When Democrats think about their party’s problems on the political map, they tend to think of President Trump’s ability to win the White House despite losing the popular vote and Republicans’ potent efforts to gerrymander congressional districts. But their problems extend beyond the Electoral College and the House: The Senate hasn’t had such a strong pro-GOP bias since the ratification of direct Senate elections in 1913.
Even if Democrats were to win every single 2018 House and Senate race for seats representing places that Hillary Clinton won or that Trump won by less than 3 percentage points — a pretty good midterm by historical standards — they could still fall short of the House majority and lose five Senate seats.
This is partly attributable to the nature of House districts: GOP gerrymandering and Democratic voters’ clustering in urban districts has moved the median House seat well to the right of the nation. Part of it is bad timing. Democrats have been cursed by a terrible Senate map in 2018: They must defend 25 of their 48 seats1 while Republicans must defend just eight of their 52.
But there’s a larger, long-term trend at work too — one that should alarm Democrats preoccupied with the future of Congress and the Supreme Court.
In the last few decades, Democrats have expanded their advantages in California and New York — states with huge urban centers that combined to give Clinton a 6 million vote edge, more than twice her national margin. But those two states elect only 4 percent of the Senate. Meanwhile, Republicans have made huge advances in small rural states — think Arkansas, North and South Dakota, Iowa, Louisiana, Montana and West Virginia — that wield disproportionate power in the upper chamber compared to their populations.
There are a lot of implications to this — I’ll come back to the Supreme Court point later. But one is that the excessive focus on presidential nominations is misplaced. I have some agreements and some quibbles with Ryan Cooper’s 2020 follow-up, but I think this represents a serious analytical error:
In short, there is every reason to think that these men will serve more or less as representatives of the ruling class — just as Harris, Booker, Patrick, and any number of other Democratic politicians, of any race or gender, would if they were installed by the establishment. They would have neither the inclination nor the necessary political backing to put through the left-wing policy that would actually get the really excellent social justice goods. Like ObamaCare, any new policy they propose will almost certainly be punched through with so many compromises and handouts to existing stakeholders that it would leave tens of millions of Americans — many if not most of them minorities — out in the cold.
To state the obvious, the limitations of the ACA did not result from healthcare reform being presented in an insufficiently pure form. This, indeed, gets cause and effect backwards. The ACA was presented in the form it was because the Democratic leadership was serious about passing it. Again — take a look at the list of marginal votes. If Obama had proposed single-payer-or-bust, at best the results would have ended up similar to the ACA and at worst moderate Dems would have just walked away from the table and you’d get nothing. From Bernie to Biden, anybody who wins the Dem nomination in 2020 is going to be well to the left of the median votes in the House and Senate. Exactly how far is relevant for issues within the purview of the executive branch, but in terms of major legislation the distinction is trivial.
And if the answer to this is “better median votes,” well, given the way the House and Senate are configured, how? You can have congressional nominees in marginal jurisdictions the left of the party will trust more that Cory Booker (who, again, whatever his faults is well to the left of the median Democratic vote in the Senate), and you can have Democratic congressional majorities, but you can’t have both. If people on the left of the party thinks that winning the presidential nomination is most of the ballgame, they’re going to be bitterly disappointed.