Why the Democrats Will Keep Losing

Biases built in to our electoral institutions hurt the Democratic Party every time.

| Fri Jun. 10, 2005 2:00 AM EDT

Since the 2004 elections, many have been debating "why Kerry lost," and more broadly "why the Democrats have been losing ground." Much of the debate has focused on the never-ending seesaw of "swing voters vs. base voters," or cultural/religious/"What's the Matter with Kansas?" issues, even George Lakoff-type "reframing" of key concepts and themes.

But what has been completely missing from the conversation is the fact that even when the Democrats win more votes, they don't necessarily win more seats. That's true in the U.S. Senate, the U.S. House, and the Electoral College. That's because there is a structural disadvantage for Democrats resulting from regional partisan demographics in red versus blue America that now are strongly embedded into our fundamental electoral institutions. This unfair structural disadvantage makes it more difficult for Democrats to win than Republicans. It's like having a foot race in which one side begins 10 meters in front of the other, election after election.

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Yet practically no one is talking about it. Even though this bias undercuts any attempts by liberals and Democrats to gain control over the government, and will continue to do so for years to come, no matter how many volunteers Democrats mobilize or how much money they raise, these sorts of structural barriers are being ignored.

Here are the numbers in the U.S. that reveal the mountain that the Democrats must climb. Let's look at what happens if Democrats and Republicans win exactly the same number of nationwide votes for elections to the U.S. House. The picture isn't pretty.

When the two sides are tied nationally, the Republicans end up winning about 50 more House districts than the Democrats. Like the Conservatives in Britain, who in the UK's recent elections won far fewer seats than Tony Blair's Labour Party even though Labour only had 36% of the vote and 3% more than the Conservatives, the Democrats are undercut by regional partisan demographics funneled through a winner-take-all electoral system.

It turns out that there is a fundamental anti-urban (and thus anti-Democratic) bias with single-seat districts. The urban vote is more concentrated, and so it's easier to pack Democratic voters into fewer districts. As Democratic redistricting strategist Sam Hirsch has noted, nice square districts are in effect a Republican gerrymander because they "combine a decade-old (but previously unnoticed) Republican bias" that along with a newly heightened degree of incumbent protection "has brought us one step closer to government under a United States House of Unrepresentatives."

Here's the best-known recent example of this dynamic. Even though Al Gore won a half million more votes nationwide than George Bush in 2000, Bush beat Gore in 47 more of the 2002 congressional districts. And that's up from a previous 19-seat edge, showing that trends are tilting Republican. The winner-take-all system distorts representation and the edge clearly gives Republicans an advantage, allowing them to win more than their fair share of seats. So the current Republican margin in the House of 232 to 203 -- only 29 seats -- actually is a decent showing for the Democrats. It will be exceedingly difficult for Democrats to improve on this.

And note that this GOP advantage is not the result of partisan gerrymandering, a whole 'nother bit of shenanigans that is overlaid over top these regional partisan demographics. No, these dynamics are happening outside any redistricting distortions.

The disproportionality is even worse in the United States Senate. Bush carried 31 of 50 states in 2004, showing Democrats' near impossible battle to win a majority in the malapportioned Senate where each state, regardless of population size, has two U.S. Senators.

Yet the Democrats consistently win more votes for Senate than Republicans. The current 100 senators have been elected over the past three election cycles, dating back to the year 2000. According to Professor Matthew Shugart from University of California-San Diego, in those elections, over 200 million votes were cast in races choosing each of the fifty states' two senators. The Republicans won 46.8% of the votes in these elections -- not even close to a majority. The Democrats won 48.4% of the votes, more than the Republicans -- yet the GOP currently holds a lopsided 55 to 44 majority. In 2004, over 51% of votes cast were for Democratic senatorial candidates, yet Republicans elected 19 of the 34 contested seats.

That's a whomping, courtesy of nothing more than an 18th century structural bias that heavily favors Republicans. That bias has warped the Senate not only in the last two elections but for decades. The GOP has been over-represented in the Senate in nearly every election since 1958, primarily due to Republican success in low-population, conservative states in the West and South. Not surprisingly, the Senate is perhaps the most unrepresentative body in the world outside Britain's House of Lords, with not only Democrats under-represented but only five of 100 seats held by racial minorities and only fourteen held by women.

What about the presidency? Unfortunately our Electoral College method also gives an advantage to Republicans, largely for the same reason as the Senate -- low population states, which tend today to be conservative Red states, have more electoral votes per capita than the rest of the nation. That's why Al Gore could win a half million more votes for president in 2000 yet lose the presidency. George W. Bush won more of the low population states with 3, 4 or 5 electoral votes and benefited from their representation subsidy. In 2004, of the least populous 25 states, Bush won 17 and Kerry won 8. And these small states are so solidly Red that a Republican candidate does not need to make any effort to win, Kerry won 40% or less in 13 states, and less than 30% in Wyoming and Utah. So that freed Bush to concentrate on a handful of battleground states, much more so than Kerry.

Law professor Vikram David Amar disputes that the Electoral College structure lopsidedly favors Republican candidates. While he agrees that Republicans benefit from the small-state skew discussed above, he says that the Electoral College also helps the Democrats by exaggerating the power of big states via the winner-take-all rules. There is some truth to this, since though Kerry did not win any more states than Bush among the 14 largest states, his states had an electoral vote advantage of 37 votes.

On the other hand, if you subtract the small state subsidy that awards two electoral votes to every state, regardless of population size, that cuts Bush's victory margin from 34 electoral votes to 12. Under that fairer allocation of electoral votes, if Kerry had won Iowa (13,498 vote difference) and New Mexico (6047 vote difference, with Ralph Nader getting 4062 votes) he would be president. Winning New Mexico and Nevada (21,500 vote difference) would have tied him with Bush. So getting rid of the small state subsidy makes the 2004 election much closer than even the 120,000 vote difference in Ohio, and in turn dramatically changes the electoral map, giving Kerry more opportunities to put together the right states needed to win.

Overall, the Republicans must be satisfied with the political geography of the Electoral College map. Having a national election come down to states like Ohio, Florida, New Mexico, Iowa and Nevada, instead of a national direct election where Democrats could mobilize more voters in solidly blue states like California, New York and Illinois, does not play to the Democrats' strong suit. Think of Hillary Clinton trying to win the presidency by rallying blue-collar, NRA-supporting, church-going workers in Ohio and Florida. There's something wrong with that picture.

So from the Democratic Party perspective, the political geography does not work. In the current climate of Red vs. Blue America, any "emerging Democratic majority" must overcome an 18th-century political system that puts urban-centered Democrats at a decided disadvantage. As I wrote above, it's like having a foot race in which one side (the Republicans) begins 10 yards in front of the other (the Democrats), election after election. It's time to level the playing field.

But has this stark reality of our political landscape made a dent in liberal or Democratic understanding of "what to do?" Hardly. Instead, moderate and progressive wings of the Democratic Party have been cannibalizing each other over the no-win debate about the base versus swing voters. Or else they have been fiddling to the latest fad about Lakoffian reframing.

How convenient, to think you don't have to engage in the hard work of enacting fundamental electoral reform, city by city and state-by-state, all you have to do is find better speechwriters and produce slicker TV ads and then the left can go back to its poetry nights.

It's hard to hold out much hope for the Democratic Party as long as it remains railroaded by structural biases built-in to our basic electoral institutions of which they appear to be blissfully unaware.