Jay Cost has been doing some pretty decent electoral analysis from a right-wing perspective over at HorseRaceBlog. He recently wrote an interesting rebuttal to a Bill Greener Salon piece on the enduring Democratic majority. The column is worth reading for its own sake, but my take-away is related to the Blue Dogs’ resistance to health care reform. For starters, Cost makes an interesting point about the Democrats’ structural deficit in the House of Representatives:

Assume a 50-50 split among the parties, something akin to 2004. That year, George W. Bush won 255 congressional districts to Kerry’s 180. Why the disparity? The Republican vote was distributed more evenly, while the Democratic vote was concentrated in urban and minority-majority districts. This is a distinct advantage that Republicans enjoy. To win the House, Democrats have had to win districts that Republican presidential candidates carry in 50-50 years. This is not inconsequential for public policy.

Ironically, it is the Democrats who currently control 255 seats in the House. In holding 59% of the seats in the House and 60% of the seats in the Senate, the Congressional Democrats overperformed Barack Obama’s 53% of the popular vote. This is, of course, only one way of looking at things. For example, Barack Obama won 68% of the Electoral College vote. Perhaps the best comparison is to note that Obama beat John McCain in 242 of the 435 congressional districts (or 56% percent of them).

Looked at this way, the Democrats only have 13 more seats in the House (255) than one might expect them to have (242) based on Obama’s electoral performance. But the Blue Dog coalition, at 52 members, is four times larger than that. Keep this in mind, as we look further into Jay Cost’s argument. This next bit focuses on the prospects of immigration reform, but the dynamic is similar on the issue of health care. Cost wants to rebut the following points from Greener.

Thanks to redistricting, and the legal imperative to give emphasis to “community of interests,” these minority voters tend to be jammed into congressional districts where they are the overwhelming majority. That means the other districts tend to be more white in nature, and thus more friendly territory for Republicans…

…What this means is that when it comes to an issue like immigration reform, the pressure on Republicans who actually have been elected to office is more often to favor a position that is unattractive to minority voters. If they were to take a different position, they might find themselves facing a primary challenger supported by the party’s activist base. So, at the expense of any long-term perspective, the Republican Party is likely to be responsive to the sentiment of the people responsible for them serving at this very moment.

Greener explains how the Republicans find themselves in a death-spiral where their need to satisfy their overwhelmingly white constituents on the local level leads them to take actions that alienate Latinos on the state and national level. But Cost wants us to consider a flip-side argument:

I’ll grant that the racial distribution across congressional districts *might* “skew” legislative preferences on immigration (but see the footnote below for pushback on this point!) – although given the geographical concentration of Hispanics in just a handful of states, and then in discrete areas within many of those states, redistricting is not so much the problem as geographical-based single-member districts are…

…Hence Blue Dog resistance to health care reform. This also suggests that the Democrats might have the same problem in advancing immigration reform, given the large number of members who come from mostly white, conservative-tilting districts. You can stick either a Democrat or a Republican in districts like PA-12, MS-1 or CO-4. Those reps will be hard-pressed to vote yea. Perhaps this is why the issue has been tabled this year?

In essence, the Democrats’ solid majorities in Congress are masking a conservative-tilt in how the districts are drawn, which means that a lot of Democrats are representing marginal districts that have a very low percentage of minority constituents. Massive displeasure with the Republican governance of the Bush years has given Democrats an opportunity to control these seats, but that doesn’t mean they are culturally aligned (or especially politically aligned) with the national party or with President Obama’s agenda.

I think Cost makes some interesting points. For example, even though Obama won 242 congressional districts, he won many of them by the skin of his teeth, such that he can’t really be considered to have a massive mandate in those districts. Or, consider the case of Oklahoma Democrat, Dan Boren:

“Barack Obama is very unpopular,” said Boren, who represents Oklahoma’s 2nd Congressional District. “He got 34 percent of the vote statewide, and less in our district. If he were to run for re-election today, I bet it would be even worse.”

Boren points out that he does support some of Obama’s initiatives, like the economic stimulus package. He has voted for Obama-supported bills 81 percent of the time, according to a recent Congressional Quarterly study. But despite this, he said the president is too liberal.

“It would be a lot nicer if we had someone who was in the middle,” he said. “Bill Clinton won our district. A lot of people don’t remember that, but he, in 1996, carried this district. I think if you have someone who governs from the middle, who’s pragmatic, who works with both parties. President Obama talks a lot about bipartisanship. If you look at some of the legislation, he may have one or two Republicans.”

Obama lost every county in Oklahoma. It is small wonder that Rep. Boren feels the need to keep some distance from the president.

But one has to wonder if Rep. Boren’s constituents would really be displeased with health care reform. No doubt they don’t trust the president, let alone liberal congressional leaders.

The chairmen of key House committees and other leaders – Frank, Rangel, Waxman, Conyers, Pelosi, etc – often come from districts that have little in common with swing districts. In fact, Bush’s median share of the vote in 2004 in the districts of committee chairmen and leadership in the 111th Congress was just 36%. Can these Democrats be expected to have the individual incentives to craft policy designed to help the Democrats maintain a national majority?

Maybe it is asking a lot to request that the Blue Dogs take a leap of faith on health care. I believe their constituents can only be brought over decisively to the Democrats through reforms in health care that will tangibly improve their lives. That is the bridge that can overcome cultural differences. But you won’t see evidence of that bridge in the polling numbers beforehand. Supporting the president’s health care reforms may involve a bit of leaping before you look.

In any case, despite there cultural and political differences, deriving in large part in how the districts are drawn, the American people gave the Democrats these margins so that they could solve problems. There may be some issues where there are unbridgeable differences within the Democratic caucus, but access to health care shouldn’t be one of them. The real problem with the Blue Dogs isn’t so much cultural as financial. Because they represent marginal districts, they have to worry about building large war chests. Because their districts are some of the most impoverished in the country, they have to raise lots of money from outside their districts and states. Liberal groups are loathe to supply funding for candidates who are culturally conservative, so they wind-up getting their money from corporate PAC’s and lobbyists. And this takes the populism right out of the Southern and Prairie Democratic Party.

If we really want to improve this situation, we need to draw more balanced districts. There is no reason that Philadelphia’s Chaka Fattah needs 88% of the vote, while his neighbor Patrick Murphy struggles to get 50%. We need better districts and, ideally, we need publicly-financed elections. Those reforms would change the behavior of the Blue Dogs more than any amount of cajoling.

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