In early 2001, in the wake of the closely contested 2000 presidential election, I wrote an Introduction to The Almanac of American Politics called “The 49 percent nation.” Not only was the popular vote for president 49% to 49%, but in each of the three preceding congressional elections, both parties had received either 48% or 49%, and Bill Clinton had won the preceding presidential election with 49%. We were pretty evenly divided.
As we are these days. In 2016, President Trump won his majority in the Electoral College by winning Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin by a total of 77,000 votes out of 137 million cast. Joe Biden won his majority in the Electoral College by — and this is an approximation, subject to change and probably upward adjustment in the final count — by winning Georgia, Arizona, and Wisconsin (there it is again) by a total of 49,000 votes. Those narrow margins gave each of them their 306 electoral votes in their respective victories.
Yes, Biden is ahead in the popular vote by 50% to 48% as I write, just as Hillary Clinton was ahead 48% to 46% four years ago. But all of Biden’s majority and then some, like Clinton’s four years ago, comes from California. That’s because, for the first time in our history, the largest state in the Union — New York from 1820, California from 1964 — votes at one end of the political spectrum rather than near the center. That penalizes, but does not block from winning, the party whose votes are concentrated in a few electoral-vote sinks.
Overall, as in 2000, and indeed as in most of the elections in between, the parties have been closely divided from the top of the ballot down. Democrats had big margins in the popular vote for the House in 2006, 2008, and 2018, but not in the other eight congressional elections in this century. Very much including this year, when the House popular vote is running 50% Democratic, 49% Republican. Sounds familiar.
That wasn’t what just about anyone expected. Every professional pundit expected the Democrats to gain seats over and above the 235 they had won in 2018 (versus 200 for Republicans). Instead, Democrats lost seats and nearly lost their majority. David Wasserman, the Cook Political Report’s ace House prognosticator, stated emphatically during the campaign that Democrats would gain. He cited dozens of polls by respected pollsters working for candidates and committees of both parties, and he knows the 435 House districts about as well as anyone in the nation.
But he was wrong. After the results came in, he was plainly furious and tweeted that the polls were wrong. So did many surviving House Democrats in an angry and tear-filled conference call with Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Twenty-two years ago, in 1998, when Republicans lost rather than gained seats as their leader predicted, Newt Gingrich was out as speaker in three days. Pelosi has survived that, but she has also promised that she’ll step down, after 20 years as Democratic leader, in 2022.
Why the polls were wrong is an interesting question worthy of exploration in multiple columns to come. But the results speak for themselves and make it plain that even though a large majority of Americans vote straight-party tickets, they are also closely enough divided between the parties that even a few split tickets can, and usually have, given us divided government.
This year’s Senate elections are another example. Like most pundits this fall, I said it was likely the Democrats would win a Senate majority. Polls showed multiple Republican senators trailing their Democratic challenger and only one likely Republican gain. The Senate would go from 53-47 Republican, many predicted, to 54-46 Democratic.
Didn’t happen. Last winter, before COVID-19 and the rush of polls, I predicted that voting in Senate races would resemble the 2016 presidential election and that the new Senate would look much like the old. That’s largely what happened. The one incumbent Democrat in a Trump 2016 state, Alabama, lost. So did one of two incumbent Republicans in a Clinton state, Colorado. The other, Susan Collins in Maine, who has long run ahead of party lines, won solidly, even though every poll showed her behind. But that was offset by the defeat of a Republican incumbent with a history of running behind party lines in Arizona, a narrow Trump 2016 state where Biden currently leads. In Georgia, another narrow Trump 2016 state, there will be two January runoffs in races in which no candidate got 50%.
My conclusion, in 2000 and now, is that neither party owns the future, and that, even if you believe (as I do) that both sides this year ran suboptimal campaigns, they do tend to adjust and remain competitive over time. Twenty years later, we’re still living in a 49% nation.