"Forty years ago ... about half of congressional districts were genuinely competitive. Today, only about 10 percent of House races on Cook Political Report are listed as ‘toss-ups’ or ‘lean’ to one party."
John Barrow on Thursday, May 17th, 2012 in in an op-ed
Barrow: Congressional elections less competitive
Life for moderate Democrats has grown so lonely that Blue Dog U.S. Rep. John Barrow has taken to singing the blues.
Barrow warbled his lament in The Washington Post, where he blamed gerrymandering for squeezing moderates out of Congress in a May 17 op-ed.
Georgia Republicans drew the Blue Dogs’ co-chairman out of his district in 2011, putting him into heavily Republican territory. He has since moved from Savannah to Augusta as part of a bid to keep his seat in the upcoming election.
"Forty years ago, when I was an intern on the Hill, about half of congressional districts were genuinely competitive," Barrow wrote. "Today, only about 10 percent of House races on Cook Political Report are listed as ‘toss-ups’ or ‘lean’ to one party."
Congress has been unfriendly territory for moderates lately. The 2010 election culled half the Blue Dog membership, and the partisan fervor that helped kill those congressional careers shows no sign of letting up.
But have things changed that much in 40 years?
PolitiFact Georgia contacted Barrow spokesman Peyton Bell for more information. Bell said Barrow was going by memory on the statistics from 40 years ago. We searched for data to see whether we could confirm his claim.
But first, we checked Barrow’s take on the Cook Political Report numbers. Politicos use this publication widely for odds on political races nationwide. It classifies congressional races into three categories: lean, tossup and likely.
"Tossups" are races where either party can win. "Lean" races are competitive, but one party has an advantage. "Likely" races are the least competitive.
Cook lists 23 Democratic and 32 Republican seats as "lean" or "tossup" in its May 17 analysis. This means that nearly 13 percent of the 435 seats in the House of Representatives are in play. This is close to the 10 percent that Barrow used.
Barrow’s statement about congressional races 40 years ago was much weaker.
Gary Jacobson is a political science professor at the University of California, San Diego, who studies Congress and congressional elections, especially voters and partisan polarization in Congress. The data he sent us stretches back to the end of World War II.
Jacobson assessed the competitiveness of House races by tabulating election results. He calculated the proportion of those that were won with less than 55 percent and 60 percent of the vote.
By these definitions, very few races are competitive. Forty years ago, in 1972, only some 15 percent of House races were won with less than 55 percent of the vote. Only 28 percent were won with less than 60 percent.
"By neither standard were anything like half the seats competitive," Jacobson said.
These rates have gone up and down in the past 40 years.
In the 18 years after World War II, the number of races won with 60 percent of the vote or less hovered between 35 percent and 45 percent. The number of those won with 55 percent or less ranged between 20 percent and 28 percent.
Since then, the numbers have fluctuated greatly, according to Jacobson’s data. Races were particularly noncompetitive in 1988 and the early 2000s, but they show no clear trend, Jacobson said.
The proportion of races won by 60 percent or less of the vote rebounded and broke the 35 percent mark within four to six years of those declines. Those won by 55 percent or less rose above 20 percent.
This isn’t to say that moderates are having an easy time. Congressional districts do appear to be getting more partisan, according to other data Jacobson has compiled. But this trend does not appear to be related to redistricting, he said.
Half of Barrow’s statement is accurate and the other half isn’t.
Barrow’s assessment of Cook Political Report numbers is on target, but House races four decades ago were not as competitive as he recalled.
We therefore give Barrow a Half True.