By Michael Barone
The GOP has now won control of the House in eight of the past 10 elections.
In the decision desk at Fox News on election night, none of us paid much heed when it became clear that Republicans would maintain their majority in the House of Representatives. The information was broadcast quickly and everyone went back to talking about the presidential election. But actually it was rather extraordinary.
Republicans won or are leading in 236 of the 435 House seats, down just six from the 2010 midterm. And they achieved this despite losing five seats because of partisan redistricting in Illinois and another five in California thanks to a supposedly nonpartisan redistricting commission that the Democrats successfully gamed.
The GOP has now won control of the House in eight of the past 10 congressional elections, dating back to 1994. When I began following politics it seemed like that would never happen. Republicans failed to win a majority in the House in the 20 elections between 1954 and 1992. Political scientists wrote articles about how the Democrats would always have a lock on the House.
The same political scientists also wrote articles about how the Republicans had a lock on the presidency. And indeed they won five of the six presidential elections between 1968 and 1988. But Democrats have won the White House in four of the six presidential elections starting in 1992, and Democrat Al Gore won a popular-vote plurality in 2000.
Barack Obama has been elected to a second term by 332 electoral votes to 206. But he won the popular vote by just 2% (50% to 48%), the same margin that netted Jimmy Carter only 297 electoral votes in 1976. George W. Bush won the popular vote by a slightly larger margin in 2004 but got only 286 electoral votes.
Democrats seem to have a structural advantage these days in the Electoral College. Mr. Obama won landslide margins (57% or more) in 11 states and the District of Columbia with 163 electoral votes. Mitt Romney won 13 states by such margins, but they have only 104 electoral votes.
The House is another matter. Here the Republicans have some structural advantages which, with good luck, have given them House majorities eight of the last 10 times. That is important, because since the mid-1990s Americans have become straight-ticket voters, seldom voting for candidates of different parties.
One structural advantage is demographic. Democratic voters tend to be clustered in black, Latino and gentry-liberal neighborhoods in metropolitan areas. Republican voters are more spread out. In 2008, Mr. Obama carried 28 congressional districts with more than 80% of the vote. John McCain carried zero congressional districts by that margin; Mr. Romney may have gotten that much in a couple of districts in Utah.
Those heavily Democratic neighborhoods contribute to the landslide margins candidate Obama has won in states like California, New York, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Illinois. But their voters don’t do as much to elect Democratic House members as they would if they were spread randomly through the population. In addition, many such areas have been losing population and therefore representation in the House.
On top of this is another Republican structural advantage: the Voting Rights Act. The prevailing interpretation of this otherwise benign law is that redistricters must maximize the number of “majority-minority” congressional districts. That means packing blacks and Latinos into certain districts and keeping them out of adjacent districts that tend to go Republican. This results in districts with grotesque and elongated boundaries to fit the bill of majority-minority.
Republican redistricters gleefully collaborate in this project. To maintain two black-majority districts, Michigan legislators drew a district in 2012 with tentacles reaching out from inner-city Detroit out past mostly white suburbs to industrial Pontiac. A white Democrat ended up winning that district. But Republicans held a next-door district even though they had an eccentric nominee after the incumbent suddenly resigned.
A third Republican structural advantage used to belong to the Democrats: the South. Memories of the Civil War kept white Southerners Democratic for most of a century, and they typically sent the same member back to the House for years, so he could accumulate seniority and use a chairmanship to favor his district. The Solid South helped Democrats maintain House majorities in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s.
But as the Democratic Party became more liberal, white Southerners started voting Republican for president in the 1960s, and in the straight-ticket 1990s Republicans replaced white Southern Democrats in droves. In the next Congress, the 11 former Confederate states will be represented by 98 Republicans and 40 Democrats, 24 white and 16 black.
Structural advantages don’t mean you always win. If the Electoral College currently favors Democrats, George W. Bush did carry it twice. Without narrow margins in Florida, Ohio and Virginia, Barack Obama would have won only 272 electoral votes on Tuesday; another state could have made Mitt Romney president.
Democrats did win two of the last 10 House elections, when their campaign chairman Rahm Emanuel shrewdly ran moderate-sounding candidates in Southern districts and in Northern rural and suburban areas also. The mostly Southern Blue Dogs did not always vote with Speaker Nancy Pelosi. But almost all of them were wiped out in the Republican sweep in 2010. Barack Obama’s campaign this year helped persuade others in the prime of life to retire.
So don’t expect Republicans always to control the House. When voters got ticked off enough about Iraq and Hurricane Katrina, 53% and 54% voted Democratic for the House in 2006 and 2008, and Democrats got solid majorities. Republican redistricting plans, which produced a lot of 54% Republican House seats in 2002, produced a lot of Democratic pickups four and six years later.
But the 2012 numbers tell us that a 50%-48% presidential victory, the first time a president has been re-elected by a smaller percentage margin than four years before since Woodrow Wilson in 1916, did not produce anything like a Democratic House. There are reasons for that, some of them structural, but all of them political.
Mr. Barone is senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and co-author of “The Almanac of American Politics.” A version of this article appeared November 9, 2012, on page A13 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: The GOP Finds Refuge in the House.