Sometimes it’s easy to get tangled up in the terminology of winning and losing in elections. Joe Biden clearly won the presidency, albeit by smaller margins than most observers expected. But unless Democrats sweep the two January runoffs in Georgia, they will have lost the battle for control of the Senate. And Democrats definitely lost at least ten net House seats. That said, Democrats did maintain control of the House, and, for that matter, posted a net gain of at least one Senate seat.
Still, the perception that Biden won but the party “lost” might have created an exaggerated impression that ticket splitting made a big comeback in 2020. Yes, there are a few clear examples of Republicans doing well in places where Trump didn’t do quite so well. Senator Susan Collins ran seven points ahead of the president in Maine. There were a smattering of suburban House Republican congressional candidates, notably in California and Texas, who appear to have overcome Trump’s losses in their district to post wins. But let’s not overthink this and engage in grand narratives of this or that “wing” of the party damaging their caucus in the House or of Republicans shrewdly distancing themselves from Trump (most didn’t) and/or convincing swing voters they would serve as a counterweight to President Biden.
For the most part, this was a straight-ticket election in which the results tracked as what you would expect from a competitive presidential contest. Biden’s lead over Trump in the national popular vote currently stands at 4 percent. Collins was the only Senate candidate to win a state lost by her party’s presidential nominee (again, pending the Georgia runoffs). And the national House popular vote gave Democrats 50.5 percent and Republicans 48.1 percent, which is actually quite close to the presidential breakdown of 51.1 percent for Biden and 47.1 percent for Trump. The Atlantic’s Ron Brownstein estimates that Biden won 223 House districts (compared to 209 for Obama in 2012 and 205 for Clinton in 2016). This year, Democrats won 222 House seats with three races still undecided. It’s all fairly cut-and-dried, at least from a national perspective.
It’s true, as Brownstein reminds us, that House Democrats suffer from a less efficient distribution of voters than Republicans, which keeps their share of districts from perfectly representing the national popular vote.
“If you apportion the House in a fair drawing, it favors Republicans, because Democrats live in these urban enclaves that are 80 percent [Democratic] and they waste a lot of votes,” Tom Davis, a former Republican representative from Northern Virginia who chaired the National Republican Congressional Committee, told me.
But again, it’s possible to exaggerate the importance of structural issues. 50.5 percent of 435 House seats is 220. Democrats aren’t really punching below their weight.
The bottom line is that this country is still divided almost evenly between two increasingly polarized major parties. All the insane events of 2020, underlaid by Trump’s uniquely divisive presidency and a culture war that rages on and on, didn’t change that. A lot of unexpected things happened on the margins, but for the most part this election was a reversion to the mean after a fairly standard midterm reaction to the party controlling the White House. Certainly, there are very important consequences that will flow from small variations to the general pattern of partisan voting, particularly in the closely divided Senate. And without question, Democrats will pay a large cost for failing to win big across the board, particularly when redistricting arrives next year and Republican control of all those state legislative chambers that was at risk this year gives the GOP an advantage in drawing new districts for the next decade. Overall, though, the partisan and ideological gridlock that sometimes feels like the 21st century’s natural state remains firmly intact.