by August Benzow
- There are remarkable similarities between the average Democratic and the average Republican Congressional district in the Distressed Communities Index.
- Partisanship, defined by voting margins in the 2020 presidential election, is most intense in economically distressed districts and least intense in prosperous districts, which tend to cover suburban battlegrounds.
- Among the 10 most distressed Congressional districts, seven have Republican incumbents and are in deep red states. All these districts are majority non-Hispanic white and rural.
- Democrat-held distressed districts are significantly more racially and ethnically diverse: 63 percent of the population living in a Democrat-held distressed district is non-white, compared to 29 percent for Republican-held distressed districts
- Most districts considered a tossup in the 2022 midterms tend to be prosperous or comfortable suburban and rural areas.
A new map of Congressional districts based off of the 2020 Census will be used for the first time in the 2022 midterm elections. This analysis uses the Distressed Communities Index (DCI) to analyze the characteristics of Republican and Democratic Congressional districts, including those considered to be most contested in the upcoming midterm elections. The DCI sorts districts using seven complementary economic indicators combined into a single measure that allows us to sort geographies into five quintiles of well-being: prosperous, comfortable, mid-tier, at risk, and distressed.
The geography of economic prosperity and distress intersects with the new redistricted Congressional district map in several significant ways. Most Republican districts are either in the fast-growing South or economically distressed rural areas, while most Democratic districts are in prosperous suburbs or economically diverse urban areas. This analysis finds that partisanship runs highest in the country’s most distressed districts, with rural distress tends to be deep red areas, and urban distress tending to be deep blue. At the other end of the spectrum, prosperous districts are almost equally controlled by both parties, but Republican margins in these highly-educated areas tend to be lower. However, the complex boundaries of districts, which can link rural and urban areas, makes for a large group of tossup districts that defy easy classification and span the spectrum of economic well-being.
Democratic districts are slightly more prosperous, but Republican districts are adding new businesses faster
Across the seven DCI indicators, there are remarkable similarities between the average Democratic and the average Republican Congressional district. On average, they score within 7 points of each other on the DCI, both landing in what would be considered the mid-tier. Poverty rates and job growth rates are nearly identical in the average Republican and the average Democratic districts. Nonetheless, there are notable differences between the two groups. Median household incomes are higher in the average Democratic districts. The strong performance of Democrats among the college-educated voters who cluster in well-off areas is the most likely explanation for this trend. Even though the average Democratic district has a higher share of college educated residents, it also has a slightly higher share of residents without a high school diploma, likely due to higher numbers of economically-disadvantaged communities of color. Republicans outperform Democrats in rural areas and are concentrated in the fast-growing South, which likely explains the higher average growth in establishments.
Mapping distress and prosperity at the Congressional district level
The map of distress and prosperity at the Congressional-district level showcases the economic diversity captured by district boundaries. An equal number of states—21 in total—have no prosperous or distressed Congressional districts and are spread across the map. While these states may have pockets of distress that are captured by smaller geographic boundaries like zip codes, this differentiation is obscured at the district level.
Large rural districts in the South are most likely to be distressed. Texas has the most distressed districts with 12 in total, but West Virginia, which only has two districts, is the only state where every district is distressed. Seven of Upstate New York’s nine districts are considered economically distressed. Washington is the most populous state to have no distressed districts, although it does have one at-risk district.
Districts in the Mountain West are overwhelmingly prosperous or comfortable, with all of Utah’s four districts and seven of Colorado’s eight districts falling into one of those two groups. California boasts the most prosperous districts, mostly along its coast. Ohio is the largest state without any prosperous districts, but it does have four comfortable districts.
At the Congressional district level, the incidence of prosperity or distress can very much depend on how district boundaries are drawn. Whether regarded as intentional gerrymandering or attempts to create homogenous communities of interest, adjacent districts frequently score very differently on the DCI: the distressed districts representing the urban cores of Milwaukee (WI-4), Newark (NJ-10), and St. Louis (MO-1) are all neighbored by prosperous districts.
The most distressed districts tend to be Republican and rural, while prosperity concentrates in more evenly divided suburbs
Among the 10 most distressed Congressional districts, seven have Republican incumbents and are in deep red states. All these districts are majority non-Hispanic white and rural. As a group, they rank especially poorly on housing vacancy rates and prime-age adults not working, the clearest indicators of the economic challenges these communities face.
The three Democrat-held districts in the bottom 10 all have especially high non-white shares of the population. They include MS-02, which is 64 percent Black, and NM-03, which is 17 percent Native American and 44 percent Hispanic. OH-11 is the only mostly suburban district in this list and includes urban Cleveland and most of its surrounding suburbs.
At the other end of the spectrum, all but one of the country’s 10 most prosperous districts is suburban: WA-08 includes the rural areas east of Seattle. These districts are evenly split between Democrats and Republicans. The most prosperous Democrat-controlled districts can be found in blue or purple states on the outskirts of major metropolitan areas, such as VA-10, which extends from the western edge of the D.C. metropolitan area into rural Virginia. Prosperous Republican-represented districts tend to be in red or purple states, such as TX-24, which connects Fort Worth and Dallas, and AZ-05 in eastern Maricopa County. The most diverse district in this list is VA-11, where nearly a quarter of the population identifies as Asian and almost a third is foreign-born.
Virginia is the only state with one of the 10 most distressed and one of the 10 most prosperous districts in the country, highlighting the immense divide between its more metropolitan northern and mainly rural southern regions.
Partisanship is highest in distressed districts, while Democrats have a stronger hold on prosperous districts
Prosperous Republican-controlled districts tend to be less solidly red than their Democratic counterparts are blue. Among the 20 most prosperous Republican districts, Trump received 56 percent of the vote in 2020 on average. By contrast, among the 20 most prosperous Democratic districts, Biden received 62 percent of the vote on average.
Democratic minus Republican (D-R) voter margins were calculated for the new Congressional map using crosswalked 2020 election data. The D-R margin is defined as the percent who voted for Biden in the 2020 election minus the percent who voted for Trump. A positive value indicates a Democratic advantage, whereas a negative value indicates a Republican vote advantage.
Across all prosperous and comfortable districts, 2020 presidential election margins were nearly twice as wide on average for Democrat-controlled districts compared to Republican-controlled districts. Democrats typically do well among college graduates, which have the highest concentrations in prosperous districts: 45.1 percent on average compared to 23.5 percent for distressed. Republican-held prosperous districts also tend to have lower college-educated shares. In Republican-held districts, 40 percent of residents are college-educated on average, compared to 48 percent in the average Democrat-held district.
Among distressed districts, the average D-R margin for Republican-held districts was significantly higher than any other quintile and for Democratic-held districts it was only slightly lower than the next tier above, at risk, and notably higher than any other quintile. This tendency for distress to be partisan points to the very different demographics of the distressed districts that usually go to one party or the other. Forty-three percent of Democrat-held distressed districts are urban, while 96 percent of those held by a Republican are rural. Democrat-held distressed districts are also significantly more racially and ethnically diverse: 63 percent of the population living in a Democrat-held distressed district is non-white, compared to 29 percent for Republican-held distressed districts.
Tossup Congressional districts span every quintile of distress and prosperity
Heading into the 2022 midterms, the Cook Political Report considered 35 district races to be “tossups” as of November 1st. Every quintile of the DCI is represented among these districts, but the largest number of them are prosperous and there are more that are prosperous or comfortable than the remaining three quintiles combined.
The most contested Democrat-controlled districts tend to be rural or suburban districts in blue states, almost all of which are majority white. As a whole, their contested status provides further evidence that rural areas everywhere are drifting to the right. The open seat to represent the heavily agricultural 17th Congressional district in Illinois, stretching from Peoria to Rockford, is an example. It is scored as distressed on the DCI and performs poorly across all the DCI metrics but receives especially poor marks for its loss of jobs and business establishments, with a 5 percent decline in both from 2016 to 2020.
Oregon’s 6th Congressional district is a very different example of Republican inroads in blue states. It is a new district that scores as prosperous on the DCI, and while it does include the urban and suburban areas centered around Salem, the state capital, its largest voting bloc is spread across the rural areas to the west of the capital and more suburban areas to the north. Around a fifth of the district’s population is Hispanic, making it one of the more diverse districts in the state. NV-01, which covers the southeast corner of Las Vegas, is an even more urban district where Republicans are making inroads. It is more than one-third Hispanic and considered at risk on the DCI. Both these districts show how Democrats can struggle in fast growing, demographically diverse districts across the economic spectrum and capture the trend of working class Hispanics moving towards Republicans.
Far fewer Republican districts are considered tossups this cycle. Most of them are demographically diverse, rural and suburban districts in blue states with high shares of college-educated residents. Colorado’s 8th district is a notable example of a district where there are conflicting indicators of advantage for both parties. Encompassing the mostly rural counties north of Denver, the district has a Hispanic share close to 40 percent, the highest in the state. It is scored as prosperous with a quarter of its population holding a college degree. NY-22 stands out in the list because it is economically distressed and nearly 80 percent non-Hispanic white. It includes the city of Syracuse and its suburbs, but most of the district’s population is rural. In short, it is a true tossup district with demographic and economic characteristics of places where both parties hold seats.
The DCI provides a useful lens for analyzing the country's political divides and reveals that both parties represent communities at all different tiers of economic well-being. Even in these hyper-partisan times, many communities and districts defy easy partisan classification. Majority-white distressed districts tend to fall in the Republican camp, especially in rural areas. Majority non-white distressed districts tend to lean Democrat, especially in urban areas. Prosperous and comfortable suburban areas remain the battlegrounds that will likely determine control of Congress. And yet, despite those tendencies, multiple other factors mediate political inclinations and open opportunities for each party to make inroads into new parts of the electoral map.
All urban-rural definitions are based on locale boundaries from the National Center for Education Statistics. Congressional districts are classified based on where the majority of the population lives, but many districts include a mix of urban, suburban, and rural areas.