Complaining About the 'Senate Popular Vote?' You Suffer From Civic Illiteracy

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November 7, 2018

Democrats had a good night on Tuesday, winning the House of Representatives for the first time since 2010 in a referendum on the first two years of Donald Trump's presidency.

However, they lost at least a net of two seats to the Republicans in the U.S. Senate, due to a tough map where they had three times as many incumbents defending their territory.

That didn't stop, of course, a particularly dumb take from circling the Internet: Republicans lost the "popular vote" in Senate races and still picked up seats! As of this writing, the New York Times has Republicans with about 12.4 million fewer votes than Democrats in Senate elections! That's unfair! The Constitution must burn for this!

Below are political writers, political science professors, and political activists who shared this dreck. It is unbelievable that anyone would have to explain to folks interested in American politics what a useless metric the "Senate popular vote" is. But I'll do my best.

First, just take in the tweets below and try not to cry.

There were 26 Democrat-held seats up for election in this cycle—including independents Angus King of Maine and Bernie Sanders of Vermont—and many of them won, since many of them took place in blue states. Twenty-two of them so far, in fact. As of this writing, there are still races outstanding in Florida and Arizona, where Republicans Rick Scott and Martha McSally hold narrow leads but are not the official victors.

This included a race in California, where both candidates are Democrats, due to state rules where the top two primary finishers, regardless of party, advance to the general election. In this race, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D., Calif.) faced Democratic State Senator Kevin de León, and the two combined for nearly 6.3 million votes. There were zero—yes, zero—Republican votes cast for the Senate in the most populated state in the country.

Rolling up uncompetitive victories against Republicans in blue states: Kirsten Gillibrand in New York (1.8 million-vote margin of victory), Ben Cardin in Maryland (700,000), and Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts (640,000).

Republicans did, however, make inroads with wins over incumbent Democrats in Indiana, North Dakota, and Missouri. They look good in Florida and Arizona, as previously stated, and the only incumbent Republican to fall was Sen. Dean Heller in Nevada. That was also, not coincidentally, the only state in the country where a Republican was defending his seat in a state Hillary Clinton won.

Democrats, on the other hand, had to defend seats in 10 states won by Trump in 2016. Tough map, but that's a product of how well 2012 went for their party, when Barack Obama won re-election and oversaw a net gain in the Senate.

As The Daily Beast's Lachlan Markay pointed out, Democrats won both the "Senate popular vote"—the last time I'll ever write that phrase—and also took a majority of available Senate seats on Tuesday. There were 16 states without Senate races on Tuesday night, and 12 of them went for Trump.

Even better: The Washington Post noted that Democrats look positioned to win 63 percent (22/35) of the available Senate seats on Tuesday, even though they won around 56 percent of the total Senate race votes. If the available seats won by Republicans were proportional to their popular vote totals, they would have picked up at least an additional two Senate posts on Tuesday.

I doubt Democrats would like that deal very much.

So I'm happy to report The Constitution is alive and well. I'm not so sure about civic literacy though.