Yes, you read that headline correctly.
A few months ago I read a fascinating analysis by Stephen Wolf, linked below (Mr. Wolf wrote it in February 2021, but I only saw it recently):
How minority rule plagues Senate: Republicans last won more support than Democrats two decades ago
In the diary, Mr. Wolf wrote that “even though Democrats narrowly won a majority in the Senate this year, the institution as a whole still gives Republicans a massive undue advantage — and has done so for decades. To illustrate this, Daily Kos Elections (calculated) the popular vote for the Senate going back nearly three decades and also (calculated) the proportion of the country’s population that Senators from each party represent ... The implications of this data are astonishing: as shown on the chart below, Senate Republicans have neither won more votes nor represented more Americans than Democrats since the late 1990s. Despite that fact, the GOP has controlled the Senate just over half the time since then ...”
One thing that stood out for me in Mr. Wolf’s analysis was the year 1998 as the last time Republicans won more support than Democrats. What was particularly interesting was the GOP percentage that year — 49.7% (versus 47.9% for Democrats). I immediately noticed that the percentage was still not a MAJORITY of the national popular vote. I wondered how far back would we have to go to find the year in which the Republican Party won a majority of support among Americans who voted for the Senate? After all, according to Mr. Wolf’s chart, covering the last quarter of a century, Democrats have managed to win just such a majority in 8 elections out of 14 (not counting another 5 elections where Democrats won a plurality), including the last 8 elections in a row, going back to 2006.
The answer is not as easy as it first appears. As Mr. Wolf pointed out in his analysis, “Senators are of course elected to staggered six-year terms, with a third of the chamber up every two years. To determine the popular vote for any given Senate, therefore, we’ve combined each party’s vote totals for every Senate election over a three-cycle period … The figures for 1998, for instance, include all Senate contests from that year as well as 1996 and 1994 ...”
In my diary today, I perform the same calculations, except I go further back in time. The chart that summarizes my findings is included here.
One thing you will notice right away is that some of my numbers are a bit different from Mr. Wolf’s. In some years, my calculated share of the Democratic advantage is larger than Mr. Wolf’s (for example, 2020), in some years it’s smaller (for example, 2014), and in some years it’s exactly the same (for example, 2002). Like Mr. Wolf, I included the votes for independent candidates who caucus with a major party or candidates who for all practical purposes are de facto members of a major party (for example, Bernie Sanders) as votes for that major party. However, I counted elections that feature multiple candidates from the same party on the same general election ballot differently. Where as Mr. Wolf’s methodology allowed for the counting of multiple Democrats on the same ballot in Louisiana but not in California, I also included both Democrats (where applicable) on California’s “top-two” ballot. For all practical purposes, this is why my Democratic numbers are noticeably higher only for the most recent three elections (note: there was no Senate election in California in 2020, but remember - it’s a three-cycle average!). As Mr. Wolf did in his analysis, I used data from Dave Leip’s Atlas for numbers going back to 1990, cross referenced with numbers from statistics kept by the Clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives for all Congressional Elections from 1942 to 2020. (I adjusted those slightly to count votes for major party candidates who also ran on other parties’ ballots in the same election. So, for example, in 1986, the Conservative Party and Right to Life Party in New York endorsed Al D’Amato, but the Clerk of the House of Representatives did not tabulate their votes, totaling 347,487, into the national Republican total … however I did.)
The major thing to notice from my chart, of course, is that the Democratic Party has, in effect, won the popular national vote for the U.S. Senate in 34 of the last 38 elections. Democrats have, in fact, obtained a majority of that vote in 25 of those elections, and a plurality in another 9 elections. Republicans, on the other hand, have achieved a plurality on 3 occasions (1952, 1954 and 1998) and a majority only once, in 1946, with 50.1% and that was the MOST RECENT time they achieved a majority of the vote. I personally find that truly amazing. It should also be noted that the Republicans’ 43.4% in 2020 was their 3rd lowest percentage over the previous 74 years. And more disturbingly — in 2018, the GOP achieved their literally LOWEST percentage, 42.9% during the last three-quarters of a century (at least that long, as I don’t include data here for years prior to 1946) YET still managed to achieve a 53-47 Senate majority. Disturbing, because the Senate plays an outsized role in our system of government, and, even with the current nominal Democratic control (albeit at the personal whims of Senators Manchin and Sinema) it’s becoming increasingly difficult to describe this arrangement as anything other than a tyranny of the minority.
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