Why the National House Vote is Completely Irrelevant

Nathan L. Gonzales November 21, 2012 · 12:49 PM EDT

Democrats had a good Election Night. President Obama won a second term, and the party unexpectedly gained seats in the Senate. But the effort to claim victory in the House is a bridge too far, and it isn’t merely the touting about how Democrats met or exceeded low expectations going into Election Day.

There also appears to be an effort to delegitimize the Republican majority in the House by citing the “National House Vote.” From Twitter to emails I’ve received after the election, Democrats are starting to cite the anecdote as a serious measure of something significant.

With votes still being counted, Democratic House candidates received about 225,000 more votes than Republican House candidates nationwide, according to number crunching by David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report, one of a handful of people who really follow and understand House races.

That number (which could grow to 500,000 votes after outstanding votes in California and New York are tabulated) is a stark contrast to the fact that Democrats fell well short of winning a majority of House seats (they will likely hold 201 out of 435).

The national House vote is interesting but largely meaningless. It is evidence of the power of redistricting but not much of anything else. In most cases, both parties have chosen to draw less-than-competitive districts to ensure safety for their incumbents, and any other conclusion from the national house vote is largely irrelevant.

Roughly seven dozen House districts featured competitive contests between the two parties this year – contests where both parties fielded a credible candidate who had some resources to communicate a message and where a debate over policies and ideas took place.

That means that in approximately 350 districts, there was no competition, so victories in those districts didn’t say much, if anything at all, about the public validating one party’s ideas over the other.

For example, Rep. Diane DeGette (D) won Colorado’s 1st District by over 136,000 votes over Republican Danny Stroud. But she spent a million dollars compared to $14,000 by her challenger. That race wasn’t a referendum on party philosophy because it wasn’t a race at all.

The same can be said for Rep. Gregory Meeks’ (D) 130,000 vote victory in New York 5 or dozens of other races around the country. By the same token, GOP Rep. Steve Chabot’s 71,000 vote victory in Ohio’s 1st District wasn’t a validation of Republican views on Social Security and Medicare. The congressman spent over $630,000 while his Democratic opponent didn’t even file an FEC report (which means he didn’t raise or spend $5,000). There was no race, no debate, no discussion.

The national House vote is further complicated by the fact that some Members ran unopposed and, in California, candidates from the same party faced off in nine districts (two Democrats faced off in six districts while two Republicans faced off in three districts). That means that in each case, one party had no opportunity to get any votes. Those districts certainly lean one way or the other, but a name on the ballot would receive some votes, and a well-funded campaign may receive even more.

For example, in California’s 30th District, where Reps. Howard Berman and Brad Sherman faced off in a high-profile race, Democrats netted over 200,000 votes because there was no GOP candidate on the November ballot because of the top two primary system. The district is very Democratic, but there are some GOP voters. In the June 5 primary, three mediocre Republicans combined to receive 22 percent.

Obviously, Republican control of the House doesn’t necessarily mean that a majority of Americans support the GOP agenda. But the national House vote doesn’t tell us anything about how voters feel about the parties’ philosophies.