Politics & Policy

The Ole College Save

One big Republican victory. It's a republican one too.

The November midterm elections may have brought a lot of Republican losses, but also at least one very quiet conservative victory. George Allen and Jim Talent may have been defeated, but the Electoral College and the Senate look safe for the foreseeable future. Starting even before the 2000 presidential election, a few conservatives but mostly liberals and progressives started campaigning to revise the basic structure of the federal government. They argued that awarding two senators to every state unfairly empowers voters in small states like Wyoming over those in big ones like New York and California. It follows that the Electoral College, which is partly based on Senate seats, gives small states an unfairly large voice in choosing America’s presidents.

Advocates often call for constitutional revision on nonpartisan grounds. The New York Times, for example, says it favors direct elections for president so candidates would have incentives to compete for votes even in non-swing states. Some Republicans from big states have supported constitutional revision, like Illinois Congressman Ray LaHood and Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter. But the most persistent support for revision — especially of the Electoral College — has come from liberals like the New York Times’ editors, The Nation and Mother Jones magazines, Senator Hillary Clinton, and the Daily Kos (see here and here). And it’s not difficult to see why. Starting at least in the 1990s, these and other observers began to think of small states as disproportionately conservative.

That’s why advocates of revision often use Rocky Mountain states like Wyoming and Plains states like Kansas and Nebraska to illustrate the kinds of small states that are unfairly empowered by the current rules. These states fit stereotypes that associate Republicanism with receding small-town and rural America. Consistent with this, political scientists Frances Lee and Bruce Oppenheimer found that from the 1970s through the 1990’s, Republicans won disproportionate Senate seats compared to their national Senate votes because of their domination of small states. That tended to translate into disproportionate Electoral College votes. Some liberals began to fear that rules favoring small states might enable Republicans to win elections even with a minority of the vote. That came to pass when George W. Bush won an Electoral College majority, and the presidency, in 2000 with few popular votes than Al Gore. What was to stop a string of victories like that?

So it wasn’t a surprise that it was up to conservatives at the National Review and Walter Berns and John Fortier at the American Enterprise Institute to defend institutions like the Electoral College when the 2000 election energized sharp calls for revision — especially of the Electoral College — from Democratic politicians, liberal op-ed pages, and books like Yale professor Robert Dahl’s How Democratic is the American Constitution?, published in 2001.

Now it’s the Democrats who are in control of Congress for the first time since 1994. So shouldn’t we expect a push for revision? There’s a good reason why not: Democrats have made big gains in small states. The fact is that it was always simplistic to think of small states as inherently Republican. Some, like Montana and the Dakotas, favor Democrats as Senators. And especially in New England, some small states have been trending Democratic for years. In the U.S. Senate, the GOP advantage in small states peaked in the late 1990’s, when Republicans won three-fifths of the seats from the 20 smallest states, giving them a ten seat head-start in the race for a Senate majority. But by 2004, that was down to 55 percent of these seats. And this past November 7, Democratic wins in Montana and Rhode Island brought the two parties into parity: both have 20 Senators from the 20 smallest states. Now, for every “red” Oklahoma and Idaho, there is a blue Vermont and Delaware.

It might not stop there. Some Democrats are already talking about picking up Senate seats in 2008 in small states like New Hampshire, Maine, and also New Mexico if Pete Domenici retires. Others are optimistic about the presidential voting. John Kerry won six of America’s 20 smallest states in 2004, and Tom Schaller’s new book, Whistling Past Dixie, points out that Democrats have serious prospects of picking up New Mexico and Nevada.

So don’t be surprised that we’re not hearing Democrats talk about reforming these rules of the American political game. Democrats are currently reconciled to these institutions by a force that America’s Founders understood all too well: self-interest.


 – Gerard Alexander is associate professor of politics at the University of Virginia and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.


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