January 17, 2021

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Biden’s Popular-Vote Win Didn’t Help House Democrats

When measured in House districts, the performance of Democratic presidential candidates has similarly narrowed. According to data collected in Brookings’s Vital Statistics on Congress, Bill Clinton carried a clear majority of House districts in his two victories, while winning only a plurality of the popular vote in both three-way races. But Al Gore lost most House districts while winning the popular vote in 2000. And both Barack Obama in 2012 and Hillary Clinton in 2016 lost most House districts while winning the popular vote (2008 was an exception to this pattern: Obama won 242 House districts while winning almost 53 percent of the popular vote).

In one sense, Biden’s success in winning more districts (about 223) than Obama in 2012 (209) and Hillary Clinton in 2016 (205) constitutes clear progress for Democrats, reflecting the expansion of the party’s support in white-collar suburbs. But it still highlights the constraints on the Democrats’ reach: Trump won more House seats (230) in 2016 while losing the popular vote, and George W. Bush in 2004 won many more (256) while winning slightly less of the national vote than Biden did this year.

Those disparities explain why many analysts in both parties believe Democrats face a natural disadvantage in the House, even before factoring in gerrymandering.

“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.

The consequences of this imbalance are growing more significant because, as in Senate races, it’s getting harder for either party to win House seats in areas that vote the other way at the presidential level—especially in a presidential-election year.

Through the late 20th century, it was common for a large number of districts to support House candidates from one party and presidential nominees from the other. About 190 districts split their votes during landslides for Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, largely because many conservative southerners still voted Democratic for the House even as they backed those GOP presidential candidates.

But as more voters have treated congressional elections as choices between competing parties rather than competing individuals, the number of split districts has dwindled, reaching a modern low of 26 in the 2012 election and rebounding only slightly to 35 in 2016.

This year could set a new record for the fewest split-ticket House seats. Depending on the final vote tallies, it’s possible that each party will win only about 10 seats that voted for the other side’s presidential candidate. Democrats have reelected 10 members in seats that voted for Trump (though Biden may win some of those districts as the final votes are counted, removing them from the split-ticket category). Republicans in turn reelected three GOP incumbents in seats that Biden carried, beat four Democratic incumbents in Biden districts, and won one open seat that he took.

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