How Redistricting Can Create a Springboard for Presidential Candidates

A little noticed aspect of the controversial article and cover on Obama in the New Yorker, is that Obama benefited from having his Illinois Senate districts tailor-made for him. The article describes in detail the process by which Obama was able to choose his district.

One day in the spring of 2001, about a year after the loss to Rush, Obama walked into the Stratton Office Building, in Springfield, a shabby nineteen-fifties government workspace for state officials next to the regal state capitol. He went upstairs to a room that Democrats in Springfield called “the inner sanctum.” Only about ten Democratic staffers had access; entry required an elaborate ritual—fingerprint scanners and codes punched into a keypad. The room was large, and unremarkable except for an enormous printer and an array of computers with big double monitors. On the screens that spring day were detailed maps of Chicago, and Obama and a Democratic consultant named John Corrigan sat in front of a terminal to draw Obama a new district. Corrigan was the Democrat in charge of drawing all Chicago districts, and he also happened to have volunteered for Obama in the campaign against Rush.

The article later goes on to mention explicitly how Obama benefited from his newly designed district, including in ways other than his ability to get reelected.

The partisan redistricting of Illinois may have been the most important event in Obama’s early political life. It immediately gave him the two things he needed to run for the Senate in 2004: money and power. He needed to have several times as much cash as he’d raised for his losing congressional race in 2000, and many of the state’s top donors now lived or worked in his district. More important, the statewide gerrymandering made it likely that Obama’s party would take over the State Senate in 2002, an event that would provide him with a platform from which to craft a legislative record in time for the campaign.

To show the effect of the redistricting on Obama’s State Senate District (District 13), I created some maps that show some demographic facts about his districts, and what factors may have impacted the redistricting process after the 2000 census. Note that this is not meant to be a criticism of Obama specifically, but a compelling example of the political and partisan considerations that go into the redistricting process.

In the image below, the green represents census blocs colored according to median income; the darker the color, the wealthier the area.

Median Income District Comparison

Median Income District Comparison
The first map is a map of the median income by census blocks within Obama's pre-and-post-2001 districts. (note: all maps were created Maptitude using 2000 census blocs for demographic information). The post-2001 district lines are surrounded by the thick black line, while the pre-2001 districts are in bold red. As the article mentioned, Obama's district after the redistricting snakes along the coast, up from the poorer parts of southern Chicago into the wealthier areas of the Gold Coast and the Loop.

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Chicago’s Gold Coast

Chicago Gold Coast
A similar image centered around the Gold Coast and the loop shows how the wealthier parts of Chicago have been divided so that four different senate districts have a "piece of the action." The purpose of dividing up this area may have been to split a voting constituency for partisan or electoral gain, to split the wealthier voters so that each legislator has a good source for donations, or for some other non-political reason.

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Districts Compared by Percentage of Black Residents

% Black District Comparison
The next map shows the percentage of the population that is black within Obama's former district. As you can see, the vast majority of Obama's district was black (a skeptic might point out that unless you have the exact population numbers for each block, the percentage could be meaningless, but having seen the numbers I assure that blacks made up the overwhelming majority Obama's district. You can also see though that Obama's district extends north enough into the more densely white and wealthier areas of the Gold Coast and the Loop.

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Districts Compared by Percentage of White Residents

% White District Comparison
This map shows the percentage of whites in each census block in Obama's district. As mentioned before, his district extends into the very white area of the Loop and Gold Coast. This map also shows that his district encompasses the moderately white area of Hyde Park around the University of Chicago.

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Before and After District Maps

Pre-2002

New District Fill
These last maps show comparisons of Obama's previous district (in red) to his new district (in black) with the districts filled in.

Post-2002

Old District Fill
This map shows comparisons of Obama's previous district (in red) to his new district (in black) with the districts filled in.



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