2016: the mixed bag

As I mentioned yesterday, enacting significant reform on a laundry list of issues is something that the Democratic Party by its very nature is going to have trouble doing. At an absolute minimum, it’s something they will need to do at the least by controlling three national centers of power: the House of Representatives, the Senate, and the White House. With that in mind, many of the vague predictions you can make this early about how the major parties will do in the coming 2016 election have found reason for the Democrats to celebrate. Rachel Maddow, admittedly an often optimistic voice, noted that as a presidential election year turnout will likely be higher, favoring the Democrats in down ticket races. What’s more, elections in the Senate are built around six-year terms, so a number of the seats that Republicans have to defend within that body will be freshmen elected in the unusually Republican-favoring midterms in 2010.

Here’s a bit of a rundown of why in spite of that Democrats shouldn’t rest on their laurels, so to speak, and need to be extremely organized if they want the chance to do something more than the waiting game that the Obama presidency has unfortunately become.

What goes around comes around

The rhythms to Senate elections do favor the Democrats in the coming election in a way that they largely haven’t in other recent elections. In 2014, they had to maintain the seats they won in 2008 which coincided with high turnout for even a presidential election year, but during a midterm and with that sort of a turnout. In 2012, the Democrats were largely defending their unusual gains from the 2006 midterms. In 2010, they saw one of the most quintessentially midterm-esque elections in modern US politics. 2008 is in many ways the closest model to what might happen in 2016.

That year was a reelection year for the class of Senators who had benefited from in the shellacking the Democrats took in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Six years later, they faced a broad rejection of the Republican military, economic, and political policy planks. All their strengths had become weaknesses which the Democrats could and did use against them. With growing interest in a proactive economic populism and lingering distaste for Republican military policy, Republican senators elected in 2010 might prove similarly vulnerable in 2016.

That said, these six year patterns are just that – patterns. 2016 might usher in a new class of Democrats but within a scant two years it will be the Democratic members elected in 2012 that will be vulnerable in yet another midterm election with most likely the lower turnout that favors Republicans. Maybe 2018 won’t be 2010, but that’s a risk that the Democrats are going to have to consider when working with whatever they can get after the coming election. Any majority or plurality they can get in the Senate comes with a ticking clock.

The game is rigged

What’s more, it’s not clear what numerically the Democrats could get in the Senate. They current sit at 44 seats, with ten of those seats up for election. The majority of those will be in both relatively uncontested general elections for the Democrats and with sitting incumbents – a solid six of the ten. California will be an odd one out in that the general election is highly likely to go to the Democrats, but they will be paying special attention to the fielding of a new candidate to replace the retiring Barbara Boxer. On the other hand, Colorado will probably be a hard fight, but one with a sitting Democratic incumbent, Michael Bennet. Since he previously pulled off a narrow victory in 2010, it will likely be harder for the Republicans to unseat him than many might think. Nevada and Maryland will see their sitting Democratic Senators replaced, although given that it is a presidential election year, the Democrats have reason to be optimistic about both those elections as well.

That’s all good news, but it still only leaves them with back where they started, with 44 seats. There’s other reasons to be optimistic, as the sitting Republicans in much of the Midwest (particularly Illinois) have made a number of blunders that the Democrats will likely be able to exploit. That said, the Senate is inherently biased towards Republicans given the way it allots representation, the way modern US’s population is distributed, and the way political parties have targeted different groups. By design, the Senate divvies out representation by state, awarding lower population states with equal representation to more populous ones. The US has steadily become a more urban nation, as a growing portion of the population lives in metropolitan areas in just a handful of states. Meanwhile, the Republican party has increasingly become the party of rural voters and the Democrats the party of urban voters, for a number of reasons.

pop density dem gopFrom here.

Independent of that, whichever party has received the most voters for their Senatorial candidates nationally tends to win upwards of sixty percent of the available seats. But, because of those effects, those wins aren’t rewarded equally. The Republican Party in 2010 received a plurality, not an outright majority, of votes for Senate candidates and still received that lion’s share of the available seats. In 2014, the Republicans also pulled in the most votes, and that time with an actual majority of votes cast for that type of candidate. Still, it was a smaller lead than the Democrats had in 2008, and yet they received more seats. With the country’s population tightly concentrated in a few urban areas, geographically larger rural areas hold disproportionate political power.

This is a small but consistent force in the Senate. If Democrats in 2008 had received even an equal proportion of seats as Republicans did in 2014 for a smaller lead in overall electoral returns, they would have gained 15 not 12 seats. That would have securely landed them above the sixty vote filibuster threshhold. The dramatics necessary to appease independent Joe Lieberman wouldn’t have been necessary, the death of Senator Ted Kennedy in office wouldn’t have had quite the same national implications, and the demands of centrist Democrats would have been mitigated. The structure of the Senate works against Democrats in general, particularly as it comes to acting on their returns.

Just end the filibuster, then the Democrats will have a usable majority!


More seriously, the filibuster is something that the Democratic leadership has previously made it quite clear that they’re unwilling to part with. That’s because the pendulum of Senate elections always swings back, making it an annoyance when you’re the majority but a valuable bulwark when you’re the minority. Because of how Republicans stand to benefit more easily from favorable years, the Democrats are especially reluctant to part with the filibuster. As I noted yesterday, the Democrats are a political party, and not one of the few ones that are necessarily committed to radically transforming the political reality of the country they live in (and even those are often hesitant to do certain reforms). The filibuster has evolved out of different procedural elements to the system that the Democrats quite obviously work within. It’s a part of them and they are a part of it, so they’re not terribly likely to dismantle it.

That said, maybe this time will be different. The Democrats are facing a small but persistent challenge from parts of their base to get certain things through the Senate. They have 41 basically guaranteed seats, three that they are likely to retain, two or three they are likely to gain this year, and another two or three they might just pull off under the right circumstances. That leaves them with at most around 50 seats. Assuming they keep the White House (which is probable), that would give them a voting majority in the Senate, but not one that’s filibuster proof. Maybe that would change things.

So we’ll see if they can decide to brave the possible storms in 2018 and 2022 in order to do something in 2017. A likely outcome, however, is that the Democrats look at their probably slim gains and play it safe and keep the filibuster on for the time being. They might not even make it over the finish line to a filibuster-able majority for that matter, in which case the filibuster would still be a lifeline for them in a Republican-majority Senate.

What about the House then, the People’s Chamber?

The lower congressional house is in many ways a body that is less wired for the type of political party the Republicans have mutated into. You can’t win a fraction of the votes in a largely rural area that another person did in a vastly more diverse state and yet have the same administrative and political power. Everyone has more or less the same number of constituents (710,767 as of 2010 redistricting) and differences in power are largely created by either individual ability or the privileges divided up among those in the ruling, majority party. What’s more, all representatives are up for election every year on a two-year cycle, leaving none of the electoral wave patterns built into the Senate.

Here’s the problem for the Democrats though: the House is horrifyingly gerrymandered. Others have crunched the state-specific numbers, but on a national scale, the 2012 House Elections showed the power inherent in choosing the congressional districts’ boundaries. Collectively, the Democrats had a 1.30% lead in aggregate election returns, which translated into a 7.49% lead in sitting representatives for Republicans. Since 2008 that is the only national election in either the House or the Senate where the cumulative party winner was mismatched with which representatives were seated. What 2016 is going to show is whether that was a fluke or the new normal.

The boundaries drawn after the 2010 census were largely done at the state level by Republicans elected in that unusual year, and according to procedural norms they’ll be with us until the next census in 2020. The 2012 House elections are precisely the circumstances in which a new trend would become visible that otherwise would blend into the background. At the Senate level, lower turnout and the structural advantages to rurally based parties disguise the effects. In midterm election years, a similar effect happens in the House, obscuring the level of gerrymandering. 2012 might just have demonstrated what Democrats need to expect for the coming years – a protracted battle for a representational majority even with a clear (if sometimes small) majority of votes. The Republican House is probably here to stay for a long time.

So there’s no hope?

The issue here is not that the Democrats have no meaningful opportunities in this election and other upcoming ones. The point is that if the Democrats want to actual use electoral power to create and change policies and otherwise alter the political realities in this country, they have to take the opportunities they have for that. As I’ve mentioned before that goes against the very nature of their party as an organization, and anyone watching has seen that dynamic play out in the recent years.

Recently, there was a decision made to retain the filibuster because they expected to ultimately fall victim to it. There was poor multitasking on issues in the narrow window between 2008 and 2010. There has been little effort to directly confront the gerrymandered situation besides a vague sense of waiting it out. In short, they have chosen to pass up momentary opportunities off of the belief that doing so would guarantee other brief chances available later on. It’s a strategy that stores up moments for later use and at least so far never cashes them out.

The question everyone from everyday registered Democrats to sitting elected party officials need to ask before the adrenaline rush next November is if that strategy makes sense. If it doesn’t, what can they be mindful of needing to do before it’s once again too late?

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2 thoughts on “2016: the mixed bag

  1. […] US Senate is, as I’ve said before, at the heart of how the US democracy isn’t representative of the political ideas and considerations of a solid majority of US voters, let alone residents. To […]

  2. […] number of Republican Senators have long been discussed as uniquely vulnerable in the upcoming elections this fall. Often brought into office in the atypically […]

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