11/06/2014 03:30 pm ET Updated Jan 06, 2015

The Senate: A Republican 'Landslide'?


The news has been filled lately with assertions that the Republicans won the Senate in "a landslide" and that the 2014 Senate election was "a complete repudiation of President Obama." If one looks at the change in the makeup of the Senate, this seems a fair assessment.

Going into Tuesday's election, the Democrats held a 53 to 45 seat majority in the Senate, with the two Independents generally caucusing with the Democrats. On Tuesday, 36 Senate seats were up for grabs. To retain control of the Senate, the Democrats needed to win at least 16 of those 36 seats. This they failed to do. It now appears that the Republicans won 23 of the 36 seats in contention, which means that the next Senate will have 53 Republican Senators.

Put simply, the Republicans won 64 percent of the Senate seats up for election in 2014 (23 of 36). That does, indeed, sound like a "landslide."

But it is not that simple. Because every state has two senators, without regard to its population, the Senate is a rather odd legislative body. It represents the states, but not the American people. Although the Republicans won 64 percent of the Senate seats up for election in 2014, they received only 52 percent of the votes.

This was so because Republicans tend to live in more sparsely populated states like Alaska, Idaho, Kansas, South Dakota, and Montana, whereas Democrats tend to live in more heavily populated states like New York, California, Illinois, Michigan, and New Jersey. Thus, although the Republicans won in a "landslide" of Senate seats, they achieved only a modest victory in terms of overall popular vote.

The problem for the Democrats in terms of the Senate is that they live in the wrong states.

So, here's a plan for the Democrats to "fix" this problem in the future: Democrats have to move into the more sparsely populated Republican states. How many Democrats would have had to move to Republican states in order to have changed the outcome of the 2014 election and leave the Democrats in control of the Senate?

In turns out that only 117,000 additional Democratic voters in Alaska, North Carolina, and South Dakota combined would have tilted the outcomes in those states and left the Democrats in control of the Senate. That's not very many. Given that young voters generally vote Democratic, how hard would it be for 117,000 underemployed young adults to do some serious public service and move to the states that are likely to have the most hotly-contested Senate races in the future? Given the role of money in politics these days, perhaps some wealthy Democratic donors would subsidize their moves.

This is, of course, tongue-in-cheek (in case you were in doubt). But the central point remains: The 2014 Senate election was a Republican "landslide" only if you count states rather than Americans. To make the point even more clearly, although Republicans will now control 53 percent of the seats in the Senate, these Republican senators actually represent only 46 percent of the American people. It's a strange kind of landslide, indeed.