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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Warren’s Hollow Senate Election Claim

Sen. Elizabeth Warren cited the hollow and misleading statistic that in the recent election the “majority of voters supported Democratic Senate candidates over Republican ones.”

That advantage is mostly due to the fact that California had two Democrats squaring off for a Senate seat for the first time in the state’s history.

It also ignores the fact that only two-thirds of states in any given election hold Senate elections. And this year, heavily Democratic states such as California and New York had Senate elections, for example, while heavily Republican Texas did not.

Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat, made the misleading observation about a popular vote victory for Senate Democrats in a floor speech on Nov. 28 opposing the 21st Century Cures Act — a bill that she warned would provide “a bunch of special giveaways and favors” to “Big Pharma.”

Warren argues that Americans in the last election gave Democrats “majority support” to combat undue corporate influence over government policy. Although Donald Trump won the presidential election, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote and “[t]he majority of voters supported Democratic Senate candidates over Republican ones,” Warren said.

Warren, Nov. 28: Republicans are taking over Congress. They are taking over the White House. But Republicans don’t have majority support in this country. The majority of voters supported Democratic Senate candidates over Republican ones, and the majority supported a Democratic presidential candidate over a Republican one.

The American people didn’t give Democrats majority support so we could come back to Washington and play dead. They didn’t send us here to whimper, whine, or grovel. They sent us here to say NO to efforts to sell Congress to the highest bidder. They sent us here to stand up for what’s right.

Now, they are watching, waiting, and hoping — hoping we show some spine and start fighting back when Congress completely ignores the message of the American people and returns to all its same old ways.

Warren is correct about Clinton winning the popular vote. The latest vote tally from David Wasserman of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report showed Clinton leading by nearly 2.4 million votes, as of Nov. 30. In all, Clinton has garnered 48.2 percent of the popular vote and Trump earned 46.4 percent.

Of course, the U.S. does not decide elections by popular vote, but rather by Electoral College votes, which Trump won 306 to 232. (Trump claims he also won the popular vote “if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally,” but we found that claim was baseless.)

But what about Warren’s claim that the “majority of voters supported Democratic Senate candidates over Republicans ones”?

According to the latest vote tallies compiled by Dave Leip’s Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections, Democrats won about 10.6 million more votes than Republicans in Senate races.

But that’s a misleading statistic, as the Washington Post‘s Aaron Blake pointed out, because most of the Democratic advantage in popular vote in Senate races is due to California, the most populated state in the country.

In 2011, California enacted a so-called “jungle primary” system, under which all candidates, regardless of party, compete in a primary election. The top two vote-getters then square off in the general election. For the first time ever, that resulted in two Democrats — Kamala Harris and Loretta Sanchez — vying for the Senate seat on Nov. 8.

As of Dec. 1, the California Secretary of State website showed the two Democrats combined had won 11.9 million votes in California, while Republicans, of course, received zero votes.

So, we wondered, how would California look if there had been a Republican on the ballot? Jennifer Duffy of the Cook Political Report noted that incumbent Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein vastly outspent and handily beat Republican challenger Elizabeth Emken in 2012. Feinstein spent about $12 million and won 62.5 percent of the vote, while Emken spent less than $1 million and won about 37.5 percent of the vote.

“So a no-name candidate who spent no money got 37 percent,” Duffy said. “I think that’s the bottom.”

So, let’s assume a hypothetical Republican was on the ballot in November and received 37.5 percent of the vote. That would mean that the Democrat would have won the election by about 3 million votes. In other words, the California tally was roughly 9 million votes higher this year with only two Democrats than it would have been had the two parties gone head-to-head.

That alone accounts for nearly three-quarters of the popular vote margin of victory for Democratic Senate candidates nationwide.

And that’s not the only reason the popular vote count in Senate races is skewed. Only two-thirds of states had Senate elections this year.

“There is a portion of this that is due to which seats were up in which states,” explained Michele Swers, a professor in the Department of Government at Georgetown University.

In addition to having two Democrats and no Republicans running in California’s Senate race, New York — another large, Democratic-leaning state — also had a Senate election. New York is the third most populated state. In fact, 20 percent of the votes in Senate races nationwide were cast in those two states alone.

Meanwhile, Texas — a solidly Republican-leaning state and the second most populated state in the country — did not have a Senate election this year. In 2014, when Texas had a Senate race, but New York and California did not, Republican Senate candidates nationwide received nearly 4 million more votes than the Democratic candidates.

Duffy, of the Cook Political Report, finds Warren’s claim about a majority of votes for Democratic senators fairly meaningless. The Senate was specifically designed not to reflect the national popular vote, but rather to give all states equal representation, regardless of their population. Heavily populated states like California, Texas and New York have the same number of senators as sparsely populated states like North Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming.

That’s why the Cook Political Report keeps tabs on the national popular vote for the presidency and the House, but not for the Senate.

“I think her argument is so terribly flawed, there’s no reason to debate it,” Duffy said of Warren.

Matt Dallek, a political historian and associate professor at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management, agrees that it is a “silly debate because our political system — especially the vote for the Senate — isn’t dependent on the popular vote.”

“The reality is that Republicans held the Senate and won the White House, and whether Democrats won more total votes for Senate isn’t all that germane to who holds power in the Senate,” Dallek told us.

Democrats picked up just two seats in the Senate this election, and if a Republican wins the Louisiana Senate run-off election on Dec. 10 as expected, Republicans will have a 52-48 majority.

“Having said this, Warren does have a point as a leader of the opposition party,” Dallek said. “More Americans — millions more — voted for Hillary Clinton than for Donald Trump, the Senate is almost 50-50, and the people who voted for Democrats expect that Democrats such as Sen. Warren will stand up and fight against much of Trump’s retrograde agenda. It is called the opposition party for a reason.”