Safe vs. Marginal

If you listen to political people talk, you may hear mention of “safe” or “marginal” seats. These terms have to do with how likely it is that a politician of a certain party will be elected or re-elected in their district. In other words, it’s an expression of how strongly a district is Republican- or Democrat-leaning.

2011-proposed-house-maps-1For instance, if 70 percent of voters in one district can be expected to regular Republican voters, then you can pretty accurately predict that a Republican will win the next election, no matter what candidate the Republicans put up. The same goes for districts that are overwhelmingly Democrat. In Michigan, parts of West Michigan, such as Holland and Allegan County, are safe Republican areas, while many urban areas like Detroit and Flint are safe Democratic areas. (Grand Rapids is an interesting locale — it is becoming more Democratic within city limits, while the areas surrounding it are strongly Republican.)

On the other hand, districts that are more evenly divided are considered marginal. Michigan’s 91st House District has a 51-49 split with a slight edge given toward Republicans. In 2012 during a presidential election, the Democratic candidate won the district. But in 2014 — a midterm year — she lost by just 53 votes.

Generally speaking, presidential years drive Democratic turnout, and can result in many of these marginal districts flipping to Democrats. Republicans often have an edge in midterm years, when Democrats are less likely to turn up at the polling booth. But that cannot be relied on — 2016 proved that. In the 91st House District, for instance, the Democratic candidate lost by 2,400 votes in a Trump wave election.

So, how does this effect how politics plays out?

  1. Candidates in marginal districts will usually get more funds from their party, caucus and special interest groups, because they understand that the seat is much more likely to be up for grabs.
  2. Marginal politicians understand that they can’t run to the extremes for fear of losing whatever support they may have from voters of the opposite party. Caucuses will often understand this and tolerate (or even push) these politicians to vote against caucus positions in order to appeal to moderate voters in their district.
  3. The drawing of political district boundaries happens every 10 years and is based on the most recent census. Whatever party is in a position of power at the time will attempt to draw as many safe districts as they can for their own party while putting their rivals at a disadvantage. Taken to the extreme, this will result in very oddly shaped districts and is called gerrymandering.

To learn more about gerrymandering, go here.

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