A House Popular Vote Majority Produced Few Seats but Is a Good Sign For Republicans in 2024
One of the puzzles in this year's surprising and unpredicted (including by me) off-year election results is why the Republicans' 51% to 47% win in the popular vote for House of Representatives did not produce a majority bigger than the apparent 221-214 result. (All numbers here are subject to revision in line with final returns.)
That 51% to 47% margin is identical to Joe Biden's and Barack Obama's popular vote margins in 2020 and 2012, respectively. It is just one digit off from George W. Bush's 51% to 48% win in 2004. It's almost identical to House Democrats' 51% to 48% popular vote margin in 2020, which yielded them an almost identical 222-213 majority.
The big contrast is with 2012, when Democrats carried the House popular vote 49% to 48% but won only 201 seats to the Republicans' 234. How could a party win a 33-seat majority while losing the popular vote, then win only a seven-seat majority while carrying the popular vote by 4 points?
One answer is differential turnout. In 2012, Democrats' popular vote edge owed much to heavy Black voter turnout to reelect the first Black president. But many of those votes came in overwhelmingly Black districts and did nothing to elect Democrats elsewhere.
This year, differential turnout worked against Democrats. Central city turnout was way down, as compared to the last off-year election in 2018 -- down 19% in New York City but up 0.3% in the suburbs and upstate; down 13% in Philadelphia, but up 8% elsewhere in Pennsylvania; down 15% in Detroit's Wayne County, but up 6% elsewhere in Michigan; down 12% in Milwaukee County, but up 1% elsewhere in Wisconsin; down 24% in Chicago's Cook County, down only 8% in Chicago's collar counties and downstate.
That reflects population loss in central cities, particularly from Black voters leaving the industrial Midwest for the more economically vibrant and culturally congenial metro Atlanta -- making Georgia, with the nation's third highest Black percentage, a target state. It also reflects, after four years of skyrocketing crime and stringent lockdowns, waning enthusiasm among heavily Democratic electorates. That's not a favorable sign for Democratic turnout in 2024.
The second reason is that Republicans failed to harvest significant gains in House seats from their significant gain in popular votes in redistricting. Republicans had a big advantage in partisan redistricting following the 2010 census but only a minimal advantage following the 2020 census.
In particular, Democratic mapmakers and supposedly nonpartisan but liberal-leaning redistricting commissions have no longer felt bound by the Voting Rights Act to pack Black people into black-majority districts -- a tactic Republicans have encouraged since the 1990 election cycle because it leaves fewer Democratic voters in adjacent districts.
Abandonment of this supposedly immutable principle is responsible, for example, for the fact that Michigan elected zero Black Democratic congressmen for the first time since 1952. (A Black Republican was elected in mostly white, suburban Macomb County.) Democrats also won a state Senate majority for the first time since 1983 by winning districts that linked heavily Black neighborhoods in Detroit with affluent, mostly white suburbs.
The most important reason for the Republicans' reduced harvest of House seats has been a reduction in clustering. Previously, heavily Democratic voters -- Blacks, Hispanics and gentry liberals -- have been clustered geographically in central cities, sympathetic suburbs and university towns, while Republican voters have been spread more evenly around the rest of the country.