The Senate’s Class 2 and Representativeness (or Lack Thereof)

Something to keep in mind about the structure of Senate elections.

election-voter-peoplePatrick J. Egan has an interesting post at the Monkey Cage regarding tomorrow’s elections:   Welcome to the most unrepresentative Senate election since World War II.  The conclusion of his piece is as follows:

Simply put, this year’s Senate elections are unrepresentative of the nation to an extent that is unprecedented in elections held in the post-war era. So when we begin to sift through the results on Election Night, the number of Senate seats won and lost will tell us less than we might like about where the two parties stand in the minds of American voters.

Specifically he notes two constitutional provisions that put us in that position.  The first is obvious:  the fact that each state gets two Senate seats means that by definition that the Senate will not be directly representative of the population.  As Egan notes:

The population of the median state won by Barack Obama in the 2012 presidential election is about 5.5 million; the median state won by Mitt Romney has a population of 3.4 million.

The other provision is the fact that the Senate is divided into three classes, with one third standing for election every two years.  This year is a Class 2 election.    Interestingly, Class 2 is a bit different than Classes 1 or 3:

states with Class 2 seats now make up a much smaller share of the national population (52 percent) than do those with Class 1 or Class 3 seats (at 75 and 73 percent, respectively).

All of this leads to:  “Taken together, the rules on seat allotments and classes have yielded a Senate election cycle in 2014 that is profoundly unrepresentative of the nation as whole — and particularly tough for Democrats.”

This is why, by the way, many are pointing out that this election cycle will be different in the Senate for the parties than will that of 2016.  (It is also why I would not count on the Republicans doing much of anything to try and alter the powers of the minority in the chamber, as they are likely to return to that minority relatively soon).  At a minimum, the notion that this Senate election tells us anything about national partisan preferences is incorrect.

I would recommend the entire post and the chart that he produces to illustrate his position.

FILED UNDER: 2014 Election, US Politics, , , ,
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. gVOR08 says:

    Believe you meant 2016 in next to last paragraph.

  2. Mikey says:

    Peripherally related, what do you think of this?

  3. @gVOR08: You are correct–thanks.

  4. superdestroyer says:

    I listened to a discussion on C-SPAN on Sunday that mentioned that the use of up and down votes in the Senate without amendments has negatively impacts Democratic Senators in red/purple states. It creates a situation where they have a 90% plus voting record of agreeing the Democratic Party leadership without being able to claim that they voted for a bill/act since they were able to make amendments.

    It would probably help the Democrats in the short term to allow for more debate and amendments in the Senate and give the moderate Democrats in swing states some political room in which to maneuver.

  5. @Mikey: I concur with the basic sentiment of that piece.

  6. Mikey says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: Yes, I see where Doug put up a post about it, and your comments.

  7. Guarneri says:

    Unrepresentative, eh? Imagine how the rest of Illinoisans feel when they look at a map of the state and see only one blue county: Cook.

  8. stonetools says:

    In effect, the Republicans hit the jackpot in this election. The seats this time were tailor made for a Republican surge, even without Democratic retirements in Iowa and other places.
    This is pretty much a fundamentals election.
    The map looked bad for the Democrats? Check.
    The Presidential party always does badly in the sixth year of a Presidency? Check.
    The economy was lousy? Check, Check, check.
    There’s going to be a lot of discussion about tactics starting Wednesday, but I think the lesson here is that politically, amateurs talk tactics and professionals talk fundamentals.

  9. @Guarneri:

    Well, two thoughts:

    1. Doesn’t Cook County have close to half the state’s pop?

    2. I would be more than happy to shift the US electoral system to one that had proportional representation and therefore eliminate some series representation issues across the land.

  10. Electroman says:

    @Guarneri: Which election was this in? *chuckle* Certainly not the two most recent POTUS elections. Nor the most recent election of a governor.

  11. Barry says:

    @Guarneri: You mean where the people live?

    It’s amazing how right-wingers always think that land should be represented, not people.

  12. Gustopher says:

    @Barry: That fits in with the Libertarians emphasizing property rights over all other rights… More freedom to the rich,many more freedom to the property owners.

  13. JohnMcC says:

    Great big thank you for that, Dr Taylor. And another thank you for your other Post of today which sent me to looking up a little history of the filibuster/cloture issue.

  14. Eric Florack says:

    of course, there’s no connection between his making this assertion now, and Republicans actually looking like they’re going to win today. It can only be unrepresentative if Republicans win.

    it does seem to give democrat ideologues a chance to blame something other than the policies which they support for the lack of support of the voting booth.

    you’ll forgive me if I’m less than impressed.

  15. @Eric Florack: Here’s what I know: only a blind partisan looks at what is nothing more than an observation of fact and assumes that it all about partisanship.

    It may also speak to a fundamental lack of ability to understand the way our institutions functions, but one’s mileage may vary.

  16. Put another way: it’s math.

  17. Eric Florack says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: that sounds totally reasonable, until one considers that it was fact before this. So, again the question, why now?

  18. Except, Senators are not supposed to represent the nation. They are supposed to represent their States, which is the reason why the Framers set it up so that Senators were appointed by their respective state legislatures.

    Furthermore, Egan is essentially whining that those dastardly small states have equal power as the large population states. I love how Dems yammer on about equality, but only when it helps them. Much in the same way they profess to love democracy, as long as people are voting their way.

    BTW, Monkey Cage? Imagine a conservative was using that during the era of Obama.

  19. Grewgills says:

    Furthermore, Egan is essentially whining that those dastardly small states have equal power as the large population states. I love how Dems yammer on about equality, but only when it helps them.

    That some of us care more about people having equal say than states having equal say isn’t anti democratic. Do you have anything other than banal snark?

  20. @William Teach:

    I love how Dems yammer on about equality, but only when it helps them

    I certainly do not claim to speak for Democrats (and I can’t speak to Egan’s partisan preferences), but speaking for myself I value the notion of representativeness very much regardless of the partisan implications (and my writing over the years should rather easily indicate).

    It is telling that many Republican partisans seem to revel in the features of the systems that are problematic vis-a-vis representativeness when it helps their preferred outcomes.


    That some of us care more about people having equal say than states having equal say isn’t anti democratic.


    Do you have anything other than banal snark?

    History shows that the answer to that question is: no.

  21. @Eric Florack:

    So, again the question, why now?

    Well, two answers:

    1) The elections are this week (that tends to inspire writing about the current cycle.

    2) More importantly: if you actually look at the graph it shows that this year was projected to be the most unrepresentative in quite some time, making “now” a significant period of time.