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Can the Republicans Lose the Election but Keep Control of Congress Anyway?

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In a previous post, I addressed the question In a Democratic Year, Why are the Republicans Still Favored to Maintain Control of the Senate?. Although less common, it is also possible that a party can win the most votes for the House of Representatives and still not gain a majority of the seats.

Because the battle for the House of Representatives is divided into 435 separate local races, the party whose candidates win the most total votes nationwide almost always wins the most seats as well. However, in relatively recent times there have been two notable exceptions: in 1942 and 1996 the party that finished second gained a majority of the seats.

The 1942 midterm election was unusually important because it was the first national election after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the first after the United States entered World War II. Republican House candidates outpolled the Democrats by a healthy 4.5%, yet it was the Democrats who won the most seats. Control of the House shifted back and forth for ten years, but beginning in 1954, the American populace turned decidedly Democratic, as Democratic House candidates outpolled the Republicans in twenty straight elections through 1992.

In 1994, American voters, disgruntled about Democratic handling of corruption and the economy, decided to give the Republicans a shot at power, handing them control of the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years. Naturally the Republicans were elated, but their political operatives knew that, with sixty first-term representatives, their victory could easily turn into a one-time fluke. In fact, by 1996 the majority of voters had forgiven the Democrats. President Clinton was reelected easily, beating Republican Bob Dole by 8.5%. In the 435 House races, the Democratic candidates outpolled the Republican candidates by 273,000 votes, but the Republicans won a majority of the seats anyway. With their majority more firmly established than it had been two years earlier, the Republicans were able to use the power of incumbency to maintain control of the House for the next ten years.

It would appear that the Republicans' luck has run out. In 1994 they earned their 54-seat pickup by beating the Democrats by 6%. This year the generic Congressional polls show the Democrats with a similar advantage, if not larger. Fortunately for the Republicans, during the past several years they have successfully gerrymandered various states to drastically reduce the number of competitive districts. The Democrats should take control of the House of Representatives anyway, but strange things can happen, as the Republicans learned in 1942 and the Democrats learned in 1996.

NOTE: In none of the last seven elections has either major party won a majority of the votes cast for House seats. In fact, the Republicans have not earned a majority of votes for the House since 1946. These anomalies are caused by the existence of that most ignored of constituencies: Americans who vote for minor parties or for independent candidates. In the 2004 election, for example, these iconoclasts cast 4% of the votes. That may not seem like much, but if the U.S. used a system of proportional representation, like those used in 99 of the world's democracies, the minor parties and independents would hold seventeen seats in the House of Representatives. Instead, they have one.