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The Senate’s Rural Skew Makes It Very Hard For Democrats To Win The Supreme Court

I don’t have a particularly strong take on how the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg will affect either the presidential election or the race for control of the U.S. Senate. And I’d encourage you to avoid putting too much stock in anybody else’s take for now, too. The very earliest indication is that President Trump’s desire to move full-speed ahead toward naming Ginsburg’s replacement could be unpopular, but that’s based on only one poll.

But here’s what I do know: the Senate is an enormous problem for Democrats given the current political coalitions, in which Democrats are dominant in cities while Republicans triumph in rural areas. And because the Senate is responsible for confirming Supreme Court picks, that means the Supreme Court is a huge problem for Democrats too. Sure, Democrats might win back the Senate this year — indeed, they were slight favorites to do so before the Ginsburg news. But in the long run, they’re likely to lose it more often than not.



Emergency Podcast: The SCOTUS vacancy | FiveThirtyEight

You can probably grasp intuitively that a legislative body which provides as much representation to Wyoming (population: 580,000) as California (population: 39.5 million) will tend to favor rural areas. But it’s a bigger effect than you might realize, so let’s run some numbers. At FiveThirtyEight, our favorite way to distinguish between urban and rural areas is based on using census tracts to estimate how many people live within a 5-mile radius of you. Based on this, we can break every person in the country down into four buckets:

  • Rural: Less than 25,000 people live within a 5-mile radius of you;
  • Exurban or small town: Between 25,000 and 100,000 people within a 5-mile radius;
  • Suburban or small city: Between 100,000 and 250,000 people within a 5-mile radius;
  • Urban core or large city: More than 250,000 people within a 5-mile radius.

As it happens, the overall U.S. population (including Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico) is split almost exactly evenly between these buckets: 25 percent rural, 23 percent exurban/small town, 27 percent suburban/small city, and 25 percent urban core/large city.

But what does representation look like in the Senate? Since each state has the same number of senators, this is simple to calculate. We can take the urban/rural breakdown for each state and average the 50 states together, as in the table below:

The Senate has a major skew towards rural voters

Proportion of population by area across the U.S. as a whole, in each individual state and in the average state (i.e. as reflected in the Senate)

State Rural Exurban /Small Town Suburban /Small City Urban Core /Big City
U.S. population total* 25% 23% 27% 25%
Average state 35 26 25 14
State Rural Exurban /Small Town Suburban /Small City Urban Core /Big City
Alaska 53% 18% 28% 0%
Alabama 51 33 16 0
Arkansas 58 36 6 0
Arizona 17 19 29 35
California 8 13 26 54
Colorado 21 18 30 31
Connecticut 8 35 45 11
Delaware 24 27 49 0
Florida 13 27 35 26
Georgia 31 29 32 7
Hawaii 23 22 35 19
Iowa 52 29 19 0
Idaho 42 36 22 0
Illinois 19 15 28 38
Indiana 37 27 33 2
Kansas 41 25 31 3
Kentucky 52 20 23 5
Louisiana 41 30 20 9
Massachusetts 6 32 35 27
Maryland 13 22 29 36
Maine 69 25 6 0
Michigan 30 23 28 19
Minnesota 36 19 25 20
Missouri 41 19 31 9
Mississippi 65 29 6 0
Montana 59 41 1 0
North Carolina 37 36 25 1
North Dakota 49 39 12 0
Nebraska 36 17 39 8
New Hampshire 39 42 18 0
New Jersey 5 18 33 44
New Mexico 41 28 26 5
Nevada 13 9 25 53
New York 14 14 15 57
Ohio 26 29 33 12
Oklahoma 44 23 32 1
Oregon 29 21 24 26
Pennsylvania 23 31 25 21
Rhode Island 8 31 22 39
South Carolina 40 41 18 0
South Dakota 65 19 16 0
Tennessee 41 31 28 0
Texas 21 17 34 27
Utah 21 19 41 19
Virginia 28 22 34 17
Vermont 79 21 0 0
Washington 20 22 39 19
Wisconsin 41 27 19 13
West Virginia 64 36 0 0
Wyoming 66 34 0 0

*Totals for the U.S. as a whole include Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico

Because there are a lot of largely rural, low-population states, the average state — which reflects the composition of the Senate — has 35 percent of its population in rural areas and only 14 percent in urban core areas, even though the country as a whole — including dense, high-population states like New York, Texas and California — has about 25 percent of the population in each group. That’s a pretty serious skew. It means that the Senate, de facto, has two or three times as much rural representation as urban core representation … even though there are actually about an equal number of voters in each bucket nationwide.

And of course, this has all sorts of other downstream consequences. Since rural areas tend to be whiter, it means the Senate represents a whiter population, too. In the U.S. as a whole, 60 percent of the population is non-Hispanic white and 40 percent of the population is nonwhite.1 But in the average state, 68 percent of people are white and 32 percent are nonwhite. It’s almost as if the Senate has turned the clock back by 20 years as far as the racial demographics of the country goes. (In 2000, around 69 percent of the U.S. population consisted of non-Hispanic whites.)

It also means that the median states — the ones that would be decisive in the event of a 50-50 tie in the Senate — are considerably redder than the country as a whole. In the next table, I’ve arranged the states from top to bottom based on how much more or less Republican they were than the national average in the presidential elections in 2016 and 2012.2

A red state is most likely to decide the Senate

Republican margin or deficit in the last two presidential elections relative to national average by state and a blended average (representing current partisan lean)

Rank State 2016 2012 Blended*
1 Wyoming +48.4 +44.7 +47.5
2 West Virginia +43.8 +30.5 +40.5
3 Oklahoma +38.5 +37.4 +38.2
4 Idaho +33.9 +35.5 +34.3
5 North Dakota +37.8 +23.5 +34.2
6 Kentucky +31.9 +26.5 +30.6
7 South Dakota +31.9 +21.9 +29.4
8 Alabama +29.8 +26.0 +28.9
9 Arkansas +29.0 +27.5 +28.6
10 Utah +20.0 +51.7 +27.9
11 Tennessee +28.1 +24.2 +27.1
12 Nebraska +27.1 +25.6 +26.8
13 Kansas +22.5 +25.4 +23.2
14 Louisiana +21.7 +21.1 +21.6
15 Montana +22.3 +17.5 +21.1
16 Indiana +21.1 +14.1 +19.3
17 Mississippi +19.9 +15.4 +18.8
18 Missouri +20.6 +13.2 +18.8
19 Alaska +16.8 +17.8 +17.1
20 South Carolina +16.4 +14.3 +15.9
21 Texas +11.1 +19.6 +13.2
22 Georgia +7.2 +11.7 +8.3
23 Iowa +11.5 -2.0 +8.1
24 Ohio +10.2 +0.9 +7.8
25 Arizona +5.6 +12.9 +7.4
MEDIAN +6.6
26 North Carolina +5.7 +5.9 +5.8
27 Florida +3.3 +3.0 +3.2
28 Pennsylvania +2.8 -1.5 +1.7
29 Wisconsin +2.9 -3.1 +1.4
30 New Hampshire +1.7 -1.7 +0.9
31 Michigan +2.3 -5.6 +0.3
32 Minnesota +0.6 -3.8 -0.5
33 Nevada -0.3 -2.8 -1.0
34 Virginia -3.2 -0.0 -2.4
35 Colorado -2.8 -1.5 -2.5
36 Maine -0.9 -11.4 -3.5
37 New Mexico -6.1 -6.3 -6.2
38 Oregon -8.9 -8.2 -8.7
39 Delaware -9.3 -14.8 -10.7
40 Connecticut -11.5 -13.5 -12.0
41 New Jersey -11.9 -13.9 -12.4
42 Washington -13.6 -10.9 -12.9
43 Illinois -14.8 -13.0 -14.3
44 Rhode Island -13.4 -23.6 -16.0
45 New York -20.4 -24.3 -21.4
46 Massachusetts -25.1 -19.3 -23.7
47 Maryland -24.3 -22.2 -23.8
48 California -27.9 -19.2 -25.7
49 Vermont -24.3 -31.7 -26.2
50 Hawaii -30.1 -38.8 -32.3

* Based on a combination of 75 percent 2016 and 25 percent 2012. This is a simplified version of how FiveThirtyEight’s partisan lean index is calculated.

The median falls in between Arizona and North Carolina, which are, on average, 6.6 percentage points more Republican than the country as a whole. Democrats can compete in these states and are doing so this year, but they’re doing so in an overall political environment which leans Democratic by 6 to 7 percentage points based on the generic congressional ballot and national polls of the presidential race.

In a strong national environment for Democrats, in other words, the Senate can be competitive. Generally speaking, at least. A Democratic-leaning environment wasn’t enough to overcome the Senate’s baseline GOP-lean and a bad map in 2018. Democrats lost seats. And in an average year — and certainly in a year like 2014 where Republicans have the advantage — Democrats face dire prospects in the Senate.

Indeed, despite their current 47-53 deficit in the Senate, Democratic senators actually represent slightly more people than Republicans. If you divide the U.S. population by which party represents it in the Senate — splitting credit 50-50 in the case of states such as Ohio that have one senator from each party — you wind up with 167 million Americans represented by Democratic senators and 160 million by Republicans.

Could the emerging electoral map — with states such as Texas, Arizona and Georgia becoming more purple — help Democrats in the Senate? Actually, while the shifting politics in those states could massively affect the Electoral College, they don’t help Democrats in the Senate that much because they still have only two senators each.3

Rather, what Democrats really need to negate their disadvantage in the Senate is to find some small-population states that move toward them. Other than Nevada, they haven’t really had any of these recently. (Montana and Alaska are probably the least-implausible candidates, although Montana’s presidential voting has actually been getting redder.) There’s also the chance that the small, predominantly white working-class states of New England — such as Maine, New Hampshire and even Rhode Island — could move against Democrats, which could make their Senate problems even worse, although Maine is polling strongly for Joe Biden this year.

Democrats could also consider adding states to the union. If both Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico became solidly Democratic states (not necessarily a safe assumption in the case of Puerto Rico), the Senate’s Republican lean would be reduced from 6.6 points to 4.5 points. If D.C. and Puerto Rico joined and California were split into three states that ranged from Democratic-leaning to solidly blue, it would deplete further to 2.5 points. But that also goes to show you how robust the Republicans’ advantage is. You could add four Democartic states (D.C., Puerto Rico, California/A and California/B) and the Senate would still have a slight Republican tilt.

Obviously, political coalitions can change over time. Maybe you’re reading this article in 2036 and it seems incredibly silly because Mormons have become a super Democratic group and Montana, Utah and Idaho are all blue states … who knows. But for the time being, the Senate is effectively 6 to 7 percentage points redder than the country as a whole, which means that Democrats are likely to win it only in the event of a near-landslide in their favor nationally. That’s likely to make the Republican majority on the Supreme Court pretty durable.

Footnotes

  1. Including Hispanics and people who identify as mixed race.

  2. Weighted three-quarters toward 2016; this is a simplified version of the partisan lean index that we use in our election models.

  3. If you re-run the partisan lean calculation from above based on our projected results in the 2020 presidential election (as of Saturday morning), the median states are North Carolina and Florida, which are, on average, projected to be 5.7 points more Repbulican than the country as a whole.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

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