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Did Republicans Draw Themselves a House Majority?

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by Matthew Green, IPR Fellow

There are reports that the House Democratic Party may have garnered more votes in its races this year than did the G.O.P.  It’s too early to say if this is true, since some votes are still being counted.  But if so, it marks a very rare occurrence in recent history.

Only once since 1962 has a party gotten a majority of the two-party vote in House races, yet failed to win a majority of House seats.  (It happened to Democrats in 1996.) I’ve posted some of this data on The Monkey Cage blog.  Below is a different chart that shows this discrepancy over time.  (Data from the House Clerk’s office.)


Why might the Republicans have managed to repeat their 1996 feat in this election?  The most popular argument so far is that partisan redistricting is to blame.  The idea is that Republicans effectively “drew” themselves a majority with a clever rejiggering of House district lines.

I’m hesitant to jump to that conclusion just yet.  After all, both political parties used gerrymandering to skew results in their favor in this election cycle, not just the G.O.P.  And if redistricting did matter, I suspect it was only partially responsible.  A party that wants to win lots of House seats has an incentive to draw many districts that only narrowly favor its candidates.  (To take an extreme example, if a party could draw all House districts so that they went 51%-49% for its candidates, the party would get 51% of the national vote but win 100% of House seats.)  However, to get less than a majority of the popular vote yet still win a majority of House seats, the party would also need some districts that lopsidedly favor its opponents or that it doesn’t bother to challenge at all.  In such districts, the other party’s votes are basically “wasted.”  (Some majority-minority districts might fit the bill, especially if they saw larger-than-usual turnout among African-American voters.)  Districts like this do exist, but not always or necessarily because a political party is able to draw them that way.

Regardless of the cause, what’s clear is that how we elect House members affects party balance in the chamber.  Most countries use proportional representation.  But our single-district method gave Democrats a sizeable advantage before 1994.   And in 1996—and maybe this year too—it provided the G.O.P. the biggest possible advantage of all:  control of the House of Representatives.