Monday, November 06, 2006

In a Democratic Year, Why are the Republicans Still Favored to Maintain Control of the Senate?

Huffington Post
David Wallechinsky
In a Democratic Year, Why are the Republicans Still Favored to Maintain Control of the Senate?

Polls have consistently shown that two-thirds of the American people think the United States is going in the wrong direction. Because the Republicans, controlling as they do the Presidency and both houses of Congress, have completely determined this direction, it is not surprising that a significant majority would like to kick the Republicans out of office.

Yet the battle for the Senate could go either way, and the Democrats will have to win almost every toss-up state to take control. As world democracies go, this is not normal.

By international standards, the composition of the U.S. Senate is inherently undemocratic because each state has two senators regardless of size. Wyoming, population 500,000--two senators; California, population 36,000,000--two senators. Because one-third of the senators are elected every two years, the extent to which any given Senate represents fairly the U.S. population can be determined by adding the votes for three successive elections. For example, the 100 members of the current Senate were all elected in 2000, 2002 or 2004. The Democratic candidates for the current Senate tallied more than 100 million votes, whereas the Republican candidates gained only 97 million votes. Yet it is the Republicans who have an eleven-seat advantage. In 2004 alone, the Democratic Senatorial candidates outpolled their Republican counterparts by 4.8 million votes, yet the Republicans won 19 seats to only 15 for the Democrats.

Although it is the Republicans who are currently taking advantage of our distorted system for choosing the Senate, there have been periods when they were the victims. Once again using the results of the elections for each Senate seat, after both the 1950 and 1954 elections, the Democrats controlled the Senate despite the fact that more Americans had voted for Republican candidates. For the next 42 years, Democratic Senatorial candidates outpolled their Republican opponents. However, during the 1980s, the Republicans seized control of the Senate anyway. After the elections of 1980, 1982 and 1984, the Democratic candidates for the 100 Senate seats outpolled the Republicans by 6-8%. Yet throughout this period it was the Republicans who held Senate majorities of 6 to 8 seats.

Remember the 1994 election when the Republican Party swept into power? It did so despite earning less votes for the 100 Senate seats than did the Democrats. The Republicans inched ahead in the cumulative vote totals after the 1996 and 1998 elections, but in 2000, the Republicans retained control of the Senate despite being outvoted.

This year, if the Republicans are able to hold on to 50 seats and maintain control of the Senate, we will once again be in a position where a party exercises power despite being rejected by the majority of American voters.

NOTE: In preparing the statistical charts that formed the background for this piece, I examined the composition of each Senate going back to 1946. In doing so, I stumbled upon an unexpected fact. Again using the combined totals for all 100 seats, I discovered that not once has the Republican Party earned the votes of a majority of American voters, whereas the Democrats have managed to earn a majority of votes more than half the time. Yet the Republicans have controlled the Senate for 22 of the last 60 years anyway. One of the reasons for this anomaly is that 4-5% of voters choose third-party or independent candidates. However, it does illustrate the ongoing strategic challenge the Republicans face in keeping power even though they are never able to gain the sustained support of a majority of the American population.