The broadest available measure of public opinion are the votes of the nearly 130 million Americans who cast ballots last fall. That’s an electorate with a steadily growing share of minorities and a large cohort of young and generally liberal voters. One oddity of the current moment, though, is that even as Democrats steadily built a natural majority, the geographic scope of their appeal has sharply constricted. In his 1992 presidential campaign, Bill Clinton won 1,524 counties nationwide. Obama’s reelection managed to win just 690—fewer than even Jimmy Carter (900) and Michael Dukakis (819) managed in their landslide defeats. Democrats have won the loyalties of a larger share of the voters, but their voters occupy a progressively smaller share of the land. And in our political system, occupying land matters.
The Senate, with its one-state-one-vote system, gives individuals who reside in low-population states vastly more power than those in high-population states. (California has two senators representing its 38 million citizens, the same number Wyoming has representing its 576,000, which gives Wyoming voters 66 times more voting power per capita.) The chamber doesn’t attempt to represent America, exactly. It represents an approximation of America that is whiter and more rural than the real thing. This makes the Senate naturally more fertile territory for the Republicans, and while the Democrats have managed to hang on to majority control of the Senate since 2007, the way they have done so points to the forbidding odds they face. Republicans have thrown away easily winnable races in states like Delaware, Nevada, Indiana, and Missouri by nominating oddballs or cranks when perfectly loyal, more palatable Republicans were available. Democrats, meanwhile, have managed to hold seats in deep-red states only by carefully husbanding the political capital of their members. If liberals attempted to impose anything close to the sort of partisan discipline on their Senate candidates that tea-party activists deploy against Republicans, the GOP might have a filibuster-proof majority.
After defying the odds in an election cycle they were expected to lose, Senate Democrats face another uphill climb in next year’s races, defending seats in deep-red states like Arkansas, Louisiana, Alaska, South Dakota, and several others. Even if Democrats pull it off, their majority depends on their holding on to constituents who distrust their party. “To the extent that they break with the president,” a Democratic strategist said of the Senate candidates the party needs to hold the chamber, “it could be—I don’t want to say it is—a big advantage for them in deep-red states.” That is to say: The structure of the chamber is such that even a popular Democratic president cannot have a functional majority in the place. Republicans, on the other hand, could win back the Senate without venturing very far into blue territory—all they need to do is get their base to stop throwing virgins into live volcanoes.
The Senate was intended as a brake against majority rule. The House was supposed to be the vessel of populism. But the House also is affected by the lopsided distribution of Democrats across the country. There are roughly the same number of voters in each district—but the Democrats waste many more votes, because many of their voters are packed into urban districts with huge Democratic majorities. In the 2012 elections, the Republicans comfortably held the House even though Democratic House candidates collected more than a million more votes than Republican House candidates. And since Republicans control so many statehouses, they’ve been able to rig the districts to further solidify their advantage. Democrats have the voters, but Republicans have the geography.
In the face of the disproportionate power wielded in our system by white, rural, conservative voters, one might expect a strong wave of support for political reform to make the system better reflect the majority. Instead the prevailing currents have run in the opposite direction, with Republicans erecting new bulwarks to protect themselves from the threat of a hostile majority.
After Obama mobilized large numbers of young and nonwhite voters, Republicans across the country took steps to constrict the electorate. In what was for them a happy accident of timing, they gained power in the House during the 2010 midterm elections, just in time to oversee the redrawing of House districts that occurs every decade following the Census. They were able to circumscribe districts such that they locked in their gains in several states, which means that even Democratic-leaning ones like Pennsylvania and Michigan sent staunchly Republican delegations to the House this year (13-5 and 9-5, respectively).
In fact, if the 2012 elections proved anything, even beyond the increasing Democratic tilt of the electorate, it was that Republicans have a mortal lock on the House. Surely losing the House would not be impossible. But the current standard of behavior—holding the economy hostage, screaming at the president during an address to Congress, voting for the Paul Ryan budget—did not come close to doing the trick last fall, and it’s hard to imagine what would. (Passing a mandatory-child-labor law? Voting to replace Martin Luther King Jr. Day with Bull Connor Day?)