Democrats Are Right To Remain Nervous

Charlie "Chuck" Cook
February 26, 2021

If you focus on either one of our major political parties, you can tick off enough problems and serious challenges to add up to a fairly grisly picture. Of late, most of that energy has trended in Republicans’ direction. But don’t sleep on Democrats’ vulnerabilities, either.

Cataloging all of the problems that Republicans are having today is a challenge unto itself. They have a ton of issues to deal with, starting with demographics: The country is getting more diverse, yet the GOP is becoming more dependent upon white voters. A higher and higher proportion of voters live in urban and suburban areas, yet Republicans increasingly lean on small towns and rural areas to win elections. The country is getting better educated but the GOP is skewing more toward whites with less than a four-year college degree. America is getting more secular, but Republicans are banking on evangelical Christians and conservative Catholics for support. We haven’t even touched on the problems the GOP is having with younger voters, as the party’s best age cohorts move closer and closer to “permanent relocation.”

But you can put a pretty good list together for Democrats, too. The system set up by the Founders 232 years ago next month included a compromise to protect small states from being dominated by larger states. Given current political realities, that means that both the Electoral College and the Senate grow more and more challenging for Democrats, who run up the score in big states like California, New York, and Illinois. But with California and Wyoming having the same number of Senate seats (and, as a result, at-large electoral votes), we tend to see great disparities between the popular and electoral votes.

Winning the popular vote in 2016 by 2.1 percentage points and last year by 4.5 percentage points looks good on paper—until you realize just how thin the slices were in decisive states. Of President Biden’s 232 electoral votes, 57 came from four states that he won by a point and a quarter or less: Georgia (0.24 percent), Arizona (0.31 percent), Wisconsin (0.63 percent), and Pennsylvania (1.18 percent). President Trump, by contrast, carried only one state by less than a point and a half, North Carolina (1.35 percent).

The presidency turned on fewer than 43,000 votes, the population of either Moline, Illinois or Charlottesville, Virginia. Democrats in the Senate beat the GOP incumbent David Perdue in Georgia to win their 50th seat and take the majority. The margin there: 55,354 votes, equal to the population of Casper, Wyoming. But even Democrats’ margin of victory in the House was based on votes in a handful of districts going the right way: 31,751 to be exact, basically the population of Walla Walla, Washington.

Only twice in modern times has there been a Senate split precisely even or within a seat of being a tie, with that same party holding an almost equally precarious House margin. I can find only three precedents in the last century: the 72nd Congress (1931-33), the 83rd (1953-55), and the 107th (2001-2003). With the Senate this close, with Vice President Kamala Harris holding the tie-breaking vote, Democrats could lose their majority in the blink of an eye, perhaps even before the next election. In the House, their majority could easily evaporate in 2022 with even minimal losses. Just a third of the normal midterm House losses would put Democrats into minority-party status.

This comes back to a point that this column has hit repeatedly in recent months. Ramming a COVID relief package through the reconciliation process on a party-line vote will make every effort after this to bring Republican moderates on board extremely difficult and jeopardize so much of what President Biden wants to do. It is the political equivalent of being penny-wise and pound-foolish. CNN’s Manu Raju and Ted Barrett had a good piece Monday morning on a last-ditch effort by GOP Sen. Susan Collins of Maine to bring Biden to the negotiating table that was seemingly torpedoed by White House staff. Apparently, the thinking is that if President Obama could not get Republicans to the table in 2009 and 2010, then no Democratic president could ever trust them. It was infuriating to read because it seemed so inevitable, like watching a movie that you have seen over and over before.

Many of my Democratic friends see me as naïve, absolutely convinced that Biden trying to pull a few Republicans on board would be futile and a waste of time. Maybe they are right, but if they are wrong, what price will Biden pay? And is it worth it?

This article was originally published for the National Journal on February 23, 2021.