Republicans Can’t Claim Mandate as Democrats Top House Vote

Republicans Can’t Declare Mandate With More Democrat House Votes
It’s the first time since 1996 that one party won more House seats while winning fewer votes, according to data compiled by the House Clerk’s office. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Democrats failed to regain control of the U.S. House of Representatives even though they won 1 million more votes than Republicans. The number of states backing Senate and presidential candidates of the same party grew to the largest in at least 60 years. And President Barack Obama made history by losing every county in West Virginia.

These are among the findings in data compiled by Bloomberg on the 2012 election results, which call attention to an electorate that is increasingly polarized and two major parties that are as ideologically distinct as ever.

“It confirms that the trend toward increased party-line voting observed over the past couple of decades continues,” said Gary Jacobson, a political scientist at the University of California at San Diego. “The party coalitions are increasingly ideologically coherent and differentiated from one another, producing higher party loyalty and less ticket-splitting.”

The 435 House elections produced the anomalous result of Republicans winning more seats and Democrats winning more votes.

Democrats led Republicans by 56 million to 55 million votes nationally, according to unofficial tallies from the Associated Press. It’s the first time since 1996 that one party won more House seats while winning fewer votes, according to data compiled by the House Clerk’s office. The outcome is the product in part of Republican-dominated redrawing of House seat boundaries after the 2010 census and of population shifts.

Democratic Edge

In North Carolina, Republican candidates garnered a total of 2.14 million votes in the 13 districts, winning nine. Democrats gained a total of 2.22 million votes, winning three districts and leading in a fourth.

In Pennsylvania, Republicans won 13 of the 18 districts even as they lost the aggregate vote by 2.7 million to 2.6 million.

Some Republicans said their return to power should embolden House leaders in sharing power with Obama and the Democratic-controlled U.S. Senate. Republicans probably won 234 House seats, down from 242 in 2010, pending the outcomes in three contests where no winner has been declared. Two House Republicans from California conceded defeat today.

“No House Republican should be bamboozled into this idea that the only person who has a mandate is Barack Obama,” Newt Gingrich, a former House speaker who sought the Republican presidential nomination this year, said Nov. 13 on MSNBC. “The House Republicans have a mandate.”

Mandate Claim

Yet Republicans, who held more governorships and state legislatures prior to the election, won their majority after redrawing more House district lines to their advantage.

Claiming a mandate is “grasping for straws” because Republicans won a series of district-by-district elections, lost seats overall and didn’t win the national popular vote, said Paul Herrnson, a political scientist at the University of Maryland in College Park.

“It’s very hard to claim a mandate for the 234 House seats” that Republicans won, he said.

Beyond a redistricting disadvantage, House Democrats are hindered by a heavy concentration of their voters in populous metropolitan areas, which inflates the party’s national vote total as Republican candidates win by more modest margins. In New York City, where Obama won 81 percent of the vote, Democrats won 11 of the 12 congressional districts with an average of 85 percent of the vote.

“Democrats will win a lot of those districts with huge majorities, but they’re wasting a lot of votes,” Jacobson said. “Republicans have fewer districts where they have huge majorities, but more districts where they have comfortable but much smaller majorities, so they can get a minority of the votes and still have a quite solid majority of the districts.”

Southern Lock

The House elections underscored Democratic strength on the two coasts and in districts that are strongly black or Hispanic. Democrats will control 48 of 68 districts in California, Oregon and Washington state. The party won all 21 districts in the six New England states. Republicans intensified their grip on the South, where the party has been ascendant for decades. Republicans won all House seats in Arkansas for the first time since the Reconstruction era and in Oklahoma.

There’s little partisan difference in how voters in the 435 districts voted for House candidates and the president. The number of districts backing the same party’s candidates for both offices probably exceeded the post-World War II record of 376 following the 2004 election.

Senate Purity

The election also revealed a surge in straight-ticket voting in the presidential and Senate races.

Of the 33 states that featured Senate contests, in 27 of them -- or 82 percent -- the presidential and Senate election winners were of the same party. That’s the highest such percentage since before 1952.

In all, 80 senators in the next Congress will represent states that also voted for the presidential candidate of their party, the most in at least 60 years, Jacobson’s data show.

The growing homogeneity in presidential and Senate election outcomes is attributable partly to the White House candidates targeting just a few states, said Brigid Harrison, who teaches law and political science at Montclair State University in Montclair, New Jersey.

“If a state is viewed as being noncompetitive” in the presidential election, “chances are that the incumbent U.S. Senate candidate is going to be a member of that majority party,” she said. In her home state of New Jersey, Obama and Democratic Senator Robert Menendez each won 58 percent of the vote.

Changing Electorate

Party-line voting is also on the rise because of a “sorting out of the electorate,” said John Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, California.

“Liberals and conservatives have landed in their party homes,” he said. “I grew up in the New York of Nelson Rockefeller and Jacob Javits. There were a fair number of liberal Republicans both in power and in the electorate. You just don’t have that anymore. Conversely, you just don’t have large numbers of conservative Democrats either in the electorate or in power.”

Obama, Republican challenger Mitt Romney and their allies spent most of their time and campaign funds in just nine states. Five were decided by fewer than five percentage points. That’s down from 11 states in 2004 and 20 states in 1976, the past two presidential elections where the popular vote margin between the two nominees was closest to matching Obama’s three-point win over Romney.

Except for Indiana and North Carolina, which shifted to Romney after backing Obama in 2008, every state voted the same way on Nov. 6 as it did four years earlier.

One exception to the party-line rule: West Virginia, which shunned Obama even as it re-elected Democrats for governor and Congress. Obama is the first presidential candidate in history who failed to win any of West Virginia’s 55 counties.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE