As you’ve probably noticed in past years, American elections take a while to finalise their results. A number of seats are still doubtful from Tuesday’s midterms; the Democrats look to have won a majority of about 25 in the House of Representatives, 230-205 (a gain of 35 seats), but that could still vary by a couple either way.
The Senate is more definite. Three seats are officially still doubtful: Arizona, Florida and the Mississippi by-election. But the first two look unlikely to shift from Democrat and Republican respectively, and while Mississippi is going to a runoff on 27 November, it’s as certain as anything can be that Republican incumbent Cindy Hyde-Smith will win it.
Recall that the Republicans started with a 51-49 Senate majority (counting the two independents in the Democrat column), so the Democrats needed to win two seats to take control.
They did indeed win two seats, Nevada and (apparently) Arizona. The problem is that they also lost four of their own seats: Indiana, Missouri, North Dakota and (apparently) Florida. So in net terms they’ve gone backwards by two seats, producing a 53-47 Republican majority.
In previewing the election, I tried to explain why the House and Senate were so different. Now we can see just how that worked.
But we need to focus on the right thing. There’s a popular meme going around showing the Democrats leading in the Senate popular vote by 55.4% to 43.0%, yet still losing seats, and inferring that something is badly wrong with Senate representation. There is something wrong, but that doesn’t show it.
That’s because it’s comparing a stock with a flow, as accountants would say. Knowing how many votes you won doesn’t tell you anything about how many seats you might expect to gain or lose, until you compare it with the votes you won last time.
In fact, the Democrats look to have won more of the popular vote than they did in 2016. But that’s not very informative either, because since only a third of the Senate is elected each time, a different set of states were voting then.
You can try to compare apples with apples, by just looking at the 16 states that voted both times (leaving out California, for reasons that will become clear later). That shows, by my reckoning, a median swing to the Democrats of around four per cent. So why didn’t they pick up seats?
But hold on! If you just compare those states with 2016, they did pick up seats. Four states (Arizona, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin) elected Republican senators in 2016 and Democrats this week. But that’s not reflected in the tally of gains and losses, because they’re different seats: those 2016 senators won’t be up for re-election until 2022, and what happens to them will get counted then.
So the real comparison is with 2012, when this year’s senators were elected. And the problem is that 2012 was a very good Democrat year, so they were always likely to lose by comparison: they had many more seats to defend than their opponents, and they were doing it in a midterm election, when voters tend to be richer, older and whiter.
Moreover (although this might take another post to analyse properly), the particular states on the map this year seem to be disproportionately the sort of places where the Republican Party has been gaining ground, relatively speaking, in the Trump era: Indiana, Michigan and Missouri, for example, but not Colorado, North Carolina and Oregon.
The popular vote in 2012 was Democrat 53.4% to Republican 41.8% (official figures here), or 56.1% to 43.9% two-party. So if the figures currently being quoted are about right (they can only be approximate, since counting is still going), it looks as if there’s been very little swing at all.
But that’s misleading too. In the biggest state, California, the Democrats won in 2012 by a bit more than three million votes. But this year – because California runs a “jungle primary”, or first round election – there was no Republican on the ballot paper. Two Democrats ran on Tuesday, and collected something like seven million votes between them, improving their nationwide advantage over the Republicans (in a wholly artificial way) by about four million.
When the national Senate vote tallies are finally calculated, I expect that if you leave out California, they’ll show a two-party swing to the Republicans (as compared to 2012) of around three per cent, which would easily account for their net gain of two seats.
One more question. The Democrats have to contend with the problems of huge differences between large and small states, and a smaller and less representative turnout in midterms. But haven’t those things always been problems? Why do Democrats seem to be having a particular problem with the Senate now?
At least part of the answer is the growth of partisanship and straight-ticket voting. Once upon a time, popular Senators could entrench themselves even in states that were otherwise hostile to their parties. A few still do, but it’s become much more difficult. The four Democrats who lost were all in states that had voted for Donald Trump in 2016.
That means that the full effects of the small-state bias in the Senate are now being felt, and that’s bad news for the Democrats. But at least the map will be more favorable for them in 2020 and 2022.