Let me tell you a little story. Nine years ago, Barack Obama won a second term in office, and there was talk of an emerging Democratic majority in presidential elections. Then came Donald Trump, the least liked major party nominee of all time, who won the 2016 election — albeit without winning the popular vote.
Now, there is talk of Democrats potentially being locked out of a Senate majority for a time to come because of trends in the electorate.
I am skeptical of this — at least over the long term. History tells us that parties adjust messaging and tend to find the best pathway to a majority, leaving this to be a 50/50 country on average.
Political scientist David Hopkins articulates the idea of this nation being a 50/50 one well. He notes that since the 1980 elections, Democrats and Republicans have won control of the House, Senate and presidency about the same number of times. They have controlled all three for about the same time, including for the Democrats at this point.
This shouldn’t be surprising. As political analyst Sean Trende posited in the book “The Lost Majority,” history is filled with examples of majorities falling apart and the parties coming in and out of power. The book was published before the 2012 elections and has held up quite well.
Obama won a second term with a decent economy in 2012. Despite Trump being unpopular as he was, we saw the presidency change hands after 2016 as it often does when one party has been in the White House for more than a term. Then we saw a president lose in 2020 with a weak, though not terrible, economy and a pandemic unlike anything the country had experienced in more than a century.
All of these election results were predicted to a fairly accurate degree by fundamentals based political science models.
So why would the future be any different when it comes to the Senate? Well it comes down to two pretty simple points.
First, Democratic power is more concentrated than Republican power in terms of geography. You can see this in the 2020 results with now-President Joe Biden reaching a clear majority in the Electoral College and popular vote, but only winning 25 states. Trump, on the other hand, took 30 states in 2016, despite losing the popular vote and winning with a similar number of electoral votes.
Second, and this is key, presidential and Senate voting patterns are more closely aligned than at any point in recent history. Just one state (Maine in 2020) voted differently in the Senate and presidential races that were on the ballot in the last two presidential elections.
And since each state has an equal number of senators, a nation that votes 50/50 in the popular vote on the presidential level will have more Republican senators over the long-term because that translates into winning more states.
To be clear, the idea of Republicans having a structural advantage in the Senate isn’t a new one. It’s one I made in 2013 when I was trying to rebuff the talk of an emerging Democratic majority, which is why I take the point so seriously.
But I’m not sure I was correct eight years ago. The thing I didn’t take into account is that this hasn’t been a 50/50 nation in the presidential popular vote over the last three decades.
Democrats have earned more votes nationwide in seven of the previous eight presidential races. That’s the most popular vote wins in eight presidential elections for either party since the Democratic Party was founded in the first half of the 19th century.
Republicans, of course, have still managed to win three of the last eight presidential elections. Recently, the party has adjusted to win elections with fewer votes by having their votes are concentrated in the right places. This is something some Republicans note openly.
Indeed, the nomination of Trump was a tacit acknowledgment of that strategy. You put someone on the presidential ticket whose support comes disproportionately from White voters without a college degree, which is a group that has a disproportionate amount of power in the Electoral College (in large part because of the Great Lake battleground states). In doing so, you’re losing more voters overall, but allowing you to win with fewer votes because they’re in the right places.
Over the long term this has come out to being close to a wash in states won. Since 1992, Democrats have won 25.5 states in the median election. Republicans have won 24.5. On average, Democrats have won 25 states to Republicans 25.
In the last three presidential elections, Democrats have won 25 states in the median election and 24 on average. I point out the last three because the strong correlation between presidential and Senate results really only started in the 2010s.
If you play out these Senate elections over and over again, you’d probably end up with pretty equal power in the Senate between Democrats and Republicans assuming straight ticket voting between Senate and presidential voting.
To be clear, this doesn’t mean that Republicans won’t end up winning the Senate more times than Democrats. If voters are prone to balancing power (which they usually do), Republicans will do well in midterms and that could carry over to more wins overall because only one-third of the Senate is up for election every presidential cycle. Republicans could easily take back control of the Senate in 2022, which I think is the most likely outcome.
It’s that the default isn’t as pro-Republican as one might assume.
I’ll end by saying we have no idea if the current degree of straight ticket voting will stay the same, pick up or even shrink in years to come. We don’t know what the coalitions will look like. Just like Trump came on the scene and exacerbated the educational divide, another candidate may change the electoral calculus in the future. Parties and their messages aren’t stagnant.
Just this past election, Biden actually performed better by a few points among White voters without a college degree than Hillary Clinton. At the same time, the gap between Whites and people of color (which used to be growing) shrunk, something I don’t think most thought would happen given Trump’s rhetoric.
During the Biden presidency, that racial divide in voter preferences may be going down even more, as The Washington Post’s Phillip Bump has called attention to.
The bottom line is no one knows where voter opinion and election outcomes will go from here.