For years, liberal Democrats have haughtily explained to Republicans that the GOP is on the cusp of becoming a permanent minority. Even speaker of the House John Boehner can find himself on the receiving end of lectures by preening leftists. President Barack Obama warned Boehner of the GOP’s impending presidential collapse just two days after the Republican party’s midterm triumph!
For all the talk about Republican weakness on the presidential level, there has been virtually no discussion of Democratic weakness in Congress, especially the House of Representatives.
Liberals often point out that Republicans have lost five of the last six popular votes for president. This is true, but not very meaningful. After all, if Al Gore and not George W. Bush had been elected in 2000, subsequent political history would have been entirely different. It is equally true, and much less specious, to point out that the Republican party has won control of the House of Representatives in 9 of the last 11 elections and the Senate in 6 of the last 11.
That is an impressive run in the House. As for the Senate, Republican campaigns have been hampered by bad luck or bad choice of candidates. In the 2010 and 2012 cycles combined, Republican mistakes ceded as many as seven seats to the Democrats. If the GOP had performed better in these races, the party might have won control of the Senate outright in 2012 and gained a filibuster-proof majority this year.
What accounts for the GOP’s success in the House and its potential in the Senate? The answers parallel the explanations for Democratic strength in the race for the presidency: It gets down to structure.
Democrats point out that, in presidential races starting in 1992, their party has consistently carried states totaling 242 electoral votes. That puts them well within striking distance of the 270 votes required to win. Moreover, states totaling 206 electoral votes are typically uncontested by Republicans. The last time a Republican presidential candidate campaigned in California, for instance, was 2000, when George W. Bush toured the Golden State late in the cycle. Analysts have largely deemed this a mistake, and no subsequent Republican nominee has repeated it. This cedes 55 electoral votes to the Democrats, an enormous number.
But something similar helps Republicans in the battle for Congress. In the House of Representatives, the GOP now unites white voters in the suburbs and rural areas; combined, these blocs are usually enough to yield a Republican House even when Democrats win the presidency, as happened in both 1996 and 2012. The problem for Democrats in the House is that their coalition, increasingly nonwhite and urban, is concentrated in deep blue districts. That gives the GOP a variety of paths to a House majority.
The problem for the Democrats is a combination of law and geography. The 1982 amendments to the Voting Rights Act require the creation of majority-minority districts whenever they can be drawn with reasonable lines. In effect, state legislatures are required to concentrate Democrats in a handful of districts, while dispersing GOP voters across the remainder. Meanwhile, the geographical distribution of the Democratic coalition reinforces the effect of the law. Outside the Deep South, Democratic voters tend to be densely packed into urban areas, making it harder to distribute them across many districts, even in cases where the law does not require a majority-minority district.
To see how this plays out, take Pennsylvania. It regularly votes Democratic for president, but not overwhelmingly so. More and more these days, the deciding votes come from Philadelphia County, whose Democratic margin is so great it overwhelms the increasingly GOP tilt of the rest of the state. And yet Keystone State Republicans still won 13 of 18 House seats in 2012 and 2014. The reason? The Democratic vote in the Philadelphia area is concentrated in just three congressional districts, which went at least 2-to-1 for Obama. Democrats also win the Scranton district and the Pittsburgh district, while Republicans get everything else. Statewide, it amounts to a Democratic presidential victory combined with a strongly Republican House delegation. If state Democrats were to take control of the gerrymandering process, they could mitigate the problem, but they would still be constrained by the Voting Rights Act and geography. It is just too hard for them to spread their votes around.
In the Senate, the story is different. Since the boundaries for Senate elections are the boundaries of the states themselves, neither the Voting Rights Act nor urban/rural political geography applies. Still, Republicans have an edge because they now dominate rural voters, who hold immense power in the upper chamber.