The Challenges to Creating a New Democratic Majority
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
In their recently acclaimed book, The Emerging Democratic Majority, John Judis and Ruy Teixeira make the case that long-term demographic trends favor the Democratic Party. Given the electoral letdown suffered by the Democratic Party in the 2002 and 2000 elections, and also throughout the 1990s as the Democrats lost control of the Congress and the presidency, Judis and Teixeira's themes have offered a ray of hope in a dismal political landscape.
But a stable Democratic majority in the Congress or the Presidency is not likely to emerge anytime soon, and here's why: Because even if Judis and Teixeira are correct that the demographics are shifting toward the Democratic side, structurally our 18th century winner-take-all political system will continue to favor conservatives and the Republican Party. Unless confronted by reformers, that structural bias trumps the shifting demographics.
Electoral battles for the House, the Senate and the presidency are fought out district by district and state by state in winner-take-all contests -- not on a national basis. So the national polls on which Judis and Teixeira rely for their analysis are less and less meaningful.
The problem is where Democrats and Republicans live. Democrats tend to live heavily concentrated in the Blue America urban areas, with Republicans more evenly dispersed in the Red America rural areas as well as suburban areas. The fact is, when the national vote is tied, Republicans still win a healthy majority of Congressional seats.
Indeed in 2000, even as Al Gore beat George Bush by a half-million votes, and the combined center-left Gore-Nader vote had an even bigger lead, Bush beat Gore in 227 out of 435 U.S. House districts and in 30 out of 50 states. New U.S. House districts are even more lopsided, with Bush's advantage now rising to 237 to 198. It's no coincidence that Republicans currently hold 229 U.S. House seats.
An issue like gun control is a great example. National polls have shown for some time that, nationally, the public wants gun control. But that doesn't make a bit of difference, because most of those people who want gun control live in states and congressional districts that already are locked up for the Democratic Party, particularly in the urban areas of Blue America. What matters are the battleground states (for the presidency and Senate) and battleground congressional districts (for the Congress), and those electorates either don't care as much about gun control or actively oppose it. In the aftermath of Election 2000, many Democrats now believe that Gore's pre-campaign support for gun control may have cost him such rural states as West Virginia, Missouri, Kentucky, Ohio, Arkansas and his own state, Tennessee.
Even if there are more Democratic voters, to make a difference they need to be moving into areas now held by Republicans, not into current Democratic strongholds. If the "Democratic majority" emerges mostly in states and districts where Democrats already are strong, it just increases their winning majorities in those areas -- without changing the outcome of presidential winners or congressional majorities. If it occurs in states and districts where it's not enough to overcome safe Republican majorities, again no electoral results will change. Ultimately it will take a supermajority of Democratic voters to win a bare majority of Democratic seats -- particularly progressive Democratic seats.
Also, the distortions resulting from the redrawing of legislative district lines can turn a statewide partisan majority into a minority of legislative seats, and Republicans seem more conniving and successful at this backroom dealing. For instance, Virginia Democrats in 2001 won their first gubernatorial race since 1989, but Republicans went from barely controlling the statehouse to a two-thirds majority. How? Republicans drew the district lines. In Florida, Democrats were strong enough to hold both U.S. Senate seats and gain a virtual tie in the presidential race, but with full control over redistricting Republicans went from a 15-8 edge in U.S. House seats to an overwhelming 18 to 7 advantage. Republicans also have won lopsided shares of seats in Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania due to control over redistricting, and now the Tom DeLay-led GOP in Texas is seeking to re-redistrict their House districts to pick up another 5 to 7 seats.
Moreover, the Democrats did not leave themselves very many opportunities for retaking House seats. In states like California, where the Democrats controlled redistricting, they opted to protect their incumbents rather than try to gobble up more seats as the GOP has done in other states.
Teixeira and Judis try to account for these factors to some degree on pages 69-72 of their book, but their analysis of this is brief, overly optimistic, and unconvincing. Also, they and others point to the increasing migration of Latinos to the heartland, as well as states like California, Florida, and Texas, as a trend that will overturn the Republican applecart. Certainly, the Latinization of the U.S. is one of the "hopeful" scenarios, but the horizon for that is more like 20 years, not ten.
Similar arguments also can be made for the presidential election, which is won or lost in a handful of battleground states, and the U.S. Senate. Both of these have a structural bias that awards more per capita representation to low-population states, which in turn favors the Republican Party and its candidates, and will tend to frustrate any emerging Democratic majority.
Thus, due to the distortions, peculiarities, and the lack of proportionality built into our 18th-century winner take all, geographic-based, political system, winning a majority of votes does NOT necessarily mean you end up with a majority of seats. Winner-take-all means "if I win, you lose," and in that zero sum game the Democrats will continue to come out on the short end of the stick. The Republican Party and its think tanks seem to understand this much better than the Democrats.
Relying on our analysis, one can make a strong case that the hope for the Democratic Party lies in enacting full representation electoral systems. With full representation (also known as proportional representation), the Democrats as well as the Republicans will win their fair share of legislative seats that matches their proportion of the popular vote. Redistricting and demographic trends will not distort outcomes and produce such exaggerated results. Only with full representation systems will the types of demographic shifts identified by Judis and Teixeira, that perhaps over time should favor an emerging Democratic majority, ever have a chance to win at the ballot box.
Steven Hill is a senior analyst at the Center for Voting and Democracy ( www.fairvote.org) and author of "Fixing Elections: The Failure of America's Winner Take All Politics," which is out in paperback this month ( www.FixingElections.com). Rob Richie is executive director of the Center.
For more information about CVD's upcoming national conference, "Claim Democracy," November 22-23 in Washington, D.C., backed by a broad range of pro-democracy groups, visit www.democracyusa.org/events/conference.html.
The co-authors of this article, Steven Hill and Rob Richie, are both with the Center for Voting and Democracy. Steve is the author of "Fixing Elections: The Failure of America's Winner Take All Politics" (Routledge Press, www.FixingElections.com), and Rob and Steve are co-authors of Whose Vote Counts (Beacon Press, 2001).