October 29, 2015


55-45 Politics in a 50-50 Country (THOMAS SCHALLER, OCTOBER 28, 2015, The American Prospect)

A series of characteristics of the American electoral system, including the structure and procedures of the Senate and House as well as the electoral calendar, are now working for the Republicans.

The U.S. Senate was designed to over-represent small states, but only recently has that bias been a Republican advantage. During the mid-20th century, the GOP regularly elected senators from large states such as California, Illinois, and New York. But during the past half-century, as a result of the GOP's dominance of small states and loss of big states, the party has consistently held a higher share of Senate seats than the share of American citizens who vote for its candidates.

Meanwhile, on the other side of Capitol Hill, Republicans have also been able to outperform their share of the vote. In 2012, House Speaker John Boehner maintained his majorities even though Republican House candidates received a million-plus fewer votes nationwide than Democratic House candidates captured. As Hacker and Pierson correctly note, despite losing the national popular vote in that year's presidential race, Mitt Romney carried more House districts than Barack Obama did. This gap between national totals and district outcomes reflects two developments, one demographic and the other political. Democratic voters are now "inefficiently" distributed because they have become increasingly concentrated in cities, and the GOP has been able to capitalize on population patterns through the strategic use of partisan gerrymandering.

Procedural rules in the Senate and House also favor Republicans. In neither chamber is a mere majority required to pass legislation--in the Senate, because of the filibuster, and in the House, because of the Republican leadership's so-called "Hastert Rule" (named after the former Republican Speaker Dennis Hastert, though he was neither the rule's inventor nor the first speaker to employ it). Under the Hastert rule, legislation is not allowed to go to a vote without the support of a majority of the majority party--a rule that effectively provides a veto to an electoral minority.

The bottom line is that the constitutional design of the Senate, population geography and the use of strategic gerrymandering in the creation of House districts, and procedural rules for both chambers all combine to exaggerate contemporary Republican influence on Capitol Hill. Leaving aside all the usual factors influencing elections--state of the economy, issues, public opinion, candidate quality, and campaign finance--the GOP begins every congressional election cycle with a built-in head start, and every session of Congress at representational levels that exaggerate the party's underlying popular support.

The timing of American elections also magnifies Republican clout. The majority of state and local elections are conducted during low-turnout, non-presidential cycles. Of the 48 American governors elected for four years--New Hampshire's and Vermont's governors serve two-year terms--only nine are chosen at the same time as the president. The remaining 39 are chosen in midterm elections or in odd-numbered years. The vast majority of American state legislators are also elected in non-presidential elections. Although they did not create the electoral calendar, Republicans benefit from it because of the party's second set of structural advantages. When turnout is low, more-affluent Americans typically represent a higher proportion.

Posted by at October 29, 2015 12:54 PM

blog comments powered by Disqus