Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Small states' outsized political power (Part II-A: Measuring the effects in the Senate)

The first post in this series summarized the history of small states' outsized political power. The Constitution embodies a number of compromises reflecting the concerns of the era. The Senate, which affords all states exactly two votes, reflects the Framers' concerns that populous states would overwhelm small ones. The House of Representatives was meant to expand over time, but its growth did not keep pace with the population and its size plateaued a century ago. And the Electoral College allocates president-choosing authority by amalgamating these two systems.

The second part of the series shifts the focus from history and design to present-reality and outcomes. (The third part will explore the implications of proposed reforms.) The analysis proceeds in the same format: Senate, House, and Electoral College.

Before diving in, some caveats. First, the analysis that follows relies heavily on Census data from the July 2016 survey. Not all people are voters, for diverse reasons having to do with age, former incarceration, immigration status, and neglect. Second, this evaluation risks conflating "rural" with both "small-state" and "Republican." This impulse is unpacked elsewhere in this blog, and this analysis is one among various that show convincingly a pro-Republican rural shift, at least in presidential politics. Additionally, the "rural" and "small-state" labels do overlap meaningfully, albeit imperfectly.

The Senate

Viewed from any of several angles, small states enjoy outsized power in the Senate. The most obvious of these is mathematical: each state elects two senators, irrespective of its population. California, the nation's most populous state, had an estimated 2016 population of 39.3M. The least populous state, Wyoming, contained 585,000 people according to the same sample. Thus, the Senate-clout of the average Wyomingite was roughly 67 times that of the average Californian. If the U.S. population were spread equally across the 50 states, each senator would represent 3.2M people, which is roughly what prevails in Indiana.

Although they may be in rapid decay, historically the Senate has adhered to strong internal norms and seniority has been especially important. Thus, the longevity of senators is a crude metric by which we might measure states' power relative to one another. The two tables that follow perform just such a crude analysis:

Current U.S. Senators - Tenure of Office to 2016

Rank State Senator A Since Years Senator B Since Years
1 CA 1992 24 2016 0
2 TX 2012 4 2002 14
3 FL 2000 16 2010 6
4 NY 2008 8 1998 18
5 PA 2006 10 2010 6
6 IL 1996 20 2016 0
7 OH 2006 10 2010 6
8 GA 2014 2 2004 12
9 NC 2014 2 2004 12
10 MI 2000 16 2014 2
11 NJ 2006 10 2013 3
12 VA 2012 4 2008 8
13 WA 2000 16 1992 24
14 AZ 2012 4 1986 30
15 MA 2012 4 2013 3
36 NM 2012 4 2008 8
37 NE 2012 4 2014 2
38 WV 2010 6 2014 2
39 ID 2008 8 1998 18
40 HI 2012 4 2012 4
41 NH 2008 8 2016 0
42 ME 2012 4 1996 20
43 RI 2006 10 1996 20
44 MT 2006 10 2014 2
45 DE 2000 16 2010 6
46 SD 2014 2 2004 12
47 ND 2012 4 2010 6
48 AK 2014 2 2002 14
49 VT 2006 10 1974 42
50 WY 2007 9 1997 19

The two halves of this chart indicate the fifteen most- and least-populous states. On a per-senator basis, the large states actually have a longer average tenure (9.8 years) than the small states (9.2 years). Seniority, described above as a key feature of Senate life, attaches to an individual senator, not his or her seat. It is beyond the scope of this series to analyze how much seniority figures into voters' choices and how the data above may have been affected by unique conditions in one or another election. 

In any case, the data are strikingly different when partisan alignment of these seats is tracked over time:

U.S. Senate Seats by Party-Control Lineage

Rank State Senator A Party Same Since Years Senator B Party Same Since Years
1 CA Democrat 1992 24 Democrat 1968 48
2 TX Republican 1992 24 Republican 1968 48
3 FL Democrat 2000 16 Republican 2004 12
4 NY Democrat 1976 40 Democrat 1998 18
5 PA Democrat 2006 10 Republican 2010 6
6 IL Democrat 1996 20 Democrat 2016 0
7 OH Democrat 2006 10 Republican 1998 18
8 GA Republican 2002 14 Republican 2004 12
9 NC Republican 2014 2 Republican 2004 12
10 MI Democrat 2000 16 Democrat 1978 38
11 NJ Democrat 1982 34 Democrat 2012 4
12 VA Democrat 2006 10 Democrat 2008 8
13 WA Democrat 2000 16 Democrat 1992 24
14 AZ Republican 1994 22 Republican 1986 30
15 MA Democrat 2012 4 Democrat 1978 38
36 NM Democrat 1982 34 Democrat 2008 8
37 NE Republican 2012 4 Republican 1996 20
38 WV Democrat 1968 48 Republican 2014 2
39 ID Republican 1968 48 Republican 1980 36
40 HI Democrat 1976 40 Democrat 1968 48
41 NH Democrat 2008 8 Democrat 2016 0
42 ME Independent 2012 4 Republican 1978 38
43 RI Democrat 2006 10 Democrat 1968 48
44 MT Democrat 2006 10 Republican 2014 2
45 DE Democrat 2000 16 Democrat 1972 44
46 SD Republican 2014 2 Republican 2004 12
47 ND Democrat 1968 48 Republican 2010 6
48 AK Republican 2014 2 Republican 1980 36
49 VT Independent 2000 16 Democrat 1974 42
50 WY Republican 1976 40 Republican 1968 48

Viewed through a partisan lens, small-states' Senate tenure is significantly longer than that of large states. (Note that no "same since" date precedes 1968. Treating the 1968 election as a realigning one, I truncated party control to this year as a clumsy way of controlling for the shifting "meaning" of Democrat/Republican.) Single-party control of a Senate seat averaged 19.3 years for the fifteen largest states but 24 years for the smallest ones. Also, while Democrats currently control 19 of the 30 Senate seats in large states, in small states there is a 14-14 tie between the two major parties. (Maine and Vermont each have an independent senator who caucuses with the Democrats.)

Again, this is crude arithmetic which may or may not tell a meaningful story about political power. But one reading of these data is that small-state Senate contests allow Republicans as a whole to over-perform relative to large-state contests and then hold those seats for multiple terms.

A third way to examine this issue is to index Senate performance to presidential election results. This analysis argues that, while Senate Democrats out-performed expectations in the 2008, 2010, and 2012 elections, those were exceptions that proved the rule. "Republicans...start with a leg up in the Senate, because Democratic voters are concentrated in fewer states." This more-states-with-fewer-votes phenomenon was illustrated powerfully in the 2016 election, where Hillary Clinton earned nearly 3M (2.1 percent) more votes than Donald Trump, yet he carried 30 states to her 20.

A final view (though not the only one remaining) is this: it is possible for just 17 percent of the U.S. population to elect a majority of the U.S. Senate. It's the lowest such threshold in our nation's history, due to the continued growth of the population while the number of states (and therefore, senators) has remained fixed since 1959.

We should not forget that the Senate bestows this power on small states by design. However, as the country's population has increased by a factor of more than 80 and the number of states has nearly quadrupled since the Founding, what was once seen as a vital protection against inter-state caprice may now be a source of veto power in a constitutional system already rife with veto points.

Part II has been broken into two parts. The next section addresses effects of small states' power in the House and Electoral College.

Next Time: Part II-B, the House of Representatives and the Electoral College

No comments: