Long-term electoral trends in the United States

Its time to take a break from the rough-and-tumble of everyday politics to take a wide look at our political system. This post will tell you what our government is likely to look like for the foreseeable future. There are many factors which determine who makes up our government, and I’ll break down the know-able factors here and tell you which party is likely to control the government over the next decade or so. We’ll look at the Presidency, the US House of Representatives and the US Senate.

The Presidency

The US President is chosen by the Electoral College, which gives roughly proportional votes to the winner in (almost) every state. Importantly, the person who wins the nation-wide popular vote  is almost always the winner of  the Electoral College vote. These votes are close mirrors of each other, so it is important to look at the overall national voting trends when determining how future Presidential elections will play out.

National voting trends favor the Democrats. Democrats are overwhelmingly the party of young and minority voters, while Republicans are the favorite of white and elderly voters. Research shows that voters tend to stick with whatever party they join at their first vote. It also shows that “age cohorts acquire a propensity to vote or not to vote that proves ‘sticky’ over time.” (PDF, page 19) These facts suggest that young voters, whose turnout was especially high and especially Democratic in 2006-2008 (and looks to be close to the same this year), will continue to vote often and vote Democratic in the future. (more after the break)

When we look at race, we also see encouraging trends for Democrats. Scott Trende at RealClearPolitics posted this table of the minority share of the electorate over the past elections where there is reliable data:

The minority share of the vote grows by 2-3% every Presidential election.

Looking at the Presidential years on the chart, you can see that the white share of the vote consistently drops by 2-3% every four years. A majority of whites vote Republican while minorities are among the most consistent Democratic voters. Blacks vote 90-95% Democratic. Latinos flirted with Republicans under Bush’s Presidency, but they now look to be solidly in the Democratic camp (they gave Obama 67% of their votes in 2008 and will almost certainly do the same or better this year). Crucially, Latinos do not even vote in proportion to their numbers as a percentage of the population. If Democrats can drive up participation among Latinos, their share of the vote will increase even faster. Demographic trends point to Democratic dominance among key, growing electoral groups for the medium- to long-term.

To be sure, Republicans will certainly increase their overtures to Latinos in the coming years, but this will be a slow process and will require confronting the interests of core constituencies in the Republican base. However, republicans will be at a large disadvantage in this group because voting allegiances are so sticky. Democrats have a huge head-start on Republicans in the Latino community. The most future Republicans can hope for is to mitigate the damage among this increasingly important group.

On the Presidency, I am with Ruy Teixiera (the godfather of the “Emerging Democratic Majority” theory) and Jonathan Chait (who recently put out an article on this subject that caused quite a splash). Democrats have demographic and electoral advantages that should allow them to win most of the Presidential elections over the next decade or two. However, Democrats’ future in Congress will be very different.

The Senate

Because Senate representation is given out evenly to every state, regardless of population, representation here tends to be very anti-democratic(in both senses of the word). For example, a voter in Wyoming has 66 times more say in the US Senate than a voter in California. People in smaller states have radically more power over our government than the majority who live in large states. Small states also tend to be Republican-leaning states.

Here is a map of the states according to their national voting preference. States are ranked according to their PVI and their Senate electoral history. Historically, some states have voted for one party for President and another for local offices. Crucially, this is changing as voters are starting to favor one party in all of their elections, instead of splitting votes among their local and presidential choices.

States' likely future preferences for Senate

As you can see, there are 14 solid Democratic states vs 20 solid Republican states. These states will almost always send a Senator of their favorite party to Washington. There will be exceptions where there are unusually skilled or like-able candidates (a factor political scientists call “valence”). For instance, Scott Brown in Massachusetts and Mary Landrieu in Louisiana have a high valence and are thus able to win in the opposite party’s state. There will also be scandals, like with Ted Stevens in Alaska, which temporarily throw a different party to Congress from an otherwise predictable state. But these will be rare and will tend to balance out.

The 16 swing states can elect a member to the Senate from either party. They are made up of several groups. Genuine swing states where the parties are about equal in power (OH, NC, NV, FL, CO, IA, VA, NH, PA, MO), formerly Democratic states who have swung toward Republicans lately (WI, MN, MI) and states which are solidly in one party’s grasp in Presidential elections, but nonetheless have had a habit of electing the other party statewide (MT, WV, ME). The last group will tend to become like the “solid” states over time, but over how much time, nobody knows.

Therefore, over the medium-term, even as Democrats have an advantage in the Presidential vote, they will maintain a disadvantage in the Senate. The average Senate in the next 2-10 years will have 44 Democrats and 56 Republicans. To be sure, Democrats can usually appeal to a wider ideological audience than Republicans,  and so are more often successful in Republican states than the inverse.  But it is very likely that this tendency will become less prevalent over time. Democrats should expect to be in the Senate minority for some time.

The House of Representatives

On its face, Democrats should be more likely to do well in the House. The House is made up of Congressmen represeting roughly equal-sized districts, so ideally this should play to Democrats’ growing advantage among the population as a whole. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Gerrymandering, or the manipulation of Congressional district boundaries, has made it so that there is very little chance of most Congressional seats changing parties. In fact, out of 435 House seats, only 99 are competitive or “have the potential to become”  competitive in 2012, according to the authoritative and widely respected Cook Political Report. This is particularly bad news for the Democrats.

The number of competitive Congressional seats has been dwindling for a couple decades now, and Democrats have gotten along alright, but 2012 and all elections for the next decade will be different. That’s because Republicans made huge gains in Congress and in statehouses across the country in 2010. This allowed Republicans unprecedented control of Congressional district re-drawing, and therefore the ability to gerrymander to their hearts’ content. And gerrymander they did. Republicans worked to cement most of their members into the seats they gained in 2010. As a result, there are very few vulnerable Republicans in Congress and also very few who are likely to become vulnerable over the next few years.

Republicans currently hold a 242-193 advantage in the House, meaning the Democrats must capture 25 seats to gain control of the chamber. As the Cook Political Report (link above) shows, this will be a very difficult task. Only 19 Republican-held seats lean Democratic or are “toss ups” in this cycle, while another 24 could become competitive with an incumbent retirement or with a strong challenger. In contrast, 16 Democratic seats lean Republican or are “toss ups” while another 19 could go Republican under the right circumstances. Unless a huge Democratic wave election occurs (similar to 2006 or 2008), it is very likely that Democrats will remain the House minority party for some time. Equilibrium in seats seems to rest somewhere around a 15-25 Republican House advantage. (Yes this is very strange and anti-democratic. It means that even if the national electorate votes Democrat by a 1-2 point margin, the House of Representatives will still be Republican.)


It is likely that Democrats will win most Presidential elections, while Republicans maintain majorities in Congress over the next decade or more. This will be something akin to the dynamic from 1968-1992, when Republicans almost always controlled the Presidency and Democrats almost always maintained control of both houses of Congress.

Of course the HUGE disclaimer when making predictions like this is that things change. They often change in dramatic and unforeseeable ways. These predictions are best understood as predictions for “if all else is equal.” A terrorist attack or international calamity could derail things in a hurry. If Mitt Romney becomes President and miraculously economic growth takes off like a rocket and health care costs grow at half their normal rate, then everything I’ve said here will will need serious revisions. So, if all else is equal, Republicans will tend to control Congress and Democrats will tend to control the Presidency for the near future.

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