Recently, it seems as though a growing chorus of progressives have begun to complain about how our governing institutions distort the true will of the voters. The Daily Beast recently published an illustrative example of this genre by David Faris:
The Democratic candidate has won a popular vote majority in six of the last seven presidential elections. Over that same time period, Democrats have secured 30 million more votes for the U.S. Senate than their Republican counterparts. In 2016 alone, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes, and Democratic candidates received 11 million more votes for the Senate. The record here is clear: Over the past 26 years, the American people have voted, over and over again, to give Democrats the authority to staff the federal judiciary with living constitutionalists, and instead what they have received is a Supreme Court that remains in the death grip of a radical, conservative majority and lower courts that have flipped back and forth between Democratic and Republican appointees. Here, as in so many other ways, American democracy has misfired by hewing to institutions and procedures cooked up over candlelight a hundred years before the invention of the internal combustion engine.
To be clear: Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and Hillary Clinton did not win popular majorities. They won pluralities. Only George W. Bush and Barack Obama have won a majority of the vote in the last 30 years. Also, I’m not sure why 1876 — the year the internal combustion engine was invented — should serve as the demarcation point for determining whether political institutions are outmoded or still relevant.
The Left, it seems to me, has turned its ire on two main targets: the Senate and the Electoral College. The latter is simply a pass-through institution at this point; the real target of progressive frustration with the Electoral College is its apportionment of political power not strictly by population but also by state. This is the same problem that liberals have with the Senate.
There are good reasons to dislike this style of apportionment, which I have acknowledged here at NRO. But the argument is a timeless one. James Madison himself made it all the way back in the summer of 1787 (by candlelight, I should add). I am not so much interested in debating the relative merits of any given system of apportionment as in understanding why Democrats care about this issue now. The answer, I reckon, is the collapse of the Left’s traditional farmer–labor coalition.
The evolution of the Democratic coalition can be appreciated by looking at presidential elections in which the party won or lost the Electoral College narrowly. These instances do a good job of illustrating the constituencies that are central to the party’s political identity.
Woodrow Wilson was the first progressive Democrat (sorry, Grover Cleveland), and he narrowly won reelection in 1916 against progressive Republican Charles Evans Hughes. This was the vindication of the farmer–labor coalition he had built four years prior. In 1916, Wilson won most of the rural South and West, while Hughes almost swept New England and performed well in the industrialized Old Northwest. For Wilson, a key difference between victory and defeat was in Ohio, where he won the manufacturing towns of Cleveland and Toledo.
Fast-forward to 1948, when Harry Truman ran as a seeming underdog against Republican Thomas Dewey. Truman pulled off the victory, despite losing much of the Deep South to Strom Thurmond, by securing a strong performance in the rural West. And again, Ohio was highly important, as Truman won Toledo, Cleveland, and Youngstown.
As the 20th century wore on, the West began migrating to the GOP. Republican Gerald Ford nearly won a full term to the White House in 1976 by sweeping the West except Hawaii. But Jimmy Carter carried the day by nearly sweeping the South and (once again) winning key industrial areas in Ohio. So, as late as 1976, the farmer–labor coalition was still holding up.
By the end of the century, though, enormous changes had transformed the Democratic party, as evidenced by Al Gore’s narrow loss in 2000. Gore’s Electoral College vote was concentrated on the West Coast, the mid-Atlantic, and New England, reflecting the growing prominence of upscale whites and minorities in the party’s coalition. Meanwhile, George W. Bush swept the South. He also he did very well in the Upper Midwest. Gore held on to a sufficiently large share of working-class Democrats in Iowa, Wisconsin, and Minnesota to carry those states, but his margins were very thin.
The trend of 2000 became more pronounced in 2004. And in certain places, we saw it persist during the Barack Obama years as well. Though Obama held on to the Upper Midwest, the Democratic position in places like western Pennsylvania began to collapse, as this region — which had largely voted for Walter Mondale over Ronald Reagan — voted for Mitt Romney in 2012. Similarly, states that had once been competitive for Democrats — West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Missouri, Arkansas, and Louisiana — all fell solidly into the Republican column. On net, this did not make a difference, because Obama further developed the “rising” Democratic coalition of minorities and upscale whites to win reelection, albeit with fewer Electoral College votes and a smaller share of the popular vote than he won in 2008.
In 2016, Hillary Clinton won the same basic coalition that Obama had expanded four years prior. But the last remnants of the old farmer–labor coalition bolted to Donald Trump, who nearly swept the Midwest. He even almost took Minnesota, which has not voted Republican since 1972. Also, in a telling development, he carried Ohio by eight percentage points, a larger margin than either side has enjoyed in 30 years.
These developments show that coalitions in this country change, for all manner of social, economic, and technological regions. This is part of the natural course of our politics, and not at all lamentable. In fact, I would suggest it is a sign of civic health.
Coalitions in this country change, for all manner of social, economic, and technological regions. This is part of the natural course of our politics, and a sign of civic health.
However, the new Democratic coalition — dominated by upscale whites and racial and ethnic minorities — is badly organized for capturing political power in the federal government. It is heavily concentrated in a handful of states that go comfortably for Democrats, leaving many states to go more narrowly for Republicans.
To wit: Donald Trump lost the popular vote by more than two percentage points in 2016, yet he carried 30 of 50 states and won 304 Electoral College votes.
The geographic concentration inherent to the new Democratic coalition can also be appreciated by looking at the growing role California has played in the party’s coalition in the past century. Wilson in 1916, Truman in 1948, Jimmy Carter in 1980, John Kerry in 2004, and Hillary Clinton in 2016 all won roughly the same share of the vote (48–50 percent). California accounted for 5 percent of Wilson’s nationwide vote; 8 percent of Truman’s vote; 9 percent of Carter’s vote; 11 percent of Kerry’s vote; and 13 percent of Clinton’s vote. That is a big increase in the relative importance of a single state. Yet California has added no additional Senate seats, and the concentration of the Democratic vote in the Golden State leaves the party vulnerable to narrow defeats in the Midwest.
All in all, the collapse of the Democratic farmer–labor coalition, and the rise of the new upscale–minority coalition, has resulted in Republicans now enjoying a noticeable edge in securing an Electoral College majority, and a huge advantage in winning a Senate majority.
I think this is why many on the Left are riled up about the Electoral College and the Senate. The structural biases of these institutions have long been noticed by just about everybody who cared to study the matter but are only recently being felt by Democrats.
Editor’s Note: This piece has been emended since its original posting.