THIS IS A redistricting year, and Republicans look on that prospect with a mixture of hope and desperation. They are hopeful because redistricting means that almost every member of the House will have to face at least some new voters in 1992. Anything that makes incumbents nervous makes Republicans happy, because 61 percent of House incumbents are now Democrats. But Republicans are feeling desperate, too, because once again, the redistricting process will be controlled by Democrats. Republicans assume that Democrats will manipulate the process to preserve their own partisan advantage and that in the 1990s, as in the 1980s, the GOP will be cheated out of a congressional majority.
Desperate times call for desperate measures. So the Bush administration is spearheading the drive for congressional term limitations. If the Democrats won't play by the rules, Republicans say, let's change the rules.
It turns out, however, that the entire debate over gerrymandering, rules and incumbency may be nonsense. That is the argument of an important new book, "The Electoral Origins of Divided Government." (Westview Press, 1990). The author, political scientist Gary C. Jacobson of the University of California (San Diego), writes: "The roots of divided government are political, not structural. The Democrats' continuing control of Congress expresses, rather than thwarts, the popular will."
Consider gerrymandering. On the surface, the 1990 census results look promising for Republicans. Power seems to be shifting to states where Republicans do better, at least in presidential elections. What worries Republicans is that they do not control a single state government in any of the states that is either gaining or losing seats.
Republicans remember the "nightmare of 1981," when California gained two seats, and a Democratic-controlled redistricting process turned what had been a narrow 22-21 House Democratic majority in 1980 into a lopsided 27-18 Democratic majority in 1982.
To which Jacobson replies, so what? Nationwide, partisan redistricting cost Republicans three or four House seats at most in 1982, when the Democrats' had a net gain of 26. He finds that after you take into account a district's previous vote, its incumbency status and the national swing, redistricting has no significant effect on the outcome. Why not?
For one thing, gerrymandering is tough to bring off politically. The courts protect minority districts. Incumbents are unwilling to share loyal supporters with colleagues in other districts. Only 11 states, some of them Republican-controlled, had "manifestly partisan gerrymanders" after the 1980 census, Jacobson said.
The basic problem, he argues, is that gerrymandering requires predictable partisan loyalties. And party loyalties just aren't very predictable anymore. Most of the 27 supposedly reliable Democratic districts created in California in 1981 went Republican for president in 1984 and Republican for governor in 1986. The Republicans gerrymandered Indiana in 1981, and Indiana now has eight Democrats and two Republicans in its delegation.
Jacobson also has news for Republicans who look to term limits as their salvation. The whole point of term limits is to create open seats. Without a Democratic incumbent, the theory goes, Republican candidates can win a fair fight. Since 1968, however, Democrats have taken more open seats from Republicans (62) than Republicans have taken from Democrats (60).
So why have Republicans failed to make headway in the House? Because, Jacobson writes, "they have fielded inferior candidates the wrong side of issues that are important to voters in House elections and because voters find it difficult to assign blame or credit when control of the government is divided between the parties."
Republicans have a history of fielding weak and inexperienced challengers who can't raise the money to establish credibility and so can't take advantage of favorable conditions for their party, such as prevailed in 1984 and 1988.
Republicans field weak candidates, in part because of the party's anti-government ideology. But voters want House members to deliver. According to the polls, voters judge congressional candidates on how effectively they serve the needs and interests of their constituents. When it comes to serving needs and interests, Democrats have the edge.
The very fact that control of government is divided tends to limit Republican gains in Congress. "Credit for good times is shared, (and) so incumbent Democrats are not threatened by successful Republican administrations," Jacobson writes. When times are good, as in 1984 and 1988, both Republican presidential candidates and Democratic congressional candidates are rewarded. When times are bad, as in 1982, Democrats gain. When times are uncertain, as in 1990, incumbents of both parties lose support.
When do Republicans do well in Congress? According to Jacobson, only when a Democratic president gets in trouble. Hence, Jacobson's frustrating advice to frustrated Republicans: "A Democratic presidency is the only scenario offering Republicans much hope of making substantial gains, let alone winning majorities, in Congress during the remainder of the century."