Sabato's Crystal Ball

The Democrats’ Mythical Third Term Obstacle

Joel K. Goldstein, Guest Columnist June 25th, 2015


Dear Readers: We have long suggested that one factor in the GOP’s favor in the 2016 presidential sweepstakes is a party’s difficulty in winning a third consecutive White House term. But there is another way to look at the subject that does not make the third-term hurdle seem so daunting, as Crystal Ball friend Prof. Joel Goldstein argues in the piece below.

One other note: We’re taking a little time off next week for the Fourth of July, so we will not be publishing. Look for the next edition of the Crystal Ball on Thursday, July 9.

The Editors

Facts, Justice Louis Brandeis taught, are the basis of understanding. Yet facts, even if by definition true, can be misleading when stated imprecisely, without necessary qualifications, or out of context. The misleading power of truth was evident in recent political reporting that invoked history to suggest that Democratic presidential candidates have an uphill climb in winning the White House in 2016 because only once since 1951 has a party won the presidency in three straight elections.

That fact, if true, seems ominous for the Democrats given Barack Obama’s elections in 2008 and 2012. And, of course, the fact is true: George H.W. Bush in 1988 is the only incumbent party candidate to win a third term for his party since the 22nd Amendment precluded presidents from being elected more than twice or serving more than 10 years. On the other six occasions since 1951, the in-power party lost in that quest. Yet the fact is much more misleading than helpful because the 1-6 win-loss record obscures particulars of the individual races, which, when inspected, impeach the basic premise and suggest a different dynamic.

It’s true that the Democrats lost in 1952, but that campaign was for a sixth, not third, consecutive party term following Franklin Roosevelt’s four and Harry S. Truman’s one victories. Change is likely to be much more compelling after 20 years than after eight, especially when the personification of change was Dwight D. Eisenhower, a war hero who probably could have had either party’s nomination.

Richard M. Nixon failed to win a Republican third term in 1960, but barely. The popular vote margin was less than 113,000 votes out of nearly 69 million cast, 0.17% — and some have argued that Nixon actually won the popular vote. John F. Kennedy’s 303 to 219 Electoral College victory was more decisive, but it included razor thin, but critical, margins in states like Hawaii, Illinois, Missouri, New Jersey, and New Mexico. If about 20,000 voters in Illinois, Missouri, and New Jersey had voted for Nixon instead of JFK, the Republican would have won the election. Had fewer than 10,000 voters in Illinois and Missouri flipped their votes, the election would have been thrown into the House of Representatives because neither Kennedy nor Nixon would have procured an electoral vote majority. Vote fraud was suspected in Illinois and Texas. Moreover, Nixon ran an abysmal campaign. He was hurt by his decision to debate; his insistence on campaigning in all 50 states, which caused him to waste precious time in Alaska that might have been spent elsewhere; his failure to enlist Eisenhower fully reportedly due to concerns for the president’s health; and his choice of Henry Cabot Lodge as his running mate.

Hubert Humphrey and the Democrats failed to win a third term in 1968, but again narrowly. The election clearly was winnable for Humphrey: He lost the popular vote by 512,000 out of 73 million votes cast, or 0.7%, but fell 79 electoral votes shy of the magical 270. Lyndon Johnson hurt Humphrey badly by his efforts to prevent Humphrey from separating from the administration’s disastrous Vietnam policy until late September and later by refusing to make public his knowledge that Nixon’s campaign was encouraging the South Vietnamese government to resist peace efforts with the assurance that it would receive a better deal from Nixon. Humphrey was also hurt by the refusal of Sen. Eugene McCarthy to support him until late in the campaign. Notwithstanding these obstacles, the late trends were in Humphrey’s direction, and many thought he would have prevailed if the election had been a few days later.

Gerald Ford narrowly lost in 1976, by two points in the popular vote and 297-240 in the electoral vote. Ford narrowly lost Ohio and Wisconsin, which together would have given him an Electoral College win. Ford overcame a 30 percentage point post-convention deficit but was hurt by Ronald Reagan’s rather tepid support after their divisive primary battle and by debate gaffes — his denial of Soviet dominance of Poland and vice presidential candidate Bob Dole’s suggestion that the Democrats had caused all of America’s wars in the 20th century.

After the elder Bush held serve in 1988, Democrat Al Gore won the popular vote in 2000 and narrowly lost the electoral vote, 271 to 266, after the Supreme Court in a 5-4 vote upheld the younger Bush’s 537-vote margin in Florida. The Sunshine State vote was, of course, tainted by a confusing butterfly ballot, which clearly cost Gore votes in some Democratic-leaning communities in Florida. Gore also made the unfortunate choice to limit use of Bill Clinton as a weapon on his behalf.

John McCain’s bid for a third straight Republican term in 2008 ended in a fairly lopsided defeat as George W. Bush’s unpopularity and an economic crisis before the election proved far too much to overcome.

In essence, the six “third term” elections the incumbent party lost since 1951 include one (1952) for a sixth term, one (2000) where it won the popular vote and narrowly lost the electoral vote, and three (1960, 1968, 1976) where it narrowly lost the popular vote and could have won the electoral vote with a shift of just a few votes. In these four elections, the incumbent party was hurt by its campaign behavior. So in the six races for a third term (excluding 1952), the incumbents won one decisively (1988), lost one decisively (2008), and lost four virtual dead heats marred by campaign problems, which generally included the failure to exploit or obtain cooperation from the incumbent president.

Running for a third term surely imposes some disadvantage. Change is an alluring campaign slogan that allows the outs to promise something better without specifics. The incumbent party has a record to defend, and weak points can be hammered without considering whether the outcome of roads advocated by the other party but not taken would have been worse.

The takeaway from campaign history since 1951 is not that an incumbent party faces long odds in winning a third term. It is rather that campaigns matter. It is hard to imagine McCain prevailing in 2008 given unhappiness with the war in Iraq and the economic collapse under George W. Bush. Yet Humphrey almost won despite Johnson’s disastrous Vietnam escalation, and Ford almost won notwithstanding Watergate and his then-unpopular decision to pardon Nixon, the mastermind of the cover-up. George H.W. Bush won, in part, because he ran a much better campaign than did his rival, Michael Dukakis, and he successfully enlisted Reagan to advance his cause. Had Nixon (1960) and Gore (2000) won, as they should have, and/or Humphrey and Ford, as they could have, no one would be claiming that presidential candidates from a party that has won two in a row are disadvantaged.

Each race has its own dynamic and that for 2016 is yet unknown. The Democrats may not succeed in 2016, but seeking a third term is far from a deal-breaker.

Joel K. Goldstein is the Vincent C. Immel Professor of Law at Saint Louis University School of Law. He is the author of The Modern American Vice Presidency: The Transformation of a Political Institution (Princeton University Press, 1982) and numerous other works on the vice presidency, presidency, and constitutional law.

President 2016: The Clash of Dynasties

Assessing where Clinton & Bush stand after their big speeches

Larry J. Sabato, Kyle Kondik and Geoffrey Skelley, Sabato's Crystal Ball June 18th, 2015


Dear Readers: We made a couple of much-needed improvements to our Crystal Ball website over the past week that we wanted to make sure you knew about. The first, which you’ll see at the top of online posts, are buttons to easily share Crystal Ball stories on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. The second, located at the bottom of posts, is a print button. We also added this button to the bottom of our ratings pages, so you can easily print out our presidential, Senate, House, and gubernatorial ratings. Thanks to Charlie Cook of the Cook Political Report and John Ekdahl of Ace of Spades HQ for suggesting the addition of these features.

If you have any suggestions for improvements to, or if these or other features are not working for you, please e-mail us at Thanks as always for reading the Crystal Ball.

The Editors

In the aftermath of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s (R) announcement speech on Monday, Maggie Haberman of the New York Times tweeted that “Several Dem strategists confess to pangs of concern watching Jeb speech right now.” Ed O’Keefe of the Washington Post replied to Haberman, saying that he was hearing the same thing.

These are just the latest examples of the press citing Hilary Clinton aides or unaffiliated Democrats saying the campaign most fears facing Jeb Bush. Maybe it’s true. But pardon our skepticism. We suspect the Clinton camp would welcome Bush as the GOP nominee, and whispered worries to the contrary could very well just be orchestrated noise. Bush would bring the elimination of dynasty as an issue and no generational contrast. Moreover, the Clinton team already knows exactly how they’ll use the Bush 41 and 43 baggage as campaign projectiles.

Likewise, the best Democrat to wield the dynasty attack on Bush probably is not a Clinton.

Clinton, the former secretary of state and first lady, remains in the driver’s seat to win her party’s nomination, although two recent polls show Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) moving to within hailing distance of her in New Hampshire even as she retains a mighty lead in Iowa and nationally. Bush, meanwhile, is among the favorites in the crowded Republican field, though he is not the favorite — our most recent ratings of the GOP field, which are below, have Bush tied at the top with Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Gov. Scott Walker (R-WI). But given that both Bush and Clinton made big speeches over the past several days, it’s natural to look ahead and ponder the possibility of a rematch of the two families that contested the 1992 presidential election.

Clinton’s speech Saturday felt something like the “relaunch” many described it as, although at the time of her official entry into the presidential race in April, Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta said that a “formal kickoff event” would come later, which is what the speech on New York City’s Roosevelt Island was.

The former secretary of state does not have a reputation as a soaring speaker, and she did nothing to change that Saturday. It was in many respects a laundry list speech, reminiscent of Bill Clinton’s State of the Union addresses, which were often interminably long and filled with small-bore proposals that the press rolled its eyes at but that seemed to go over well with the general public.

Included in the speech was automatic voter registration, universal preschool, paid family leave, a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, and other proposals designed to appeal to rank-and-file Democrats. It was a cavalcade of liberal policy goals that illustrated she’s not taking her eye off step No. 1 this time, the way she did in 2007 by underestimating Barack Obama. She has to win the nomination first, and part of the speech could be summarized as “Take that, Bernie Sanders…and Elizabeth Warren.” Skeptical Republicans might say she was providing “stuff” — as Mitt Romney put it back in 2012 in his criticism of the Democrats — to the various constituencies that make up the modern Democratic Party.

One obvious bit of Clinton pandering was a proposal to amend the Constitution to undo the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling, which Democrats revile as the cause of the infusion of big-money Super PACs onto the political scene. Such an amendment would be politically impossible — two-thirds of the House and Senate would need to approve the amendment, and then three-fourths of the states. Get real. (Some of the Republican candidates are trying the same phony gambit with same-sex marriage as the Supreme Court decides whether to make it universally legal.)

Bush, in his Monday announcement, did his share of pandering. One ambitious goal Bush laid out was the desire to achieve 4% economic growth, which he said would be accompanied by 19 million new jobs. This goal immediately raised the eyebrows of economists, many of whom deemed sustained growth at that rate as unlikely, if not impossible. While Bush didn’t explicitly state how long he would expect the economy grow at such a rate, history suggests it would be hard to achieve for two whole terms in the White House. Based on data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the last time an eight-year period averaged at least 4% growth was from 1983 through 1990 (4.1%), after the early struggles of the Ronald Reagan years passed and the economy continued to perform well early into George H.W. Bush’s presidency. But otherwise, one has to go back to 1973 for another eight-year period with average annual growth at that rate. And that was the end of an era where from 1965 (1958 through 1965) to 1973 (1966 through 1973) every eight-year period had at least a 4% average. More recently, Bill Clinton came very close to pulling off what may indeed be Bush’s goal: Clinton’s presidency featured an average annual growth rate of 3.9%. Somehow, we guess Hillary Clinton, not Jeb Bush, will be boasting about that one.

Lofty goals qualify as bold, but a garden-variety campaign pledge can become a political boomerang. Look at Obama: Part of his 2008 appeal was a pledge to bring the parties together, an impossible task in this polarized era that he has spectacularly (with the GOP’s determined help) failed to achieve.

One fascinating aspect of Bush’s announcement was his adoption of his father and brother’s approach. Bush 41 promised a “kinder, gentler” administration, while Bush 43 doubled down with “compassionate conservatism.” Now, the potential Bush 45 has promised to show people what is “in my heart.”

But slogans and approaches cannot obscure historical records. Hillary Clinton’s response will be something along these lines: “Twice the American people were promised compassion, and what they got was war and recession. Why would we take the bait a third time? It’s still the economy, stupid!”

No presidential candidate is tabula rasa, a blank slate. They all come carrying baggage. Hillary has plenty of it, some Bill’s and some all her own. But no one needs as big a baggage cart as Jeb Bush, who will lug the weight of a dozen Bush White House years around on the campaign trail, plus the controversies from his eight years in Tallahassee.

Given that Bush, like Clinton, is not a naturally gifted speaker, we found his performance Monday to be strong. Even though he’s effectively been in the race since December, it’s easy to imagine that the coverage of Bush’s speech and official announcement will help him get a small bump in the polls.

Both Bush and Clinton want to distance themselves from two men apiece: For Bush, it’s 41 and 43. In his announcement speech, Jeb Bush said that no one deserves to win the White House “by right of resume, party, seniority, family, or family narrative. It’s nobody’s turn.”

For Clinton, it’s 42 and 44. In an interview with the Des Moines Register earlier this week, Hillary was asked about whether she was running for a third Bill Clinton or Barack Obama term. “I’m running for my first term. I will have my own proposals,” she said.

There’s a grain of truth to both claims, but they are denying the larger reality. Bush is where he is because his brother and father were POTUS; he’s far more Bush than Jeb. And Clinton is there because of Bill and Barack. She is indeed a continuation of both presidencies.

Big breaks from the past by these two candidates just aren’t possible because the public isn’t going to find them credible.

Hillary’s task is not easy, because as we’ve seen many times, Bill can say and do things that require major cleanup. Moreover, any new scandal involving Bill reminds voters of the long history of ethical problems that has dogged both Clintons. And she has to live with President Obama’s successes and failures — those already catalogued and those occurring right through Election Day.

What’s the saving grace for Clinton? First, even a lame duck president such as Obama can maneuver in substantive ways to help her. Second, Clinton has less defending to do with her husband’s record than Bush must do for his brother’s two terms.

In retrospect, President Clinton is remembered more for a golden economy than for the sex scandal. It sure didn’t look this way as America said farewell to Bill Clinton in January 2001, yet public perceptions shift over time.

Bush’s challenge is much greater. He carries the burden of his brother’s more recent and very controversial presidency. Voters don’t need to see George W. on the campaign trail to remember Iraq, Katrina, and economic disaster. The previous Bush presidency wasn’t that long ago.

Both Bush 41 and 43 have a legacy of economic struggle, and that reinforces Jeb’s dilemma and gives Hillary a big opening.

So what does Jeb do? Beyond asserting independence (“I’m my own man”) he has to draw as many distinctions with his brother as possible. Still, most people know Jeb owes his position to his family name, and Jeb basically endorsed everything George did at the time.

Jeb has to hope his enormous war chest and establishment backing propels him to the nomination, and then maybe voters in the fall of 2016 will want change badly enough that they’ll pick the Republican ticket, whatever their doubts about installing yet another Bush.

In that sense, an election between a Bush and a Clinton might turn out to be more about the current occupant of the White House than either of the dynasties.

A word on Trump

Table 1 shows our updated 2016 Republican presidential rankings (our Democratic rankings are unchanged). In an effort to prune a list that feels like it is ever-expanding, we have removed hawkish Rep. Peter King (R-NY), who hasn’t made much noise about actually running lately and whose potential role in the field as a foil to dovish Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) is now being filled by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC).

In his place amongst the “Gadflies and Golden Oldies” goes businessman Donald Trump, who announced for president on Tuesday in a rambling speech.

The key thing to note about Trump is that he is deeply unpopular both nationally and with Republicans. Quinnipiac University recently found him with a weak 34% favorable/52% unfavorable rating nationally among Republicans. A Monmouth University poll released earlier this week was even worse: 20% favorable and 55% unfavorable. That -35 point favorability gap was far worse than any other Republican, dwarfing that of even Graham and Gov. Chris Christie (R-NJ), who are also unpopular with Republicans. Few give those two much chance of winning the nomination, and Trump’s odds are as bad and probably worse.

Team Trump argues that with such a big field, Trump has enough niche support that he can get some traction in the early states and grow from there. It’s not impossible that Trump will make some noise, and he is such an over-sized (some would say outrageous) personality that he’s guaranteed to generate coverage, perhaps at the expense of other GOP candidates. This may be true particularly in the coming dog days of a summer campaign, when Trump’s rhetorical bomb-throwing will fill column inches and airtime. While unpopular, Trump is well-known, and that name ID could keep him in the top 10 of national polling by the time of the first Republican debate in Cleveland on Aug. 6 — a ticket to the stage and a huge TV audience. (Trump is now at about 4% in the RealClearPolitics polling average, and no. 9 overall in the GOP field.)

However, it should not shock anyone if Trump’s dalliance with the 2016 campaign turns out to be brief. The billionaire could be long gone from the race by the time the first votes are cast in Iowa and New Hampshire, if his efforts are not bearing fruit and he wants to preserve The Apprentice. Trump has a well-earned reputation as a national novelty act that he will have to overcome if he wants to be taken seriously by both the press and the voters.

Table 1: 2016 Crystal Ball ratings of Republican presidential candidates

First Tier: The Frontrunners
(in alphabetical order)
Candidate Key Primary Advantages Key Primary Disadvantages
Jeb Bush
Ex-Governor, FL
•Conservative gubernatorial resume
•National Bush money and organization, has already raised huge sums
•Personifies establishment, which typically produces GOP nominees
•Bush fatigue is real — Jeb cannot avoid George W.’s negatives
•Support for Common Core and immigration reform
•Personifies establishment, which grassroots loathes
Marco Rubio
Senator, FL
•Dynamic speaker and politician
•Potential appeal to party insiders and outsiders
•Generational contrast with Jeb…and Hillary
•Went left on immigration, hurt him with base
•Increased stature in field attracting opposition attacks and media scrutiny
Scott Walker
Governor, WI
•Heroic conservative credentials
•Checks boxes for many wings of party
•Early momentum in Iowa and nationally
•Criticism of legal immigration might scare party’s business wing
•Does lack of college degree matter?
•Needs to prove he knows foreign policy
Second Tier: The Outsiders
Ted Cruz
Senator, TX
•Dynamic debater and canny, often underestimated politician
•Anti-establishment nature plays well with base
•Hard for anyone to get to his right
•Too extreme?
•Disliked on both sides of the Senate aisle
•Strong Tea Party support ensures establishment resistance to candidacy
Rand Paul
Senator, KY
•Strong support from libertarian and Tea Party wings
•National ID and fundraising network; benefits from father’s previous efforts
•Dovish views on national security are out of GOP mainstream
•Association with father
•Might also be losing some of his fathers support by moderating
Third Tier: The Governor Alternatives
John Kasich
Governor, OH
•Long moderate-conservative record plus two terms as swing-state Ohio governor
•Could be fallback for GOP establishment forces
•Supported Medicaid expansion, backs Common Core
•Long record to scrutinize
•Jon Huntsman 2.0?
Rick Perry
Ex-Governor, TX
•Running vigorously and has strong campaign team
•2012 campaign so poor that he may now be underrated
•Bombed in much weaker 2012 field
•Hard to make a second first impression, especially under indictment
Chris Christie
Governor, NJ
•Commanding speaker and stage presence
•Very high name ID
•Honeymoon in NJ is long over
•Weak favorability among Republicans and general public
Bobby Jindal
Governor, LA
•Deep and wide experience
•Knows how to toss red meat to base
•Better on paper than on stump
•Deeply unpopular in Louisiana
Fourth Tier: Evangelical Favorites
Mike Huckabee
Ex-Governor, AR
•Well-known from his Fox News program
•Strong support from social conservatives
•Southerner in Southern-based party
•Disliked by establishment for economic populism and social views — party leaders don’t think he’s electable
•Small fundraising base
Ben Carson
Neurosurgeon and activist
•Adored by Tea Party grassroots
•Good on TV
•Little chance of establishment backing and funding
Rick Santorum
Ex-Senator, PA
•Strong support from social conservatives
•Been around primary track
•Harder to stand out in much stronger 2016 field
•Not as economically conservative as others
Fifth Tier: The Gadflies and Golden Oldies
Lindsey Graham
Senator, SC
•Prominent Obama critic
•Media savvy and hawkish views on foreign policy
•Vehemently disliked by grassroots
•Immigration reform efforts hurt him with conservatives
Carly Fiorina
Former business executive
•The only woman in the field, severe critic of Clinton
•Very wealthy, could self-fund
•Lost only race (2010 Senate) badly
•Largely unknown, no base of support
Donald Trump
Businessman and TV personality
•Enough name ID to get into debates
•Can command the stage — freedom to say anything
•Draws crowds & media
•Billionaire, could self-fund
•Low favorability among Republicans and general public
•More novelty than plausible nominee
•Makes outlandish statements
•Strongly opposed by GOP leadership
George Pataki
Ex-Governor, NY
•Very long elective experience in a big (Democratic) state — plus 9/11 experience •Zero grassroots excitement
Jim Gilmore
Ex-Governor, VA
•Record as tax-cutter
•Military record, intelligence officer during Cold War
•Not strong on the stump
•Left office in 2002: “Jim Who?”
•Lost 2008 Senate race by 31 points
Bob Ehrlich
Ex-Governor, MD
•Federal and state government experience •Lost twice to…Martin O’Malley
•No rationale for candidacy

List changes

Additions: Donald Trump

Subtractions: Rep. Peter King (NY)

Virginia’s Redistricting History: What’s Past Is Prologue

Previous conflicts still resonate in today's clash over congressional boundaries

Geoffrey Skelley, Associate Editor, Sabato's Crystal Ball June 18th, 2015


Earlier this month the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia found Virginia’s 3rd Congressional District to be a racial gerrymander, therefore deeming the state’s congressional map unconstitutional. The attorney for the Virginia Republican congressional delegation said an appeal of this latest ruling to the Supreme Court is likely, as did Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R, VA-6). But if the Supreme Court declines to take the case, the Virginia General Assembly will have to redraw the state’s district lines by Sept. 1.

There are a number of potential outcomes, but this ruling increases the likelihood that Virginia will end up with a fresh set of congressional boundaries. As for what a replacement map might look like, Stephen Wolf takes a thorough look at some potential outcomes.

The possibility of future linear machinations prompted the Crystal Ball to take a look back at the last five decades of congressional district cartography in Virginia. We thought it would be useful to readers to see what the lines looked like in the past and how many redistricting conflicts presaged the current one.

1. Post-1960 census district map: First election in 1962 for 88th Congress

Note: Click on map to enlarge and see independent city key

Source: Bureau of the Census, Congressional District Data Book, Districts of the 88th Congress (A Statistical Abstract Supplement). U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC, 1963. Accessed via HathiTrust.

The post-1960 census map was actually a simple continuation of the map Virginia put into place after the 1950 census, when reapportionment assigned a 10th House seat to the Old Dominion. At this time, Democrats controlled eight of the state’s districts, with Republicans holding only the 6th and 10th Districts. As this map was drawn prior to “one man, one vote,” district populations ranged from 539,618 in the 10th, which abutted Washington, DC, to just 312,890 in the 7th, which mainly included the Shenandoah Valley.

2. 1965 map (and inset): First election in 1966 for 90th Congress

Note: Click on state map to enlarge and see independent city key

Map inset: Northern Virginia

Source: Bureau of the Census, Supplement to Congressional District Data Book: Redistricted States. U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC: 1967. Accessed via HathiTrust.

In January 1965, the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals found that the congressional map violated both the state and federal constitutions and ordered the state to redraw its boundaries to reduce the significant district-to-district population differences. The court ruling reflected the many recent judicial decisions that had impacted representation, including rulings backing “one man, one vote.” The new district plan was passed in the General Assembly on Sept. 3, 1965, and while it didn’t completely undo some population variation between the districts (eight of 10 were within ±5% deviation), it did reduce overpopulation in the more urban 2nd and 10th Districts.

The new map featured the first partition of a county in the state’s history, adding much of the western part of Fairfax County to the 8th District while the more developed eastern part remained in the 10th. This change would play a role in altering the dynamics of the 8th, represented by 18-term Rep. Howard W. Smith (D), then-chair of the powerful House Rules Committee. Smith went on to shockingly lose to liberal state Del. George C. Rawlings in the Democratic primary in 1966. Rawlings’ primary victory wound up helping to launch the career of William Scott (R), a Fairfax attorney who beat Rawlings in November; Scott would later defeat Sen. William Spong (D) in the state’s 1972 U.S. Senate contest, assisted by President Nixon’s long reelection coattails. Following the GOP successes nationally in 1966, the state’s delegation was 6-4 in favor of Democrats at the start of the 90th Congress.

3. 1971 map: Never used

Note: Click on state map to enlarge and see independent city key

Source: Bureau of the Census, Congressional District Data; Districts of the 93d Congress. U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC, 1972. Accessed via HathiTrust.

4. 1972 map: First election in 1972 for 93rd Congress

Note: Click on state map to enlarge and see independent city key

Source: Bureau of the Census, Congressional District Data Book, 93d Congress (A Statistical Abstract Supplement). U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC, 1973. Accessed via HathiTrust.

The next redistricting cycle would prove to be more challenging. Recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions necessitated much smaller deviations in population from district to district. The 1970 census found that population growth in districts in western Virginia and in Southside had not kept pace with the growth seen in most of the more urban and suburban districts (still the case today). Besides the population shifts, incumbency and divided government (a first in the state’s modern history, with Republican Gov. Linwood Holton controlling the state’s executive branch) also created conflicts.

Passed in 1971, the first map attempted to deal with all these issues while retaining some population disparities that went slightly beyond recently-established precedents before the Supreme Court. This was a result of the Democratic-controlled General Assembly’s interest in preserving separate districts for Reps. Watkins Abbitt (D) and Dan Daniel (D); Abbitt, representing the 4th District, had his home in Appomattox County, not far from Daniel’s hometown of Danville in the 5th District. The map was summarily challenged in court and eventually ruled unconstitutional.

The drawing of the second map, adopted on March 11, 1972, was made easier by Abbitt’s decision to retire after over 20 years in the House. The plan had much less deviation than the previous effort: The new 5th District’s -0.44% deviation was the largest. The new map also expanded the number of localities that were divided beyond just Fairfax County, partitioning Chesterfield and Stafford counties and the city of Virginia Beach. The new plan helped turn over the state’s House delegation, which saw the exit of three incumbents. Following the 1972 election, Republicans held seven of the state’s 10 House seats.

5. 1981 map: First election in 1982 for 98th Congress

Note: Click on state map to enlarge and see independent city key

Map inset: Chesterfield County

Source: CQ Voting and Elections Collection, Congressional Districts Map, Virginia, 1981. CQ Press, Washington, DC, 2003. Map inset via the Bureau of the Census, Congressional Districts of the 98th Congress. U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC, 1983. Accessed via HathiTrust.

At the federal level, Virginia’s post-1980 census map for the U.S. House didn’t encounter the same drama it had seen in the 1960s and 1970s, though the new map for the Virginia House of Delegates caused a maelstrom — but that’s another story. Divided government in Richmond (with Republican Gov. John Dalton) produced a congressional map that continued to push the lines of Virginia’s western districts further east as population growth centered around the Urban Crescent, particularly in Northern Virginia. Growth in the DC metro area necessitated splitting Prince William County for the first time between the 7th and 10th Districts, with the new independent cities of Manassas and Manassas Park and the northwestern half of Prince William shifting to the 7th District. In the 2nd District, shrinking Norfolk and booming Virginia Beach (population-wise) continued to be grouped together, except the new iteration of the map now included the entirety of both localities.

Politically, the GOP had a very successful cycle in the Reagan Revolution of 1980, just before this map was drawn, taking nine of the state’s 10 seats. But Gov. Dalton and Republicans in the General Assembly (in the minority) weren’t able to provide much assistance with the new lines as the pendulum swung back towards the Democrats in the Reagan midterm of 1982; Republicans lost three net seats, leaving them with a 6-4 advantage in the congressional delegation. Among those Democratic victors was state Sen. Rick Boucher, who defeated long-time Rep. William Wampler (R) by less than a percentage point in the “Fightin’ Ninth” in the westernmost part of the state. Boucher would go on to last 14 terms before he too wound up on the wrong side of a pendulum swing in the huge Republican wave year of 2010, losing to now-Rep. Morgan Griffith (R).

6. 1992 map: First election in 1992 for 103rd Congress

Note: Click on state map to enlarge and see independent city key

Source: Bureau of the Census, 1990 Census of Population and Housing. Population and Housing Characteristics for Congressional Districts of the 103rd Congress. Virginia. U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC, 1993. Accessed via HathiTrust.

The new congressional map following the 1990 census had major short and long-term political ramifications for both parties. A number of factors impacted the mapmaking process. For the first time since the 1960s, Virginia redistricted with one-party control of the process (the Democrats) in Richmond. Second, reapportionment following the 1990 census gave the Old Dominion an 11th congressional district, its first increase since the 1950 census. Third, for the first time the new map would include a majority-minority district, reflecting a need to address the state’s lack of African-American representation despite the fact that 19% of Virginians were black.

Looking to create Democratic gains, Democrats drew Rep. George Allen (R), who had just won a 1991 special election to represent the old 7th District, into a new 7th District with veteran Rep. Thomas Bliley (R). Allen chose not to challenge Bliley for the GOP nomination, waiting instead for other political opportunities to arise. In the short term, the new plan was largely successful for Democrats in 1992: state Sen. Bobby Scott (D) won the new majority-minority 3rd easily, while state Del. Leslie Byrne (D) won the new 11th. Republicans did gain the 6th District, as Roanoke attorney Bob Goodlatte (R) won the race to replace retiring Rep. James Olin (D). But overall, Democrats went from holding a 6-4 advantage in the House delegation to holding a 7-4 edge after the 1992 elections.

However, in the long term, the 1992 map could not be called a success for Democrats. Byrne lost to Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chair Tom Davis (R) in 1994, and more importantly, George Allen decided to run for governor in 1993. Few initially gave him much of a chance against Democratic state Attorney General Mary Sue Terry, but Allen wound up winning by a wide margin, becoming the first Republican to win the Virginia governorship since 1977. After his eventful governorship, Allen went on to defeat Sen. Chuck Robb (D) in the state’s 2000 Senate race. Six years later Allen was unseated by Jim Webb (D) in a contest that decided control of the U.S. Senate.

7. 1998 map: First election in 1998 for 106th Congress

Note: Click on state map to enlarge

Source: The Almanac of American Politics 2002

The 1992 map only survived three election cycles. Similar to the legal clash over Virginia’s map today, the majority-minority 3rd District was ruled unconstitutional by a federal court in 1997. Described by observers as a “grasping claw” or “squashed salamander,” the 3rd snaked across the map in order to have a voting-age population that was over 60% African American, prompting the court to rule it a racial gerrymander. In its ruling, the court found that the state had prioritized race over compactness, communities of interest, and locality boundaries to draw a safe black district. In the court’s judgment, the state’s defense of the map failed to meet the third condition of the three-prong test established by Thornburg v. Gingles (1986): that “the minority must be able to demonstrate that the white majority votes sufficiently as a bloc” to “usually defeat the minority’s preferred candidate.” Interestingly, however, the General Assembly’s black caucus had actually preferred a plan with a district that was over 60% black rather than two that were narrowly over 50% black.

Regardless, with the court’s decision, the state went back to the drawing board, producing a new map that Gov. Jim Gilmore (R) signed into law in February 1998. The boundaries of the 3rd District shifted markedly, reducing its black voting age population percentage from above 60% to about 53%. The changes to the 3rd led to alterations to the 1st, 2nd, and 4th districts as well. But overall, there was no representational impact, as the 1998 election cycle saw no districts change hands.

8. 2001 map: First election in 2002 for 108th Congress

Note: Click on state map to enlarge

Source: Census Bureau

Just three years later, politicians in Richmond had to once again put together a new congressional map following the 2000 census. But for the first time in Virginia history, Republicans held the governorship and both chambers of the General Assembly, giving them full control over the redistricting process. (More or less; there was a power-sharing agreement in the House of Delegates over committee structure, but the GOP held a majority of seats). The congressional plan, signed into law in July 2001, helped solidify what would become an 8-3 hold on the state’s 11 seats following independent Rep. Virgil Goode’s decision to run as a Republican in 2002.

Related to the current legal case regarding the 3rd District, the 2001 congressional plan drew criticism from some quarters for slightly increasing the percentage of African American voters in Scott’s district. A side effect of this change was to reduce the black voting age population in the 4th District from 38% to 32%. There, new Rep. Randy Forbes (R) had just narrowly won a special election in June 2001 to fill the seat following the death of Rep. Norman Sisisky (D). The alterations to the 3rd and 4th Districts made both seats safer for their respective incumbents. Naturally, there were legal challenges to these changes, but in 2004 a federal court ruled against the plaintiffs, who claimed the plan “packed” African Americans into the 3rd District to reduce black influence in the 4th District.

9. 2012 map: First election in 2012 for 113th Congress

Note: Click on state map to enlarge

Source: National Atlas of the United States

The most recent congressional redistricting in Virginia saw the implementation of what could surely be called an incumbent protection map. But it took a little while to get there, in part because of machinations regarding the state legislative maps.

With state legislative elections scheduled for November 2011, the General Assembly scheduled a special session to finalize new district boundaries. The Republican majority in the House of Delegates and the Democratic majority in the Senate of Virginia sought to protect their advantages in each chamber, drawing strongly partisan lines. But Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) vetoed the initial state-level maps to force Democrats in the Senate to draw a less egregious gerrymander. They complied, in part because of the potential threat of a court-drawn map that would have made it more difficult to hold onto their 22-18 majority. Meanwhile, the congressional redistricting process went unfinished. But the contours of the eventual map were revealed in March 2011: With the tacit approval of the Democratic congressmen, Republicans in the congressional delegation crafted a map that sought to protect incumbents of both parties.

Nevertheless, as long as the state Senate remained in Democratic hands, the future of this plan remained uncertain. Democrats in the General Assembly’s upper chamber had offered a competing plan (and a substitute version) that aimed to create a new majority-minority 4th District while adjusting the 3rd District in such a way as to make it a “minority-opportunity” district with a white plurality. But in the November 2011 elections, Republicans gained two net seats in the state Senate, enabling them to take control of the chamber via Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling’s (R) tie-breaking vote.

With full control of the General Assembly, the GOP now held full power over the redistricting process. During the 2012 legislative session, the new map, essentially the same as the one unveiled in March 2011, passed through the House of Delegates and the Senate of Virginia and was signed into law by Gov. McDonnell in late January 2012. The new lines helped cement the GOP’s 8-3 advantage in congressional representation (even as Virginia was becoming more Democratic).

The district that saw the most change was Rep. Gerry Connolly’s (D) 11th District, which went from being a district where Barack Obama won 57% in 2008 to one where he won 62% that year. Connolly had barely survived in 2010; he subsequently had relatively easy reelections in 2012 and 2014 under the new lines. But the GOP didn’t make his seat safer as a favor to Connolly: The new map shifted heavily Democratic-leaning parts of areas in Fairfax and Prince William counties into Connolly’s district while placing more Republican-leaning parts in then-Rep. Frank Wolf’s (R) 10th District as well as Rep. Rob Wittman’s (R) 1st District.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s (R) 7th District also changed a bit, going from a district where John McCain won 53% in 2008 to one where McCain won 56%. Cantor’s district also lost some of its western-most counties. Although there were many reasons for Cantor’s 2014 primary loss to now-Rep. Dave Brat (R), the fact the district became more conservative may have played a role in his ouster.

Lastly, the majority-black 3rd District went from having a 53% African-American voting age population to having one that is 56% black, while the nearby 4th District shifted from having a voting age population that was 34% black to one that is 31% black. These changes play a key part in the ongoing legal battle.

Conclusion: A short timeline of recent events

This historical review brings us to the present day, where the future of the state’s congressional map is up in the air. It may be helpful to sketch out a short timeline of how we arrived at this point:

While it remains to be seen how this will all play out, the modern history of redistricting in Virginia illustrates just how thorny the process can be. Past conflicts still resonate today as the battle lines over the makeup of the ever-controversial 3rd District are remarkably similar to previous clashes over that district’s boundaries.

Proponents of nonpartisan redistricting would argue that much of this evidence points to the difficulties of having partisan institutions like the General Assembly and governor decide the district lines, whether at the state or federal level. But with the possible undoing of nonpartisan redistricting commissions in Arizona and California because of a case before the Supreme Court, a (somewhat) nonpartisan answer to Virginia’s redistricting struggles may not be an option in the future.

Going forward under the current redistricting system, we are likely to see similar future battles over familiar issues. Although history doesn’t repeat itself, it can certainly rhyme.