The Democrats’ dominance in large metros seems like cause for optimism, especially in a rapidly suburbanizing country. But this reliance on density is creating a host of problems for the party going forward.
The Political Problem: The Democrats’ metro coalition is a nightmare for winning national elections.
As Democrats like to point out, they have won the national popular vote seven times in the past eight presidential elections, along with a majority of ballots cast nationwide in six of the past eight Senate elections. But national vote tallies don’t count for anything under our constitutional rules. Liberals can (and do) complain about this all day, but saying “If the Constitution didn’t exist, Capitol Hill would be mostly Democrats” is like saying “If the weak nuclear force didn’t exist, the galaxy would be mostly photons.” Neat, but so what?
Although Democrats could potentially even out their Electoral College disadvantage by making big southern states like Texas competitive, they look truly doomed in the Senate, which disproportionately empowers rural white populations that overwhelmingly vote Republican. The GOP currently holds both Senate seats in Alaska, Arkansas, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Wyoming. Those 11 states have 22 senators who collectively represent fewer people than the population of California, which has two Senate seats. (Democrats have their own small-state layups, but not as many.)
“We have an election system that makes it basically impossible for Democrats’ current coalition to ever wield legislative power,” the polling analyst David Shor told Politico. That sounds a bit lugubrious, but consider this: In the 2018 midterms, Democratic Senate candidates won 18 million more votes than Republicans nationwide, and the party still lost two net Senate seats.
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This problem is only going to get worse. One analysis of Census Bureau data projected that by 2040, roughly half of the population will be represented by 16 senators; the other, more rural half will have 84 senators at their disposal. If Democrats don’t find a way to broaden their coalition into less populous states with smaller metro areas, it may be impossible to pass liberal laws for the next generation.
The Cultural Problem: Many of America’s largest cities, especially on the coasts, are moving left and pulling away from the rest of the country.
Earlier this month, the Los Angeles Times published an analysis of California ballot measures that found that “the state’s two major population centers have grown more and more different” from the rest of the state. Residents of Los Angeles and the Bay Area were at least 30 percentage points more likely than other Californians to support various propositions, such as reinstating affirmative action and allowing parolees to vote. A 30-point gap is massive—akin to the difference between deep-blue Massachusetts and purple Pennsylvania. From a political perspective, Los Angeles and the Bay Area look like leftist havens in an otherwise moderate state.