The geographic and demographic separation between the two political parties, and the two Americas, has reached a new peak in the House of Representatives.
In the 116th Congress sworn in last week, Republicans and Democrats now control districts that represent virtual mirror images of each other across a wide range of key measures, from racial composition and education to income and age, a new CNN analysis has found.
House Democrats hold the vast majority of districts with more minorities and more college graduates than the national average, while Republicans are mostly confined to districts with more whites and fewer college graduates than the national average. Likewise, Democrats now control the vast majority of House districts that are younger, more affluent or contain more immigrants than the national average.
The widening trench between the two sides promises to further narrow the prospect of them reaching any common ground. For the Democratic majority, the new alignment may make it easier for them to reach consensus on many polarizing cultural issues – from immigration to gun control – but may open new splits on economic questions such as taxes and trade.
To illuminate the differences between the seats each party holds, CNN producer Aaron Kessler used census data to track some of the key characteristics of all 435 House districts. That exercise, employing data from the American Community Survey’s 2012-2016 district-level estimates, produced a stark divergence between the 235 House Democrats and the 199 House Republicans (for the purpose of this analysis, CNN treated the North Carolina House seat enmeshed in allegations of voter fraud as vacant).
The divergence is apparent across every key measure.
In the new House, just over three-fifths of the Democrats represent districts where the minority share of the population exceeds the national average of 38%. Almost exactly 85% of House Republicans represent districts that are more white than the national average of 62%.
Almost three-fifths of the Democrats represent districts where the share of adults holding at least four-year college degrees exceeds the national average of 30.3%. Over three-fourths of the House Republicans represent districts with fewer college graduates than average.
Nearly three-fifths of House Democrats hold seats where the median income exceeds the national level of $55,322. Two-thirds of House Republicans hold districts where the median income lags below the national level.
Nearly 54% of the House Democrats hold seats where the median age is younger than the national level of 37.7. Almost exactly 60% of House Republicans hold districts that are older than the national median.
Just over three-fifths of Democrats represent districts where the immigrant share of the population (the portion of people born abroad) exceeds the national average of 13.2%. Over 90% of House Republicans represent districts with fewer immigrants than the national average. (These numbers do not include the 18 seats in Pennsylvania, where the immigrant population was not available for the state’s recently redrawn districts.)
This deep and consistent separation culminates a sorting-out process that has steadily reshaped the House since the 1990s.
“The tectonic plates have been shifting for a few years now,” said Ken Spain, a former communications director for the National Republican Congressional Committee.
As recently as the 2009-10 Congress, there was still substantial overlap between the kinds of House seats each party represented. At that point, Democrats still held nearly half the seats defined as mostly rural in the innovative system developed by the CityLab website to classify districts into six groupings on an urban to rural continuum. Democrats dominated the most urban seats, but the two sides were competitive in suburban areas.
The Obama backlash vs. the Trump backlash
In 2010, during the midterm election of President Barack Obama’s first term, Republicans swept away dozens of small-town and rural Democrats. Through personal popularity, those Democrats had been holding on to seats with large numbers of blue-collar, older and Christian white voters who usually voted Republican in presidential elections. But they could not survive the backlash among those voters to Obama’s aggressive first two years.
The November 2018 result is the bookend to that election. This election swept away dozens of Republicans from suburban seats with large numbers of minority or white-collar white voters or both who had been increasingly voting Democratic in presidential campaigns. Those Republicans, from Reps. Mimi Walters and Dana Rohrabacher in Orange County, California, to John Culberson in Texas and Barbara Comstock in northern Virginia, could not survive the backlash among their voters to Trump’s tumultuous first years.
The losses for Republicans last fall were concentrated in more affluent and better-educated districts. Democrats won 43 seats that Republicans controlled in the previous Congress, while losing three seats of their own, for a net gain of 40 (pending the North Carolina result). Of the 43 seats that Democrats gained, 31 are in districts that exceed the national average in college graduates, according to Kessler’s analysis. Incomes exceeded the national median in 35 of the 43 districts that Democrats captured.
After these sweeping gains, Democrats now dominate well-educated and upper-middle-class districts, many of them immersed in the information-age economy and connected to global markets. Before the November election, each party held almost exactly half of the 201 districts where incomes exceed the national median; now Democrats hold 136 of those seats, or just over two-thirds. Before the election, Democrats held 57% of the 182 seats with more college graduates than the national average; after the election, they hold almost exactly three-fourths of those seats (135). Similarly in the CityLab classification system, Democrats gained a net of 35 seats in the three most suburban categories and now lead in them by 166 to 51.
The election left the GOP in an even more precarious position in diverse America: It now holds only about 1 in 6 of the seats with more minorities than the national average and just 1 in 8 of those with more immigrants.
Where Republicans are focused
Republicans still control two-thirds of the House seats where whites exceed their share of the national population. That’s less than their three-fourths in the previous Congress, but still much more than in 2009, when the two sides split such seats about evenly. The GOP edge in those seats is a reminder of the big challenges still confronting Democrats in places less touched by economic and demographic change. But in the House math, it isn’t nearly enough to overcome the GOP weakness in diverse districts and its erosion in white-collar suburbs.
Spain views the lopsided deficits in those places as the inevitable price of his party’s relentless focus under Trump on mobilizing blue-collar and rural whites, especially men. “You want to go all in on white votes, white male voters, sure, the reaction to that is massive hemorrhaging with female voters in the suburbs,” says Spain, who’s now a partner at CGCN Group, a lobbying and communications consulting firm.
Where Democrats are focused
The House Democratic caucus now revolves around two principal poles. One is the white-collar suburban areas in which the party advanced in November. The other is heavily minority, lower-income districts mostly inside urban centers. Those two poles become apparent when looking simultaneously at the income and racial composition of the Democratic House districts. The 136 Democratic districts that exceed the national median income split exactly in half between those that are more and less diverse than the national average. But three-fourths of the 99 Democratic districts that lag below the median income contain more minorities than average – a reflection of the Democratic dominance in mostly nonwhite lower-income inner cities.
Overall, with the party’s big gains in suburbia, the share of Democrats who hold seats in districts with more minorities than the national average is notably lower in this Congress (61% ) than it was in the last (66%). But that’s still a significant shift from the party’s last majority in 2009, when it divided almost evenly between districts that were more and less diverse than the national average.
Simon Rosenberg, president and founder of NDN, a Democratic group that studies the political implications of demographic and economic trends, says the new distribution of seats shows that the party’s House caucus has finally caught up with the changes in the party that Barack Obama consolidated. Obama built his two presidential victories around a coalition that was younger, more diverse, better-educated and more urbanized – at a point when the Democratic House majority still relied on large numbers of right-leaning “blue dog” members clinging to mostly white and culturally conservative rural and small-town seats, including many in the South.
“It’s fair to say that the House campaign in 2018 executed on a politics that we first saw with Obama in 2007 and 2008: It aligned the House with the way that Obama began to reorient the Democratic Party,” said Rosenberg, who consulted with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee through the campaign. “There were many people who were saying that Obama’s embrace of this new coalition was the cause of Democratic decline in the Senate and the House. It was never true. But what was true was that Democrats had never resigned themselves to having to lean into this new coalition that Obama constructed. Now they did in 2018 – they leaned into it – and look what happened.”
A more culturally liberal Democratic Party
Democratic Rep. David Price, a former legislative aide and political scientist, represents the affluent and highly educated Research Triangle Park area in North Carolina. He says the decline since the party’s last House majority in the number of Democrats representing mostly white working-class areas won’t diminish the party’s interest in addressing wage stagnation and widening inequality. “There’s still plenty of sense that we need to address the slipping away of the American dream with blue-collar America,” he said in an interview. “We didn’t do it in 2016. But we’re not about to concede that or to give it up.”
But Price said that with fewer members representing non-urban working-class districts, the party will likely find it easier to move forward on cultural issues including gun control, gay rights and immigration. Resistance from the moderate coalition of blue dogs made it difficult for the party to act on any of those when Nancy Pelosi last held the speakership, between 2007 and 2010. That change is already evident during the government shutdown fight: Hardly any House Democrats have expressed unease with Trump trying to portray the party as soft on border security, something difficult to imagine a decade ago.
“The number of members in the House who are given serious heartburn by this shutdown over the wall … is considerably less than it would have been in the last (Democratic-majority) Congress,” Price says.
The new fault lines for Democrats may track economic issues. Members from the party’s growing suburban center will likely be more hesitant about expensive new government programs, and especially raising income taxes, than their colleagues from lower-income and urban districts. And more of those new members from districts with large numbers of globally connected white-collar professionals may challenge the hostility to international trade that now dominates the party. Those suburban members “are going to look at the economic stakes in trade differently,” predicts Price, an advocate of expanded trade. “That’s still really a work in progress, though.”
Republicans retreat to Trump country
For Republicans, the principal challenge in the new alignment may be that they may further cement the changes in the party’s coalition that Trump has accelerated. The GOP House caucus has been pushed back almost entirely into Trump country: mostly white districts with very few immigrants that are also below the national average in education and income. Nearly three-fifths of all House Republicans now hold seats in districts that are below the median income and more white than the national average.
That means that as the caucus sets its direction, there are very few voices left in the room to worry about how its choices will affect the party’s prospects in the upscale suburban areas that broke so sharply against them and Trump last fall. That dynamic has been apparent in the party’s near lockstep support for Trump’s partial government shutdown over a border wall, which was opposed by two-thirds of nonwhites and college-educated whites in the most recent CNN poll conducted by SSRS.
Spain, who directed communications for the National Republican Congressional Committee during the GOP’s 2010 landslide, said Democrats could reopen the door for the GOP in white-collar suburbs if they move too far left on spending or in their response to the agendas of the various minority groups in their coalition. But he acknowledges that recovery won’t be easy as long as the GOP under Trump is defining itself so heavily toward the cultural priorities of older and blue-collar white men.
“At some point Republicans are going to have to find an equilibrium if they plan to compete,” he says. “Clearly there’s no sign of that occurring in the immediate future. You want to go with older white men, the counterbalance to that is going to be millennials, females and diversity coming back with a vengeance.”
That action/reaction cycle has now produced a House divided, both demographically and geographically, as deeply and consistently between the parties as any in modern times. It is not just two parties but two Americas that are poised to collide in the 116th Congress.