A Majority Government Elected by a Minority

H.L. Mencken once described democracy as the idea that the people should get what they want and, “get it good and hard.” That seems about half right. The 115th Congress kicked off this week with a Republican majority pledging to bring the wood. Repeal Obamacare, revoke Planned Parenthood’s funding, rewrite Dodd-Frank—if the GOP makes good on half its vows this is going to be the most give-it-to-the-people Congress in two decades. Problem is, there’s not much evidence that the people actually wanted this, and even less that they wanted Republicans running the show.

It’s common knowledge, of course, that the bitter Twitter critter soon to be nesting in the White House was, by a near 3 million vote margin, the voters’ second choice.  Luckily for him, the will of the people don’t mean beans to the Electoral College, which blew one of its periodic raspberries to democratic humbug like majoritarian citizen preferences. Democrats still aren’t sure whether to attach hope or despair to the popular vote win, but either way the numbers inarguably add up to the fact that most voters wanted a different president from the one they got.

What’s been given less attention is that the voters weren’t exactly full-throated in wanting a Republican-controlled Congress either. I know this because in between downing my ration of holiday calories and festive libations I made it my business to go get official election result data for every congressional election, from all 50 states’ secretaries of state or election boards.* What can I say, I’m a nerd.

I’ve been prodding those numbers for a couple of days, and it’s pretty clear that whatever the American people wanted in a national legislature, they didn’t get that, either. I don’t mean to imply shady shenanigans of the sort hinted at by certain windswept-coiffed incoming presidents or slap-happy Green Party nominees. Nope. The Republican Party won its congressional majorities totally within the rules of our electoral system. The lawful legitimacy of their governmental dominance is not in question (and for those still yammering otherwise, do us all a favor and just get over it—time to stop squealin’ and start dealin’). The democratic legitimacy of gang GOP, though, is another matter.

How can a democratically elected government—elected fair and square by the rules of the system—have questions raised about its democratic legitimacy? Well, if you zoom down to the individual district/state level, you can’t really raise that question. Down in those trenches, Republicans and Democrats went head to head and, generally speaking, the Dems got their butt kicked. Rather than looking at what happened down in the Fourth Gerrymander of state X, though, zoom out and take a look at how the American people as whole cast their ballot. What you find there just doesn’t line up with the government that supposedly represents them.  It’s not even close.

Here are the basic numbers for the United States Senate: In 2016 there were 34 seats up for election, the Republicans won 22 and the Democrats, 12. Republicans scored this smashing victory by getting roughly 7 million fewer votes than Democratic senate candidates.  The total GOP vote haul for Senate was about 38.4 million, nowhere near the roughly 46 million received by Democratic Senate hopefuls. This all translates to Republicans getting 65 percent of the seats available in return for only 46 percent of the votes cast. Stick that in your democratic hookah and suck on it.

How can this be? Well, an obvious part is that Senate districts are states, which have wildly different populations. Republican John Thune only needed 265,000 votes to win in South Dakota. Democrat Kate McGinty got more than ten times that number of votes in Pennsylvania. And lost. If Republicans have the edge in less populous states, and in most cases they do, as a group they can have a lot less voters backing them and find themselves with a comfy majority of seats.

Still, even accounting for that and the fact that incumbents running for Senate in 2016 were mostly Republican (incumbents, all else equal, tend to win), something seems a bit off here. And it is. What is off is California, a population behemoth and deep Democratic blue. Kamala Harris won that Senate race with 7.5 million votes, but she was running against a fellow Democrat—Loretta Sanchez who notched 4.5 million votes. I did not include Sanchez’s votes in my grand tallies of Republican and Democratic totals, so that’s not tipping the scale. But because of California’s goofy blanket primary system there was no Republican Senate candidate in the general election, so the Republicans score a big goose egg in the most vote-rich state in the union. Even a Republican loser was likely to stitch up several million votes in a state as big as California.

So those with Republican loyalties might say an adjustment is warranted here. If we just drop California and deduct Harris’ 7.5 million from the Democratic column, their total drops from 45.9 million to 38.5 million, so roughly the same total as Republicans got.  But even if we just punt Cally from the tally the GOP still gets a massive return on voting investment—basically two-thirds of the seats for the half the ballots cast. That, of course, ignores the counter-argument that Democrats might favor:  If Republicans can’t scrounge up enough support to make it out of a competitive primary, too bad, so sad, and by all rights we should add Sanchez’s total rather than deducting Harris’. If you lean that way, the adjustment is now that Dems snagged roughly eleven million more votes than Republicans. And still got their clocks cleaned. Majorities obviously ain’t all democracy cracks them up to be.

Here’s the numbers on the House. All 435 seats were up for election and Republican candidates totaled roughly 63.7 million votes, which must come as sweet democratic relief to the GOP because it’s actually more than the 61.2 million who voted Democratic. Yes, unlike their colleagues in the White House and the Senate, House Republicans can actually claim to have the backing of national majority. This majority is, proportionally speaking, still a little exaggerated in terms of seats won—Republicans got 51 percent of the vote, but 55.4 percent of the available seats. Still, in at least one of the elective branches here is unassailable evidence that the people wanted the GOP in control, right?

Well, hold on, hoss. That depends. If we do a “California” and exclude races in which Republicans ran unopposed or against another Republican (other states besides California have goofy candidate selection systems), their total drops by roughly five million … giving Democrats the national majority. Of course, if we exclude races where Dems ran unopposed, they lose roughly six million and the Reps shoot into a commanding national vote lead. Rather than argue about this, I’m opting to just go with the raw numbers. Bottom line, the GOP took the House with a 51-49 percent squeaker in the national vote.

So if we take the American people as a whole, this is what they voted for: a Democratic president by a two or three point margin, a Democratic Senate by roughly a ten point margin, and a Republican House by a one or two point margin. If we toss together votes for president, senate and house, Republican candidates got roughly 165 million votes, Democratic candidates got roughly 173 million. In other words, if the will of the people is expressed through their votes, what the people wanted was a government that was largely—or even entirely–controlled by Democrats. What they got was Republicans in control of everything. Again, I emphasize, there’s nothing shady about this in a rules or legal sense. Neither the Senate, the House or the presidency are elected as a whole by the people—they are elected by states or by subdivisions thereof. And what majorities at the state or district level do not necessarily add up to majorities of the people as a whole.

Still, those national numbers do raise a valid concern about democratic legitimacy of what’s about to go down. This Congress, and certainly the incoming president, were not backed by a majority of those who bothered to cast a vote in 2016. They do not represent the will of the American people as whole and, at least in terms of national vote totals, are a minority government. Which is not good. Dems obviously should be pretty steamed about this—they got the most votes, but zilcho in terms of power to show for it. But it’s a concern for Republicans too. They are full-bore committed to using their power to implement an aggressive conservative/populist policy agenda which, anyway you slice and dice the numbers, was not comprehensively endorsed by voters in 2016. Indeed, you can make a pretty solid empirical case that it was systematically rejected.

So there’s a big gamble here for the GOP. If they get their agenda through and it works, they can say, “see, told you things would be better under us,” and have a good shot at having it retrospectively approved by a grateful electorate. If it doesn’t, they basically are a minority government that strong-armed a policy agenda onto an electorate against the will of the voters. In a democratic sense, that’s definitely not good. I’m kind of baffled the media hasn’t twigged to this yet. Sure, I know wrangling numbers is tougher than goggling at the latest Trumpian Tweet squall or keeping up with various Kardashians flashing their naughty bits on Instagram. But jeez, if I can do it, anyone with access to a web connection and spreadsheet software can too.

So, with apologies to H.L., 2016 taught us an unpleasant lesson about democratic theory as it applies to the United States. The people can make clear what they want. And whether they like or not, they’ll get something else. Hard.

*A brief note on the numbers for quant wonks: Data were taken from official results reported on state secretary of state and/or state election board websites. In the vast majority of cases these were certified results. All I collected were major party results, so excluded from all calculations are tallies by the Greens, Libertarians, Constitutionalists, and various and sundry other wannabes and wackaloons who smuggled themselves onto a ballot.

Aside from the weirdness reported in the text above (Democrats running against Democrats and whatnot) there are a small number of anomalies or gaps. For example, the Oklahoma secretary of state reports no results for its First Congressional District (!). That race was won by incumbent Republican Jim Bridenstine, who ran unopposed. I’m assuming that somebody actually, you know, voted for him in the general election, but maybe not. Regardless, Jim’s vote total isn’t totted up in the Republican column because those numbers were not made public and I was too busy with turkey and beer to pester Oklahoma officials to check and see if they had any unopened ballot boxes lying around. In any case, the number of these oddities was pretty small, not biased in a partisan sense, and extremely unlikely to have any impact on the broader nation-level inferences made above. It is, of course, possible that I made a punch error or a similar goof–it’s a lot of friggin’ numbers collected from fifty different sources and I was a lone political scientist in the midst of challenging holiday-related typtophan and ethanol issues. Still, while certainly possible, I’m pretty confident there’s no accounting flub big enough on my part to alter the general conclusions drawn above. My numbers will probably differ a bit from the official, official results reported by the Federal Election Commission later in the year, but barring any major howler on my part, the basic story reported above should stand.