Ordinary Americans may be unaware of this, but political science buffs who live in and write about Washington are arguing about how bad things are for Democrats.
Not bad in terms of President Biden’s approval rating or the difficulty he’s having passing infrastructure bills, but rather how close his party is to losing power — and keeping it lost.
However, in the course of making that case, many have focused on a statistic that sounds far more ominous than it actually is. It’s that Democrats received 18 million more votes in the Senate race in 2018 but still lost seats. That much is correct. However, it is possible to make a valid point while using deceptive data. We warned against using the Senate popular vote stat when it first appeared shortly after the 2018 election, and we continue to do so today.
The problem is that not every state holds a Senate race every two years, and the states that do may be disproportionately blue or red—as was the case in 2018, when Democrats held more than two-thirds of the seats up for election.
Aside from that, those figures include a very unusual Democrat-vs.-Democrat race in California, in which Democrats received 11 million votes instead of 2 or 3 million.
Finally, it is true that Democrats suffered a loss of seats. However, another way to look at it is that they won 67 percent of the Senate races (22 of 33) with what would have been about 55 percent of the popular vote minus the California thing. And if it’s not clear how deceptive this can be, consider what happened in 2020. Republicans received slightly more votes in Senate races across the country, but they lost three seats and the majority.
But, as previously stated, just because this statistic isn’t all it’s cracked up to be doesn’t mean the larger point is incorrect. It isn’t. It’s just that there are more effective ways of demonstrating it. The Democrats’ disadvantage here stems not only from how we’re distributed as a country, but also from how the maps themselves are drawn — and, in many cases, by Republicans.
Political observers will be familiar with all of this. But it’s worth emphasizing how stacked the deck is.
The best statistic, in our opinion: Following the pre-2012 round of redistricting, data from the election reform organization FairVote revealed that 195 districts leaned toward the GOP, while only 166 leaned toward the Democrats. Democrats needed to win 69 percent of the 74 districts with partisanship scores ranging from 46 percent to 54 percent for each party — what is known as a “swing district” — to gain a majority.
Things change over time, but even though Donald Trump lost the popular vote, he won 231 districts to Hillary Clinton’s 194 in 2016. Democrats needed to win territory that Trump won by wide margins in order to win the House majority in 2018; Republicans face no such challenge.
Due to the next round of redistricting, those House districts will change by the time the 2022 election rolls around. However, given its continued control over redistricting, the GOP’s advantage should be similar for the foreseeable future. As you may have heard, Republicans haven’t won the popular vote in nearly every recent presidential election — only once in the last eight (2004), in fact.
Democrats have won the popular vote by an average of 4.4 percentage points since then. When the results are broken down by state, Republicans have actually won more states in the last four elections — 101 for the GOP versus 99 for Democrats — while taking fewer votes.
The most egregious example was in 2016, when Trump lost the popular vote by more than two percentage points but still won 30 of the 50 states. That suggests that in a more-or-less neutral environment, the GOP has an inherent advantage in something approaching a filibuster-proof number of Senate seats (60).