In 1996, House Democrats also won the popular vote but remained in the minority (kind of)

November 12, 2012

There remains quite a bit of chatter about something we posted on last week: House Democrats winning more of the popular vote than Republicans, yet still remaining in the minority.

It turns out this has happened at least four other times in the last century, including as recently as 1996 -- another election after a big GOP wave in which Democrats won the popular vote but failed to gain a lot of seats. (Actually that year is pretty analogous for a lot of reasons, including a Democratic president being reelected and Democrats winning right around 200 seats.)

Meanwhile, Richard Winger over at Ballot Access News has found three other instances of this in the last century: 1914, 1942 and 1952. And Winger argues that 1996 doesn't count because it doesn't include races that concluded in September in Louisiana, which would have given Republicans a slight popular vote advantage if they were held on Election Day.

Below, we are re-posting our item from last week with the numbers updated (Democrats have actually expanded their popular vote edge in recent days):

Democratic House candidates appear to have won more of the popular vote than their Republican counterparts on Tuesday, despite what looks as though it will be a 33- or 35-seat GOP majority.


Click above for our results map.

According to numbers compiled by the Post's great Dan Keating, Democrats have won roughly 49 percent of the House vote, compared to 48.2 percent for Republicans.

Despite losing the popular vote, Republicans are set to have their second-biggest House majority in 60 years and their third-biggest since the Great Depression.

The numbers seem to back up what we've been talking about on this blog for a while: Redistricting drew such a GOP-friendly map that, in a neutral environment, Republicans have an inherent advantage.

(A recent Fair Vote study found Republicans were clearly favored in 195 House districts, compared to Democrats being favored in 166. Some of this is because Democratic voters are more concentrated in urban areas, but it's also because the GOP drew some very favorable redistricting maps in important states like North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania.)

Alas, compiling the popular vote isn't a perfect endeavor, for a few reasons:

1. Ballots are still being counted in many states, meaning these numbers will change. But since many of those ballots are in California, it seems likely that Democrats will continue to lead the popular vote.

2. Speaking of California, there were several races in which the state's new "top two" primary system pitted Democrats against other Democrats or independents, meaning Republicans couldn't win votes. There also were two races between Republicans. If you exclude these races, Democrats still win 48.75 percent to 48.41 percent.

3. There were also a few dozen unopposed incumbents across the country. And while some states tally votes for that incumbent, some do not. If you exclude all the unopposed incumbents, Democrats won the popular vote by even more, 49.68 percent to 48.42 percent.

If there is any testament to the amount of progress Republicans made in redistricting, it is this. GOP-controlled states drew about four times as many districts as Democrats did, and Republicans reaped significant benefits from that on Election Day.

Without the friendly map, Democrats would have likely have gained significantly more than the seven seats it looks like they will add.

And going forward, it suggests Democrats will need to have a strong wind at their backs (bigger than Tuesday's) to take back the chamber.

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix.
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