The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

3 stats showing how much the deck is stacked against Democrats

A supporter of President-elect Joe Biden holds up his mobile phone showing election results on Nov. 7, 2020, in Philadelphia. (John Minchillo/AP)

Regular Americans might be completely unaware of this, but the political science buffs who inhabit and write about Washington are engaged in a vigorous debate about how bad things are for Democrats.

Not bad as in how President Biden’s approval rating has declined or how much trouble he’s having passing his infrastructure bills, but rather how close his party is to losing power — and having it stay lost.

The impetus is data and projections from Democratic analyst David Shor, which were given an extensive treatment in the New York Times. The suggestion: Democrats could be in the dark for a decade after the 2022 election. The reason: The maps are very much stacked against them.

In the course of making that argument, though, many have homed in on a stat that sounds much more ominous than it actually is. It’s that Democrats took 18 million more votes in the battle for the Senate in 2018 but still lost seats.

That much is true. But it’s also possible to make a valid point while using misleading data. We cautioned against using the Senate popular vote stat when it reared its ugly head shortly after that 2018 election, and remain steadfast in that today.

Essentially, the problem with it is that not every state holds a Senate race every two years, and the states that are up might be disproportionately blue or red — which was indeed the case in 2018, when more than two-thirds of the seats up for election were held by Democrats. Beyond that, there’s the fact that those numbers included one very unusual Democrat-vs.-Democrat race in California, netting Democrats 11 million votes instead of about 2 or 3 million.

Finally, it’s true that Democrats lost seats. But another way to look at that is that they won 67 percent of the Senate races (22 of 33) with what, minus the California thing, would have been about 55 percent of the popular vote. And in case it’s not clear how misleading this can be, look at what happened in 2020. There, Republicans actually won slightly more votes in Senate races nationwide, but they lost three seats and the majority. (The culprit, yet again: They were defending many more seats.)

But as noted above, just because this stat isn’t all it’s cracked up to be doesn’t mean the larger point is wrong. It’s not. It’s just that there are better ways to demonstrate it.

So let’s look at a few:

1. The House, and the GOP’s big swing-district edge

Here, the Democrats’ disadvantage owes not just to how we’re distributed as a country, but how the maps themselves are drawn — and drawn in many cases by Republicans.

The GOP’s superior control of redistricting after the 2010 Census led some to speculate that Democrats might not be able to win back the majority at any point in the following decade (sound familiar?). Ultimately they did, but it took until 2018.

All of this will be familiar to political watchers. But it’s worth reinforcing just how stacked the deck is.

The best stat, to our mind: After the pre-2012 round of redistricting, data from the election reform group FairVote showed 195 districts leaned toward the GOP, while just 166 leaned toward Democrats. Among the 74 districts with partisanship scores between 46 percent and 54 percent for each party — what you can more or less call a “swing district” — Democrats needed to win 69 percent of them to have a majority.

Things change as populations evolve over a decade, but in 2016, even when Donald Trump lost the popular vote, he carried 231 districts to Hillary Clinton’s 194. For Democrats to win the House majority in 2018, they had to win territory that went for Trump by significant margins; Republicans have no such hurdle.

Those House districts will change by the time the 2022 election rolls around, due to the next round of redistricting. But the GOP’s advantage should be similar for the foreseeable future given it continues to have significantly more control over redistricting.

2. The Senate, and the lack of blue states

Republicans, as you might have heard, haven’t won the popular vote in just about every recent presidential elections — only once in the past eight (2004), in fact.

Since then, Democrats have won the popular vote by an average of 4.4 percentage points. But when you break down the results by state, Republicans have actually won more states — 101 for the GOP, versus 99 for Democrats — in the past four elections, all while taking fewer votes.

(And if you stretch it back to the 2000 election, Republicans have won the popular vote just once, but have carried 54 percent of states.)

This is where the Senate comes into play. If Senate races simply went according to the presidential vote — and they increasingly do with few exceptions — it would mean Democrats would have lost ground even as they won more votes in four consecutive presidential elections.

The most pronounced case was 2016, when Trump lost the popular vote by more than two points but still won 30 of 50 states. That suggests that in a more-or-less neutral environment, the GOP has an inherent advantage in something approaching a filibuster-proof number of Senate seats (60).

If there’s something to cheer Democrats about this stat, it’s that precisely the same thing happened in 2000 (George W. Bush losing the popular vote but winning 30 states), and Democrats still won their own filibuster-proof Senate majority by 2009.

But they had to win in some very red territory to get that, which just isn’t practical these days. Why do we say that? Because this chart:

3. The electoral college, and its historic and growing GOP bias

That there are more red states than blue ones — even in elections in which Democrats have pretty routinely won more votes — is certainly a problem for Democrats holding the Senate. But another problem is in how that extends to presidential elections.

Here, you need to factor in the relative size of the states, because each state gets a different number of electoral votes. But the imbalance is still there, and the GOP advantage is growing to historic levels.

On this one, we’ll again turn to Shor, who has crunched the numbers on the partisan bias of the electoral college over time. While Democrats have turned against the electoral college en masse in recent years, as recently as the run-up to the 2016, a few unfortunate souls were still talking about how the electoral college was a boon to Democrats, despite what happened in 2000. And there was actually good reason for that.

Then things changed — significantly. In fact, according to Shor’s data, the 2016 and 2020 elections weren’t just the most favorable electoral college setups for Republicans since 1952; they were also the two biggest examples of partisan electoral college bias for either party. And 2020, despite being a Democratic win, was actually more skewed than 2016.

As with the above, there are some caveats here. Things can change. Predictions of “permanent majorities” often look dumb in retrospect. Our politics and the parties involved also tend to adjust based upon new realities. It’s also possible this last stat in particular owes to a Trump effect, more than anything, which we might not see in 2024 or beyond.

But these numbers show that for Democrats to win each of the three levers of power, they have to win significantly more votes than Republicans. They’ve been doing that, but even that has only been good enough for bare majorities and narrow wins.

Which brings us to the last key stat: In 2020, Democrats were only about 90,000 votes away — less than a one-point across-the-board shift for president and Senate, and about a two-point shift in the House — from controlling literally none of the three levers.