Did the American people really “choose” divided government – by electing a Democratic president, a Democratic Senate, and a Republican House?
This may sound like a trick question, since that is, after all, the makeup of the federal government that emerged from last Tuesday’s elections.
But Democrats, as well as many in the media, have been challenging this point, by arguing that the majority of voters did not actually choose to put Republicans in control of the House of Representatives – since nationwide, Democrats appear to have won more than half a million more votes for House seats than the GOP.
As a piece in The Huffington Post put it: "If the United States were really as democratic as it aspires to be, John Boehner would be House minority leader, not speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi would be speaker, and Democrats would control the House, the Senate, and the presidency."
So how did House Republicans manage to hang onto power, despite losing the popular vote for House seats? One answer: through gerrymandering – the calculated redrawing of congressional districts to maximize the impact of their own political constituencies.
As Mother Jones recently explained: "After Republicans swept into power in state legislatures in 2010, the GOP gerrymandered key states, redrawing House district boundaries to favor Republicans. In Pennsylvania, Democratic candidates received half of the votes in House contests, but Republicans will claim about three quarters of the congressional seats. The same is true in North Carolina. More than half the voters in that state voted for Democratic representation, yet Republicans will fill about 70 percent of the seats. Democrats drew more votes in Michigan than Republicans, but they'll take only 5 out of the state's 14 congressional seats."
Others are quibbling with that thesis. Over at The Monkey Cage blog, Eric McGhee argues that redistricting likely accounted for less than half of the gap between the two parties' overall vote share and seat share. The bigger factors, he posits, were incumbency and the fact that much of the Democratic vote tends to be clustered together in urban centers, leading to huge margins of victory in those areas that essentially "wastes" votes.
Why does any of this matter? Because, as the two parties get ready to sit down for Friday’s talks on the fiscal cliff – the automatic spending cuts and tax increases scheduled to hit at the year’s end – they are both claiming a “mandate” for their own policy preferences.
Former vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan told ABC News this week that he believes President Obama absolutely does not have a mandate to raise taxes on the wealthy, “because [voters] also reelected the House Republicans.” Interestingly, though, Mr. Ryan also appeared to hedge a bit on what the electoral results really mean, when he added: “whether people intended or not, we've got divided government” [emphasis ours].
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich went even further this week, telling conservative host Sean Hannity on his radio show: “It's very wrong to suggest that only the president has a mandate. The House Republicans also have a mandate, and it's a much more conservative mandate than the president's."
By contrast, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid believes there is a clear mandate for his side's desire to raise taxes on the richest Americans. Immediately after the election, he told reporters: “The mandate was – look at all the exit polls, look at all the polling, the vast majority of the American people, rich, poor, everybody agrees that the rich, richest of the rich, have to help a little bit.”
Now it’s true that, even if House seats had been allocated by popular vote – giving control of that body to the Democrats – it still would have been a fairly narrow divide overall. So there is good reason for Mr. Obama and the Democrats not to act too confident in the size of their mandate, or too inclined to overlook the political leanings of nearly half the country. In that sense, they'd do well to heed House Speaker John Boehner's careful comments in the wake of the election, that “if there was a mandate in this election, it was a mandate to work together.”
But it’s also true that Democrats may, in fact, have received more of a mandate than the electoral results in the House would indicate.
Along those lines, Ms. Pelosi actually made a (perhaps Freudian) slip in her press conference Wednesday announcing her intention to remain as the House Democratic leader: “I said yesterday, we did not have the majority but we have the gavel," she said. "Excuse me. We don’t have the gavel,” she then corrected herself, to laughter, adding: “We have something more important: we have unity.”