Study forecasts more polarization in new Congress

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
The 2012 redistricting process will ensure that the House of Representatives remains highly polarized in the new Congress, according to a study released on Monday.

The Bipartisan Policy Center analyzed decades of voting records and concluded that the incoming House will have the lowest number of competitive seats in more than 40 years.

In the 1970s, there were 152 competitive seats, the center found, but that number has slipped to 101.

At the same time, the number of “misaligned” seats -- House districts that voted for one party in a presidential election but were represented by a member of the rival party in Congress -- will likely “dwindle to nearly zero” on Tuesday, the report predicted.

As recently as 1992, 96 House members represented districts that supported presidential candidates from the opposing party. After Tuesday’s balloting, that figure could be as low as two or three.

“The drop in competitive and misaligned seats is likely to produce fewer congressional moderates – from either party,” the report concluded. “Redistricting in the lead-up to the 2012 elections is likely to further the polarization that Americans have seen in Congress.”

Such polarization could make it even more difficult for the newly elected president to reach bipartisan agreements with congressional leaders on a host of thorny issues, said former GOP Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia.

“Redistricting does make for polarization,” said Davis. In districts dominated by one party  “most members now worry about their primaries, … [and] primary voters do not reward compromise.”

It may take an economic “tremor” before the two parties reach agreement on taxes, government spending, and health care, said Davis, who now heads the government-affairs department for Deloitte & Touche.

The connection between redistricting and polarization is a matter of considerable debate among political scientists--if for no other reason than that the Senate, whose members are elected on a statewide basis, is also polarized.

But the center’s report confirmed other studies -- including National Journal’s annual vote ratings -- that have chronicled the withering away of  the ideological center in both chambers of Congress. Redistricting, the center concluded, does “exacerbate the situation.”
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