As of this writing, every single state except Hawai’i has finalized its vote totals for the 2012 House elections, and Democrats currently lead Republicans by 1,362,351 votes in the overall popular vote total. Democratic House candidates earned 49.15 percent of the popular vote, while Republicans earned only 48.03 percent — meaning that the American people preferred a unified Democratic Congress over the divided Congress it actually got by more than a full percentage point. Nevertheless, thanks largely to partisan gerrymandering, Republicans have a solid House majority in the incoming 113th Congress.
A deeper dive into the vote totals reveals just how firmly gerrymandering entrenched Republican control of the House. If all House members are ranked in order from the Republican members who won by the widest margin down to the Democratic members who won by the widest margins, the 218th member on this list is Congressman-elect Robert Pittenger (R-NC). Thus, Pittenger was the “turning point” member of the incoming House. If every Republican who performed as well or worse than Pittenger had lost their race, Democrats would hold a one vote majority in the incoming House.
Pittenger won his race by more than six percentage points — 51.78 percent to 45.65 percent.
The upshot of this is that if Democrats across the country had performed six percentage points better than they actually did last November, they still would have barely missed capturing a majority in the House of Representatives. In order to take control of the House, Democrats would have needed to win the 2012 election by 7.25 percentage points. That’s significantly more than the Republican margin of victory in the 2010 GOP wave election (6.6 percent), and only slightly less than the margin of victory in the 2006 Democratic wave election (7.9 percent). If Democrats had won in 2012 by the same commanding 7.9 percent margin they achieved in 2006, they would still only have a bare 220–215 seat majority in the incoming House, assuming that these additional votes were distributed evenly throughout the country. That’s how powerful the GOP’s gerrymandered maps are; Democrats can win a Congressional election by nearly 8 points and still barely capture the House.
For two months, the nation has suffered through a “fiscal cliff” argument that threatened to plunge the nation into another recession. If the incoming Congress bore any resemblance to the one the American people voted for, however, this threat would have disappeared on Election Day because Speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi would have no problem rounding up the votes to eliminate this so-called cliff and set America back on the path to economic growth.
Worse, top Republicans are already threatening to use the looming debt ceiling fight to torpedo the entire U.S. economy unless Congress agrees to slash Social Security or Medicare benefits for seniors. They will have the leverage to attempt this because the incoming House bears no resemblance to the one America actually voted for. And individual Republican House members will be able to engage in this political dangerous game of chicken comfortable in the knowledge that partisan gerrymandering makes many of them untouchable in a general election.
Partisan gerrymanders, like the one that now all but locks the GOP majority in place, have been the subject of repeated court challenges. America can thank the five conservative justices on the Supreme Court for allowing these gerrymanders to continue.
Thanks to Dana Milbank for highlighting this analysis in his column this weekend. I have made a spreadsheet ranking the 2012 House races and showing how much Democrats would need to win the national popular vote in order to win each seat (assuming all Democratic gains over their 2012 totals are uniform throughout the country) available here.