe fair to say we’re in this sort of perverse situation where more gerrymandering on both sides has kind of balanced out on the national map when you look at things holistically. But when you look at things on a district-by-district basis, all we’re really doing is creating a lot of slanted districts on one side or the other for the most part.

Nathaniel Rakich:

Yeah, exactly. So, for instance, we also estimated the number of safely red and safely blue seats that we would end up with. So again, kind of, this is like the median projection for us. So we estimated that there would be 143 safely blue seats, which we define as having a partisan lean of D plus 15 or bluer. And then 170 safely Republican seats, which is R plus 15 or redder. And those are both higher than at any point over the last several decades. As a point of comparison, if you go back to 1996, there were only 89 solidly blue seats and 100 solidly red seats.

David Nir:

And just one clarification, when you talk about compared to the national, and I know that your partisan index is a little bit more complicated than this, but for instance, since Joe Biden won by four points, if you had a seat in the House that Joe Biden would’ve carried by two points, you’re actually saying that even though that’s a Biden plus two seat, it’s actually R plus two, because it’s two points to the right of the nation as a whole?

Nathaniel Rakich:

Exactly. So our partisan lean metric is not super popular on Twitter. I think for that reason, it tends to kind of show Democrats in a bit worse position than when you just use, for example, Biden versus Trump numbers, which I think is more commonly used on election Twitter. But we think that that is a better kind of metric. Not necessarily because we think that this is a 50-50 country. I think the fact that Democrats have won the national popular vote for president, for example, in seven out of last eight elections shows that maybe we’re a point or two Democratic leaning.

Nathaniel Rakich:

I think that’s a valid criticism, but I think we also calculate it this way just for ease of kind of calculating it with the generic ballot for each sample. So in a D plus eight year, you would expect an R plus eight seat to be basically perfectly competitive. In a year right now, so according to our average, the generic congressional ballot shows Republicans with the lead of about two points.

Nathaniel Rakich:

So you can kind of adjust your expectations. Basically the idea is that there isn’t necessarily such a thing as absolute partisanship. These things bounce around and it’s just better to fix it to this hypothetical nationwide 50-50 point.

David Beard:

Yeah. We’ve definitely seen those changes cycle to cycle happen pretty consistently over the years. There’s always an evolution to the next cycle.

Nathaniel Rakich:

Yeah.

David Beard:

So let’s talk more specifically about something that’s really evolved over the past few redistricting cycles, which is the creation of redistricting commissions. They’ve become a bigger and bigger part of things. Michigan, Colorado, and Virginia, all were states that had redistricting commissions for the first time this past year. And they were very much of varying success levels. Pretty widely, I think people thought Michigan went pretty well in terms of what it set out to do, though that wasn’t universal. There were definitely some lawsuits. There were some criticisms over the African American seats in Detroit and that area.

David Beard:

While Virginia, from a process standpoint, sort of the commission basically collapsed and sent everything to the Virginia Supreme Court and had that organization or that group been the ones who actually put in the seats. So from your observations going through this, what worked well in these commissions and what didn’t? What are the keys to making these things function and work?

Nathaniel Rakich:

Yeah, definitely. I think a huge takeaway from this redistricting cycle has been that not all redistricting commissions are created equal. There have been a lot of different types of reforms proposed and even implemented. And the specific rules about who draws the maps and who are serving on these commissions, whether those commissions have kind of final authority or whether they can be ultimately undermined by the legislature.

Nathaniel Rakich:

Those are really important considerations. So I would say that there are four different types of redistricting commissions: independent commissions, bipartisan commissions, politician commissions, and advisory commissions. Now, these aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, but just for simplicity’s sake, I’ll leave it at that. I would say that the most successful commissions were the truly independent commissions.

Nathaniel Rakich:

So these are places like Arizona, California, Colorado, and Michigan. So they drew some of the fairest maps of the cycle by various metrics. So I would say that Michigan’s, for example, was probably the fairest map in the country. It had a literally no efficiency gap, which is very, very hard to do. And they also, processwise, had minimal acrimony.

Nathaniel Rakich:

So these independent commissions are kind of the ones where the members of the commission are really removed from politics to the extent that’s possible. Right? So they’re not chosen by people in the legislature who have partisan interests, for example. So in Arizona you have like a tie-breaking member and stuff like this. So those commissions have been, I would say the most successful.

Nathaniel Rakich:

Arizona, you did see a little bit of acrimony at the end of the process, but they passed the map just fine. And it was a relatively fair map. So I would count that as a win. Certainly compared to some of these other commissions. So when you move on to some of the bipartisan commissions, these are a bit of a more of a mixed bag, I would say. So you had some success stories in states like Idaho and Montana. And so these by of partisan commissions, I should say are places where the politicians have input in who serves on the commissions, but the politicians themselves aren’t serving on the commissions, but they appoint them, for example.

Nathaniel Rakich:

Idaho and Montana have these bipartisan commissions. Those went well. It’s also really easy, I would say to draw a single line in the middle of a state with two congressional districts. So maybe those that wasn’t the most robust test for this kind of commission.

David Nir:

Try telling that to New Hampshire though.

Nathaniel Rakich:

That’s fair, actually. New Hampshire being one of the only states that is not done.

David Beard:

They had a line that they used for like a hundred years that they could have just kept going with, but clearly the Republicans didn’t like that.

Nathaniel Rakich:

That was an avoidable stalemate, I would say. So maybe a better example of kind of the touch and go nature of one of these bipartisan commissions is in Washington state. So this is a commission where Democrats and Republicans get together and they have to agree on a map. They went right down to the wire and in fact, the deadline, the midnight deadline passed, and they technically hadn’t agreed on a map yet, or they had agreed on a map, but they hadn’t voted on it.

Nathaniel Rakich:

It was this kind of fiasco where they went dark for a day, basically. And then finally said, “We picked a map. We voted on it.” But it was after the deadline and so technically we didn’t pass a map. Sorry, guys. It actually took the state Supreme Court bailing them out. The Supreme court said, “Yeah, it was close enough, so we’ll just go with the map that they chose.”

Nathaniel Rakich:

So this is an example of eventually it kind of worked, but it very all nearly didn’t. So these bipartisan commissions a little bit worse than the independent commissions. Maybe still good in a pinch. Almost certainly better than kind of a partisan process in the legislature. Right? Then you have the third type of commission, which is a politician commission, which is what it sounds like, which is literally when politicians themselves serve on the commission.

Nathaniel Rakich:

So we have some pretty high profile examples of them failing this year. So Virginia is a good example. Connecticut is a good example. These are commissions that literally could not come to an agreement between the Democrats and Republicans on them, and it kicked the process to the state Supreme Court.

Nathaniel Rakich:

Ohio is another example. Ohio is a redistricting process you could probably do a whole podcast episode on, but basically the redistricting commission there, which is made up of politicians is one of three stages of the rejection process basically. And that’s, if the map doesn’t get overturned in court, which it did, and it ended up being like five stages.

Nathaniel Rakich:

But Ohio’s commission the first time the map drawing process came to them, failed to pass anything because they couldn’t agree. And then the second time, after the map got overturned in court, they did agree that only the Republicans on the commission kind of railroaded the Democrats on the commission and passed a map that wasn’t very fair to put it mildly. And then finally the fourth type of commission, and I know that I’m rambling, sorry, is an advisory commission.

Nathaniel Rakich:

So these commissions are basically when you set up a group of people and you say, “Come up with a fair map,” and they come up with a nice looking map and then the legislature says, “Okay, thanks. We’re going to ignore that.” These advisory commissions basically don’t have kind of the final authority. They just propose a map to the legislature, but the legislature can change it perhaps after… Sometimes there’s a built in process for they have to at least consider it and vote down a couple of times before they pass their own gerrymandering.

Nathaniel Rakich:

So New York is a prominent example of this as well. Other states have this system like Iowa, New Mexico. The commissions themselves work fine, but the issue is that it really relies on politicians themselves putting aside their kind of self-interest and their politics to do the good government thing which especially in this political environment almost never happens.

David Beard:

Yeah. And I think the Iowa example is really interesting in sort of the subtleties of this where they traditionally have this sort of very fair process where nonpartisan staff draw the lines based on some criteria. And then the legislature comes in. It comes to the legislature and they either have to pass it or reject it. And if they do that twice, then the third time the legislature can amend it. And what happened this time was an opportunity where the Republicans had complete control of the legislature.

David Beard:

So could have gone to the third time and could have made amendments to the maps and passed their own. But instead what they did, they rejected the first round of maps. A second round of maps came along and there was a lot of sort of like rumor that sort of the staff who were drawing it, were incorporating criticisms or concerns from the Republican majority.

David Beard:

And of course that’s all sort of like not done out in the open or publicly. So then the Republicans did go along with a second version of the map. So it’s one of these interesting push and pulls where the map was not sort of a clean map where the staff would be like, “This is what we would want to draw.” But it also wasn’t exactly what the Republicans would’ve drawn from the start. So these things can get very sort of in between messiness.

Nathaniel Rakich:

Right. Iowa’s process is something that they’ve had in place for decades. And this was, I believe the first time that one party or at least Republicans had full control over the legislature and the governorship under this system. So it was kind of the first time that they could have overridden this kind of nonpartisan group, that group that drew the maps.

Nathaniel Rakich:

But I think because Iowa’s had this process and also maybe you can throw in a couple of just salt-shakers of Midwestern niceness, they agreed on a map and they didn’t kind of go for like a maximalist gerrymandering. Although the map is somewhat favorable to Republicans. Although it still has a lot of competitive seats, which I think is good. But you compare this to a situation like New York or like Utah, for example, which both those states newly implemented this kind of advisory commission and in those states which are more used to the legislature getting their way, they were like, “That was cute. No, we’re not even going to listen to you.”

Nathaniel Rakich:

And in fact, Utah’s legislature actively dismantled this ballot measure that Utah has passed to implement this redistricting commission in order to water it down and make it so that they could effectively ignore it.

David Nir:

So I want to switch gears just a little bit. Up until now, we’ve been talking exclusively about congressional redistricting, but of course, states right now are also engaged in the process of legislative redistricting. FiveThirtyEight has also devoted a lot of resources to this topic. And this is really an area that gets undercover even compared to congressional redistricting, which probably doesn’t get as much coverage as it ought to.

David Nir:

So since you’re following this under the radar area, and now of course we’re talking about all 50 states, 99 different legislative chambers, what are some of the major themes that you’ve seen or any surprises, anything that you’d want to share with someone who hasn’t necessarily been following the process in all 50 states?

Nathaniel Rakich:

State legislative, districting, obviously super important as you guys know, state legislatures, as we have seen time and time again, past some of the most consequential, most controversial legislation in the country especially as Washington is gridlocked. I would say that the big trend in state legislative registering has been similar to congressional redistricting which is the decline of competitive seats and competition in general.

Nathaniel Rakich:

This is both because of gerrymandering, but also just kind of, because of natural polarization like there are fewer swing states than ever. I don’t think it’s reasonable to consider the Alabama legislature or the Massachusetts legislature to ask that to be competitive. So you already have this kind of small window of potentially competitive state legislatures. But gerrymandering has taken a lot of those off the table.

Nathaniel Rakich:

So places like Georgia, Texas, where Republicans had full control of redistricting this year, those legislatures are not going to be competitive this district or this decade, I would say unless things really shift drastically.

Nathaniel Rakich:

But I would say that some of the most notable things were the maps getting fairer in a couple of states. So Pennsylvania and especially Michigan. So these are states that have been gerrymandered for Republicans, especially Michigan for decades. I believe in Michigan, the state Senate has been Republicans since 1984 and the State House since 2010.

Nathaniel Rakich:

In Michigan in particular, they have this new independent researching commission that also applies to state legislative districts and they just drastically made a fair map. It’s just kind of mind boggling to me as someone who has followed politics for over 10 years and downballot politics, and then in Michigan where a legislature has always been kind of foregone conclusion to go for Republicans is now genuinely on the table.

Nathaniel Rakich:

So some of the statistics that we have here are the old Michigan Senate map used to have the median seat in the Michigan Senate, used to be 11 points redder than the state as a whole. It’s now just one point redder. In the Michigan House, the median seat used to be eight points redder, and it’s now just three points redder. So it’s very much on the table for Democrats. And obviously as mentioned before, if they were to take control, that would be historic.

Nathaniel Rakich:

It’s a similar situation in Pennsylvania where you actually have a commission that’s been around for a while, but the state Supreme Court this year has been controlled by Democrats. And so they chose the tie-breaking member of that commission, which was kind of a Democratic-leaning academic, but it ended up being producing pretty fair maps. So you had a similar situation.

Nathaniel Rakich:

So for example, in the Pennsylvania House, the median seat used to have a six-point Republican bias, and now it’s just a one point Republican bias. So I think that obviously states like Michigan and Pennsylvania in a year like 2022, which is likely to be a good year for Republicans may go red anyway. But I think it’s really striking that you have a fair fight on your hands for the first time in a long time.

David Nir:

Can you clarify for our are listeners who may not be familiar with the term, what you mean by the median seat because you were using that with the congressional discussion as well?

Nathaniel Rakich:

Yeah, that’s a great question. I can definitely get over my skis with the terminology. So basically, the idea behind the median seat is if you took every district in a state legislative chamber or in Congress and you sorted it from most Democratic to most Republican. And you looked at the seat that’s right in the middle. So the median seat, and you look at kind of the partisanship of that district.

Nathaniel Rakich:

So theoretically in order to have a fair map, you would have in a state legislature, for example, that median seat should match the partisanship of the state so that if you take a hypothetical state that is exactly 50-50, if that district is also 50-50, then if a Democrat win the popular vote in the state then they would theoretically also win that median seat which means they would win a majority of the seats in the chamber and therefore win control of the chamber.

Nathaniel Rakich:

So it’s basically an idea. So to take another example, one of the more egregious examples is Georgia. So for example in Georgia, in the Georgia House, the median seat is 10 points to the right of the state. So if you assume that Georgia is 50-50 state, I’m not sure that’s correct given that 2020 was a good year for Democrats and they just barely won it, but let’s assume for the safe argument that it’s 50-50.

Nathaniel Rakich:

That would mean that Democrats would have to win the statewide popular vote by 10 points in order to win that kind of decisive seat in the middle of the chamber and therefore take control. And of course, while it’s already hard enough for Democrats to win Georgia by a single percentage point, it’s at least at this point where kind of the demographics and the trends lie. It’s very difficult, if not a impossible to imagine them winning it by 10 points. And that’s kind of why the Georgia State House is out of Democrats’ reach right now.

David Nir:

And so that hypothetical seat, or actually not hypothetical seat, because you said it’s the actual median seat is 10 points to the right of where Georgia is. So we’re saying in essence, maybe it’s a seat that Trump won 55-45, and Democrats would have to exactly capture not only this seat, but every seat bluer than that, which includes a lot of red seats just to have a shot at winning the majority there.

Nathaniel Rakich:

Right.

David Beard:

So let’s turn to one of the topics that we talk about almost every week, because it’s really the story of 2022, which is the Democrats’ attempt to hold onto the House and hold onto the Senate, sort of despite the odds given the historical problems that incumbent parties have with midterm elections and particularly again with Biden’s currently low approval rating in the low 40s.

David Beard:

So as we’re looking towards that, what are some races you’re keeping an eye on as potential bellwethers as to how the cycle might develop both in terms of, is there any chance the Democrats hold on to these chambers and then, B, sort of if that doesn’t look like it’s going to be the case, what are some of the races to look towards to? Is this going to be a bad night or an okay night or really bad night for Democrats?

Nathaniel Rakich:

Yeah. Well, I’d be curious to hear your guys’ thoughts. I’m someone who thinks that just statistically based on the midterm curse, based on the fact that Democrats have such a narrow majority in the House that Republicans are very likely to win control of the House next year. I’m kind of more focused on whether they’re going to win it by a small enough margin that it’s tight and maybe that makes governing hard for them with the freedom caucus and whether Democrats can take back control of the chamber in 2024 or whether it’s going to be a 2010 or 2018 type of wave environment where they really win dozens of seats.

Nathaniel Rakich:

Some of the districts that I’m watching are some of these districts that haven’t been competitive in kind of recent elections, but if you go back to the old heads no, back in 2014 and 2010, when some of these districts were competitive, if we’re looking at a situation parallel to those years, which of course were very good for Republicans.

Nathaniel Rakich:

So I’m thinking of seats like the Connecticut 5th District, Jahana Hayes’ seat, Colorado 7th at Perlmutter’s old district he’s retiring from. Even like the Indiana 1st, Frank Mrvan’s seat. These are seats that you really wouldn’t expect Democrats to have too much trouble in unless a real red wave was developing. So I think if you see in October, those members are, they’re I guess in Colorado.

Nathaniel Rakich:

In Colorado, you have state Senator Brittany Pettersen running instead of Perlmutter. But if those Democrats are having trouble and they’re in real tough races, I think that you can say that the House is pretty much gone for Democrats and a real red wave is on the table. Another thing I wanted to mention because I wanted to have a creative answer to this one is that not necessarily bellwethers for the general election, but I’m looking at some bellwethers for Republican primaries.

Nathaniel Rakich:

So specifically on May 10th, which I think is not getting a lot of attention when kind of a lot of the focus is on Madison Cawthorn’s primary and the bonkers Ohio Senate primary. On May 10th, you have primaries in West Virginia and in Nebraska. And there are some interesting kind of tests of Trumpism versus a more kind of moderate or at least not particularly Trumpy strain of the GOP. So in West Virginia, you have a congressional primary between two incumbents who are thrown together in redistricting.

Nathaniel Rakich:

You have Alex Mooney who was endorsed by Trump and voted to throw out the 2020 election results and has gone all in on Trumpism. And then you have David McKinley who voted for the infrastructure package and is a little bit more of an older school, pragmatic Republican. And then in Nebraska for the gubernatorial race, you have Chuck Herbster who is a businessman who Trump has endorsed based on their kind of personal relationship. And then you have the outgoing governor’s preferred candidate, Jim Pillen.

Nathaniel Rakich:

So there’s kind of this proxy war there between Trump and specifically the Nebraska Republican establishment. That race is getting no coverage. I think it’ll be interesting because it’s one of the first tests of Trump’s endorsement power, which of course will be a theme throughout most of the primaries this year.

David Nir:

Of course, that race is not getting no coverage because if you read the Daily Kos Elections morning guide, which I know you do.

Nathaniel Rakich:

I do.

David Nir:

We have talked about that one. I think that’s a really interesting call to cite that as a bellwether. So, Nathaniel, we have one last thing that we love to talk about with you, which is that, of course at FiveThirtyEight, you guys are extremely data driven as are we at Daily Kos Elections, and we, over the years at DKE have put out tons of data sets that we have made public, and you have been a big booster of ours, especially on Twitter.

David Nir:

So we’re curious to know which of our data sets have you gotten the most mileage out of, and which have enjoyed making usage of in your own work at FiveThirtyEight?

Nathaniel Rakich:

Yeah. I use your guys’ data all the time. I just want to formally thank you again for putting it out into the world, having a clearinghouse of election data, especially in our very fragmented system where there are 50 states and therefore 50 state election authorities. It’s very hard and very rare to have all that stuff in one place. It’s really valuable. So what don’t I use from you guys? Let’s see. There’s of course the stuff you guys are primarily known for, which is the presidential results by congressional district and legislative district.

Nathaniel Rakich:

I think most people know about that at this point, so I won’t belabor that, but I certainly use it. I would say some of the things that I really like are, for instance, you guys have this comparison of how much of a state Senate district is in a congressional district and vice versa. So that can be helpful for when a member of Congress retires and you’re like, “Okay. Which state senators in this area might run for that seat?”

Nathaniel Rakich:

Oh, this state senator’s district is 70% in this congressional district. So this person seems like a good candidate. That’s been a resource that I have returned to several times.

David Nir:

I love those tables.

Nathaniel Rakich:

Yeah, for sure. You guys have something similar with media markets, which is also useful from when you’re analyzing TV ads. Another really fun thing. I’m a history nerd. I love your research into when the last time a Democrat or Republican won a given state. So you can whip out a statistic like Republicans are hoping to win the Senate seats for the first time since 1930, when Tungsten Arm O’Doyle was pitching for the Brooklyn Robins.

Nathaniel Rakich:

I mean, let’s see, I could go on. Oh, I guess I should also give a shout out to Stephen Wolf, your colleague who has done a lot of work on voting rights. I wrote an article with Laura Bronner, was it last year? Two years ago? It was a while ago, about kind of the enduring Republican bias in our institutions. So from the Senate to the House, the state legislatures and Stephen has done a lot of work on this and specifically his work calculating the popular vote for the Michigan State House over the last decade, which I think Democrats won the popular vote for the Michigan State House in, I think, 2012, 2016, 2018 and 2020, but they lost the chamber every single time.

Nathaniel Rakich:

And that’s just a statistic when I first learned it that I was completely blown away by, and really I think goes to show the power of gerrymandering and other institutional biases in predetermining elections. So yeah, those are just a few. Your open seat tracker is great, of course.

Nathaniel Rakich:

Filing deadlines. That’s another great one. Just can pull up that and know very quickly, rather than having to hunt on a secretary of state website when we’re going to have a final candidate list in a given state. It’s all been very helpful.

David Nir:

Well, this is truly delightful to hear because we create these data sets and we use them ourselves and then we put them out into the world. So we don’t always know how they get used or whether they’re appreciated. So I love hearing that you found such great use for them. So Nathaniel, before we let you go, can you tell folks how they can find your work, where they can find you on Twitter and what they can do to keep tabs on what you’re doing?

Nathaniel Rakich:

No, I appreciate that. Well, I write for FiveThirtyEight, so you can go to fivethirtyeight.com and check out my work there. Our redistricting checker, which we talked a lot about is available at fivethirtyeight.com/redistricting. That’s been basically the last six months of my life. So that would be good if people can check it out. And then people can follow me on Twitter @baseballot. So that’s baseball, plus the letters O-T.

David Beard:

Nathaniel Rakich, senior elections analyst for FiveThirtyEight, thank you for joining us. And we look forward to many primary election nights on Twitter.

Nathaniel Rakich:

So do I. Let’s get it on.

David Beard:

That’s all from us this week. Thanks to Nathaniel Rakich for joining us. The Downballot comes out every Thursday, everywhere you listen to podcasts. You can reach us by email at thedownballot@dailykos.com. Please like and subscribe to The Downballot and leave us a five star rating and review. Thanks to our producer, Cara Zelaya and editor, Tim Einenkel. We’ll be back next week with a new episode.

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