Tales from the Senate House of Horrors
We are in a period of democratic disconnect. With no end in sight.
1. Worst-Case Scenario
Let’s go dark today.
Simon Bazelon has looked at the numbers on polarization and the rural-urban divide and the future for Democrats is nightmarish because we are heading deeper into a world where simple majorities are no longer sufficient for Dems to hold power at the national level:
[I]t’s reasonable to assume that Democrats are looking at a vote share between 47% and 48.5% this cycle. This means Republicans will probably win the generic ballot by between three and six percent, and the median scenario is probably Republicans winning by around 4.5%. Since Joe Biden won by 4.5% in 2020, this would mean that the national environment has shifted 9 percentage points to the right.
Assume, for a moment, that there is zero ticket-splitting, and this swing is uniform across all elections. This would mean any Democrat in a state that Biden won by less than 9% will probably lose. . . .
Both ticket-splitting and incumbency advantage have declined precipitously in recent years, and are both now near zero . . .
Overall, the combination of decreasing incumbency advantage and a poor national environment for Democrats means we should probably expect Democrats to control between 46 and 47 Senate seats after 2022 — depending, essentially, on whether or not Maggie Hassan manages to hold her seat in New Hampshire.
Okay, so that’s the nightmare scenario for 2022. But you knew that already. What Bazelon is really here to talk about is how the Republican structural advantage is increasing:
Since the Reagan Era, Democrats have averaged roughly 51% of the two-party vote in Presidential elections. If Biden gets this percentage of the vote, and the correlation between the Senate and presidential vote stays at close to .95 (as it was in 2020), then basically every Democratic senator in a state Biden won by less than 2% who is up in 2024 is likely to lose.
Jon Tester in Montana (Biden -16.3)
Joe Manchin in West Virginia (Biden -29.9)
Sherrod Brown in Ohio (Biden -8)
Bob Casey in Pennsylvania (Biden +1.2)
Tammy Baldwin in Wisconsin (Biden +0.7)
Kyrsten Sinema in Arizona (Biden +0.3)
In addition, Debbie Stabenow in Michigan (Biden +2.8) and Jackie Rosen in Nevada (Biden +2.4) would likely be in toss-up races.
And that’s what happens if Biden wins the presidency by a pretty clear margin! (Remember: Only one Republican candidate has gotten over 50 percent of the popular vote since 1988.)
Oh wait, I’m sorry. If Joe Biden gets 51 percent of the vote—which, again, would be a larger percentage than any Republican since George H.W. Bush in 1988—he is likely to lose the presidency while Republicans sweep to an enormous majority in the Senate:
If Joe Biden receives 51% of the vote in 2024 (again, this is the long-run average for Democratic presidential candidates), he will likely lose the Electoral College — and with it, the presidency.
“Business as usual” will result in President Trump or President DeSantis, with somewhere between 56 and 62 Senate seats. And this is actually worse than it might seem at first. In recent years, Republican senators who have retired (or announced that they are retiring) have skewed heavily toward those who were willing to occasionally stand up to Trump, like Jeff Flake, Lamar Alexander, Rob Portman, Pat Toomey, and Richard Burr. If Trump returns to office, he will do so with a median Senator who is far more deferent to his wishes than the last time around.
Be very afraid.
What’s going on here is that voters are polarizing by education and geography to a degree without modern precedent. And even though that polarization gives Democrats a clear national majority, the makeup of our system gives Republicans an enormous advantage. So enormous that even if Biden were to win the popular vote in 2024 by +8—close to the Obama landslide of 2008—Republicans will be likely to have 53 seats in the Senate.
The shoulder-shrug counterargument is that we’re a republic, not a democracy, and the system has always given less populous states more federal power than strictly deserved.
And that’s true. But we’ve never had a period where the disconnect between the popular will and the apportionment political power was this great, for this long. We’re working on a full generation of Republicans as the minority party, but still managing to hold most of the power, most of the time. I do not think the Founders would have been sublime about this state of affairs.
Also: I do not think it is sustainable over the long haul.
Here is a question: Let’s pretend that it’s January 2025. Biden has won reelection by getting 52 percent of the vote and Republicans hold a 53-47 majority in the Senate. We get a Supreme Court vacancy.
Do you think Mitch McConnell would allow a vote on a Biden nominee?