As the final Election Day votes are being counted, national attention has focused on the Republicans’ near-sweep of close elections for Senate and governor. But elections for the other congressional branch deserve more scrutiny. Given that Republicans will only win about 52 percent of votes in House races, how are they ending up with 57 percent of seats? Why did Democrats concede control of the House months ago, even when congressional approval is so low?
The reason is bracing to believers in accountable and representative government. The House is shockingly skewed toward the Republican Party. It’s always hard to oust incumbents—some 96 percent just won re-election—but now it extends to control of the chamber. In 2012, Republicans won a lopsided majority of seats despite securing only 48 percent of the vote, about the same vote share as Democrats this year. To keep the House in 2014, Republican needed only 45 percent of votes. Putting it another way: control of the House comes from winning 218 races or more. The 218th biggest Republican margin was fully 14 percentage points.
Looking forward, it’s even worse for Democrats. FairVote’s Monopoly Politics projection model was, as usual, highly accurate in this election—of 368 projections made a year ago, only two were wrong. We’ve already released our projections for 2016—that’s two years away, folks—and picked sure winners in 373 districts, leaving only 14 percent of the House even potentially in play. To win a majority of 218 House seats, we project that Democratic candidates would need to win ten million more votes than Republicans.
Imagine if analysts assumed that structural bias in the Electoral College would allow the Democrats to keep the White House in 2016 even if their candidate lost by 10 million votes. That distortion would stir an uproar—remember that when Al Gore lost in 2000, he had won the popular vote by 500,000 votes. Yet the partisan skew in House elections draws barely a yawn.
There’s every reason to care. Our founders designed the House to reflect the people, yet its leaders today are electorally unaccountable to voters in November. All Republican House leaders and committee chairs represent safely Republican districts won by Mitt Romney in 2012, and now an absolute majority of House seats will be held by Republicans in Romney-won districts. With little to fear from general election voters, Republicans representing such districts are incentivized to play to their party’s base to fend off primary challengers. The 113th Congress was one of the least productive in history, and it’s hard to see the 114th Congress being much better.
Gerrymandering Is Only Part of the Story