In the Midwest, Dem Districts are Marching to the Suburbs
A lot has been written about how the 2018 midterm wave that delivered Democrats the House was fueled by a realignment towards their party in the nation’s suburbs. This was true all around the country, but especially in the Midwest. In fact, Democrats in that region are now almost completely dependent on urban and suburban places to win—in a way that wasn’t true in the recent past and isn’t as true in the rest of the country. And because many of these Midwestern states are battlegrounds that will likely decide the outcome of the Presidential election in November, their suburbs have truly become Democrats’ political proving ground.
At this point in political history, Republicans have been basically shut out of urban House districts, though on the flip side Democrats can still win in more rural or larger districts in certain parts of the country. The Northeast has communitarian New England and certain parts of the Mid-Atlantic where Democrats still win in sparsely populated small towns and therefore can carry larger districts than the urban core. The South and the West are home to several large districts, usually great for agriculture, that have large African American (in the former), Hispanic or Native American (both the latter) populations. But in Midwest, the Democratic shellacking in rural areas is almost complete. With an aging population and stagnant migration, these areas have become inhospitable for Democrats for the last decade. While this trend is decades old, it became especially pronounced after the 2010 midterms, and a combination of voter choice, reapportionment, redistricting, and in some cases partisan gerrymandering, made it worse.
Yet in the wake of the Blue Wall’s collapse in 2016, when the Midwest dashed the dreams of Democrats who believed those states would hand the White House to Hillary Clinton, the midterms provided a path back to prominence for that party in the region. Midwestern Democrats picked up suburban districts in 2018 that had stayed red even in back-to-back Democratic wave years in 2006 and 2008. The resulting map shows that where Democrats must win to build a majority has changed dramatically from just a decade ago.
What follows is a look at how Democrats have been able to win back the House thanks to improvement in suburban districts and overall domination in smaller Congressional districts. It examines the entire Midwest as designated by the U.S. Census (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, and Wisconsin), and finds patterns to help explain the current Democratic coalition in the region through the lens of geography. Of course, land doesn’t make people Democrats or Republicans, but this is a look at how in a purple place like the Midwest, geographical differences can tell a fascinating story about diverging party coalitions in our current era.
Comparing the Waves
While Democrats did not technically win the Midwest in 2018, their improvement in that region, coupled with results from around the country, allowed Democrats to win back the House and procure a crucial check on the power of Donald Trump. Since 2012, there have been 94 House districts in the Midwest. Republicans won 54 of them in 2018 to Democrats’ 40. However, this is a marked improvement from the 61 to 33 margin that occurred in both 2014 and 2016.
Looking back in time, Democrats actually won the Midwest in both the 2006 and 2008 waves. In those cycles, there were 101 districts in the Midwest, and Democrats won them 51 to 50 in 2006 and 54 to 47 in 2008. Our analysis compares the 2008 results and 2018 results and focused on averages and overall trends, in order to account for the loss of 7 districts due to reapportionment.
Right now, Democrats are representing most of the smallest districts in the Midwest. All have the same approximate population so smaller only means more densely populated, meaning that small districts are typically urban and immediate suburban areas. Bigger districts are the most spread out and likely to contain rural areas. As stated above, they currently represent 40 districts, and this includes the 23 smallest districts. They also represent another seven of the smallest 40, which means 30 of their 40 districts are among the smallest in the region. On the flip side, Democrats only represent 7 of the largest 40 Midwestern districts.
In the 2018 midterms, six of the Democrats’ net-seven pickups came from the smallest 40 districts. Democrats also picked up two of the largest 40 while Republicans flipped two of largest 40 from blue to red, meaning Democrats did not net-gain a single district among the largest subset.
The smallest district currently held by a Republican House Member in the Midwest is Missouri’s 2nd district at 465 square miles, while the largest district currently represented by Democrats is a bit of an anomaly. It is Minnesota’s 7th district, which is a Romney-Trump district represented by Blue Dog Collin Peterson. Minnesota’s 7th clocks in at 33,429 square miles and is the fifth largest in the Midwest. Peterson is a Blue Dog and arguably the most conservative Democrat in the House. Peterson is a strong advocate for gun owner rights and opposes many environmental regulations impacting the agriculture industry. He has been in Congress since 1991 and is only able to win this seat due to his own personal popularity and brand, and this seat will almost certainly flip hands when Peterson decides to retire.
The next largest blue Midwestern district is Iowa’s 2nd which is 12,261 square miles and is the 16th largest district in the region. Where Democrats do represent larger districts in the Midwest, it is thanks to those candidates significantly overperforming compared to results at the presidential level. The six largest districts in this region represented by Democrats in the House (IA01, IA02, IA03, IL17, MN07, WI03) are all Trump-won districts.
The Shrinking Blue Maps
Right now, Midwestern Democrats in the House are representing a lot fewer square miles than they did after the blue wave in 2008. Part of this is because they represent fewer districts (40 compared to 54), but that’s not the entire story. In fact, the average size of a Democratic Congressional district in the Midwest has shrunk by more than half over the last decade.
The Midwest as a whole is a little over 750,000 square miles. After the 2008 elections, Democrats and Republicans represented about the same amount of land at 386,000 square miles for Democrats and 364,000 square miles for Republicans. However, after 2018, Republicans now represent 641,000 square miles to Democrats’ 109,000 square miles, meaning instead of a close to 50/50 split, Republicans now represent over 85% of all land in the Midwest.
Driving this shift, Republican districts have gotten somewhat larger, but Democratic districts have shrunk considerably. This is due to fewer districts existing but also to the fact that the parties are swapping districts, with Republicans picking up larger ones and Democrats picking up smaller ones. After 2008, the average Republican district was 7,749 square miles to the Democrats’ 7,154 square miles—relatively close in size. Today, the average Republican district in the Midwest is 11,875 square miles, while the average Democratic district is only 2,731 square miles.
Obviously, the smallest district in the Midwest (Illinois’ 4th) is just as important as the largest district in the Midwest (South Dakota), both in terms of their constituents and in determining control of the House. On those measures, winning one is worth exactly the same as winning the other. But this trend of shrinking blue districts offers yet another indication that Democrats should look to geography as a way to understand the changing party coalitions in the Midwest (and elsewhere in the country). It should come as no surprise that the smallest district in the Midwest currently represented by a Republican (Missouri’s 2nd) is one of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s top targets to flip to blue in November. In the Midwest, even more so in other parts of the country, Democrats must look to build a coalition that heavily leans on suburban voters to pull off the kind of margins needed to win the Presidency, the Senate, and the House.
Next will be a look at this state-by-state that shows how the political geography of the Midwest has changed over the past decade.
Illinois is unique in the Midwest in that it is the only state that had a partisan gerrymander in favor of Democrats in 2011. This redrawing occurred as Illinois dropped from 19 to 18 Congressional districts. In both 2006 and 2008, Democrats won 11 districts in Illinois to Republicans’ eight. In 2010, Republicans knocked off three Democrats to switch the delegation to 11 Republicans to eight Democrats. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that in that shift, Republicans won three of the four largest districts held by Democrats (IL08, IL14, IL17). Of the eight districts that Democrats held at that point, only one (IL12) was larger than 200 square miles with the other seven being urban Chicago and its immediate super-dense suburbs.
After the 2010 election, Democrats in Illinois redrew the new Congressional map so that 10 of the 18 districts would be reliably and safely Democrat. Ever since, Democrats have won all 10 of these districts in every cycle. Nine of the 10 are in Chicago and its immediate dense suburbs. Seven of the 10 were holdovers from 2010, while three were newly configured districts made more Democratic by shrinking them.
Illinois - 3 Cards
Indiana didn’t lose any districts during reapportionment, and Republicans instituted a gerrymander in their favor in 2012. While it helped them pick up one seat, this district almost certainly would be considered safely GOP under the old lines in today’s political environment.
Indiana has had nine districts for both of the last two decades. In 2006 and 2008, Democrats won three of the larger districts in the state and held a five to four advantage in the delegation. In 2010, Republicans picked up two districts, and after redistricting they have held a consistent seven to two advantage in the delegation, with no districts flipping under the new maps. Heading into the 2020 elections, Democrats hold the two smallest districts in Indiana while Republicans hold the seven largest districts.
IN Districts - 3 Cards
Iowa has a non-partisan commission draw its Congressional maps. It does so in a way that tries to make the districts geographically and politically diverse for Iowa standards. The districts each generally consist of the quadrant of the state since 2012, when reapportionment dropped Iowa from five districts to four. The three Iowa districts that Democrats currently hold are the second, third, and fifth largest in the entire Midwest, due in part to Iowa’s quirky redistricting.
Heading into the 2020 elections, Democrats hold the three smallest districts in Iowa while Republicans hold the largest district.
IA Districts - 0 Cards
Kansas had a Republican gerrymander in 2011, which helped to cement the gains they made in 2010 when they flipped the Kansas City-based KS03 district from blue to red. Republicans continued to hold this district until it flipped back to Democrats in 2018. This district is the only small suburban one in the state while the three larger districts have been in Republican hands since 2008; though, KS02 has seen close elections thanks to housing mid-sized cities including a large college town.
Heading into the 2020 elections, Democrats hold the smallest district in Kansas while Republicans hold the three largest districts.
KS Districts - 2 Cards
Michigan is great example of how Democrats and Republicans are representing different types of districts than they have historically. After the 2008 elections, Democrats held an 8-7 advantage delegation in the Michigan Congressional delegation. That advantage flipped to Republicans in 2010 when Republicans picked up two districts—and it held with that party until 2018. In the most recent midterms, Democrats won two Republican districts to bring the delegation back to an even 7-7 (Michigan lost a district during reapportionment). However, those two pick-up districts for Democrats were suburban ones that had been held by Republicans for more than a decade—including through the 2006 and 2008 blue waves. On the flip side, the two districts Democrats lost in 2010 stayed Republican. Perfectly encapsulating the parties’ changing coalitions in the Midwest over the past decade, the two districts Democrats lost in 2010 and haven’t been able to recapture were their two largest districts, while the two Republicans lost in 2018 were their two smallest districts.
Heading into the 2020 elections, Democrats hold the seven smallest district in Michigan while Republicans hold the seven largest districts. Republicans control the same number of districts now as they did after 2008 (seven each time), but the amount of total land they represent has more than doubled from 24,036 to 51,306 square miles.
MI Districts - 3 Cards
Minnesota lost no seats due to reapportionment earlier this decade and had a non-partisan drawing of their maps which has allowed for many competitive districts.
Democrats picked off two Republicans districts while Republicans picked off two Democratic districts meaning the delegation stayed five-to-three Democratic but four of the eight districts in the state switched hands. Minnesota was a unique state in 2018 in that it was the only one in the country where Republicans picked up congressional districts.
After 2018, Democrats now control the four smallest districts in the state, while Republicans control the second through fourth largest. Minnesota’s largest district is controlled by a Democrat, but one who has massive cross-appeal in a district that usually votes almost two-to-one Republican at the presidential level. Republicans control the same amount of districts after 2018 as they did after 2008 (three) but the amount of square miles they represent in Minnesota has skyrocketed from 6,557 to 42,763.
MN Districts - 5 Cards
Missouri lost a district due to reapportionment and had a Republican gerrymander. However, one part of it could be cracking. Before the 2010 midterms, Republicans held a five-to-four delegation majority, but today, with one less district total, Republicans hold a six-to-two delegation majority.
In Missouri, Democrats hold the smallest and third smallest district, while Republicans hold the rest. However, it is the second smallest district in Missouri that is the smallest in the Midwest with a Republican incumbent and Democrats think they have a shot of picking up.
MO Districts - 3 Cards
Nebraska is home to both the third largest district in the Midwest overall and the second smallest held by a Republican after 2018. Republicans got to draw the maps and drew the Omaha-based district in a way that could favor them, without cracking the main county.
NE Districts - 2 Cards
Ohio featured the most successful Republican gerrymander, perhaps in the country for one main reason. They were smart enough to pack Columbus into one district. By giving away one district, they were able to draw an obscene partisan gerrymander overall that locked in a twelve-to-six delegation majority for the entire decade.
Democrats represent four of the five smallest districts while Republicans represent the 11 largest districts plus the fourth smallest.
OH Districts - 2 Cards
Wisconsin is the other effective gerrymander and is really the only state in the Midwest that goes against type with Democrats controlling the smallest districts and Republicans controlling the largest. A Republican gerrymander was able to lock-in a five-to-three delegation majority the entire decade that neither party has been able to crack.
Democrats control the smallest urban district, and Republicans control the second smallest district. Democrats control the third smallest district while Republicans control the fourth and fifth smallest. Democrats control the sixth smallest, while Republicans control the largest.
Wisconsin is a bit weird in that even in 2018, Democrats failed to really improve in the Milwaukee suburbs, losing in the three WOW counties (Waukesha, Ozaukee, and Washington) while doing very well in some small town and rural areas in the southwest and west part of the state. This could be because suburban Milwaukee is not diversifying at the same rate most other major Midwestern cities are.
It should not be understated how Republicans drew maps to ensure Democrats would have a tough time winning districts like Wisconsin’s 1st and Wisconsin’s 7th, but this is the one state where Republicans continue to do great in southeastern Wisconsin’s 1st and 5th districts which are both just under 2,000 square miles and in the greater Milwaukee metro area, but Democrats have made no headway. Likewise, Democrats easily hold the large Wisconsin’s 2nd district which clocks in at 4,536; however, it does contain liberal Madison. And despite Trump winning the 11,111 square mile Wisconsin’s 3rd district, Rep. Ron Kind (D) easily carried all but one county in his 2018 reelection bid where the largest county had less than 60,000 voters. WI03 is now the fourth largest district Democrats hold in the Midwest.
Dakotas: North & South
North Dakota and South Dakota are obviously separate states, but their electoral history in the past decade is strikingly similar. Each of the two states has a small population, and each has one at-large Congressional district. This means that North Dakota and South Dakota combined have fewer districts than any other singular Midwestern state. These state-wide House districts are the two largest in the region, with South Dakota clocking in at 75,811 square miles and North Dakota at 69,001 square miles.
In both 2006 and 2008, Blue Dog Democratic Reps. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (SD) and Earl Pomeroy (ND) won their elections and provided Democrats two representatives from the Dakotas—which are made up of about half rural areas and half small towns. Then the 2010 Tea Party wave happened and wiped them both out. And Democrats haven’t been able to crack 40% in either state’s House election in the elections since. These two districts are extreme examples of how Democrats have become much less able to compete in these large districts over the past decade. This is also true in most of the remaining states where reapportionment and redistricting occurred between 2010 and 2012.
As Democrats look for their future in the Midwest, the route to victory is clear. Democrats must continue to dominate in urban districts while looking for dense suburban ones for potential pickups. There are still some larger districts that are winnable, but they usually contain quite a lot of nearby small urban and suburban areas. And moving forward, the rule will likely be the smaller the better for House Democrats going forward.