In the late 1980s and early 1990s, political scientists formulated what they considered the most basic fact of American politics at the time. To them, Republicans had a “lock” on the White House and Democrats a “lock” on the House of Representatives.
There was good evidence to support this interpretation. Republicans won five out of six presidential elections from 1968-1988—usually by large margins. Democrats kept control of the House of Representatives continuously from 1955-1994.
What once made sense was soon upended and reversed. Since 1992, Democrats have won five of the past six presidential popular votes. Meanwhile, Republicans have held the House of Representatives for all but four years since the 1994 midterm elections. This dynamic is part of a larger trend in which there are more Democratic officeholders as you go higher in the political pecking order while Republicans become more dominant as you look lower down the ladder.
The U.S. Senate is in between the presidency and the House of Representatives in terms of prominence, and for a long while the Senate has been roughly balanced between the two parties. Republicans have a small but real structural advantage in Senate representation because they are somewhat stronger in smaller states than Democrats.
In 2012, Obama won 332 electoral votes but only 26 states, indicating the advantage Republicans would have in a neutral-to-favorable year. However, this has been counterbalanced by a series of poor Republican senatorial campaigns over multiple cycles and the resiliency of Democratic candidates in states that vote Republican in presidential elections.
Republicans have come to more of an advantage in gubernatorial elections—now holding 30 of the nation’s governorships. In the 1960s and 70s, Democrats had lopsided advantages in representation in state executive offices. In the past two decades, possession of a majority of governor seats has seesawed between both parties, but Republican gubernatorial candidates have generally avoided the pratfalls that have occurred to their Senate candidates in recent years, and the distribution of gubernatorial seats more accurately demonstrates the small state advantage Republicans have.
The Republican advantage in lower-level offices becomes very apparent when examining seats in state legislatures. After the 2010 midterm elections, Republicans had a 30-18 advantage in control of state lower chambers and a 28-20 advantage in control of state upper chambers. Republicans held more state legislative seats than at any time since before the New Deal. But this isn’t just the product of one good election cycle. There are places like Long Island and suburban Philadelphia where Republicans have long held nearly all the state legislative seats while their constituents will vote for a Democratic president.
This can even be seen in mayoral races. Republican mayoral candidates can run much further ahead of Republican presidential candidates. Cities like Charlotte, Indianapolis and Albuquerque have recently elected Republican mayors, even as Obama received something close to 2-to-1 advantages in these cities. Before becoming governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker was the Milwaukee county executive, holding office in a county that has voted over 2-to-1 for Obama twice.
What explains this difference between the two parties? It could be several factors. Democrats have generally benefitted from the expanded electorates that occur with presidential elections. This has been crucial to their successes in presidential elections. But with state and local elections occurring oftentimes in very low turnout off years, Republicans have generally kept control of those offices.
Lesser diversity within a single state can lead to different party arrangements on the local level. Republicans control the New York state Senate despite being uncompetitive in statewide elections and in Long Island and upstate can better represent their constituents than perhaps national Republican leaders from Texas or Georgia could. This sometimes works to the advantage of Democrats as well, as Appalachian states like West Virginia and Kentucky are more favorable to Democrats at lower levels and Republicans at higher levels. Greater Appalachia is the one area that appears to go against the national pattern.
We should not declare a Democratic “lock” on the White House or Republicans having a “lock” on the House. George W. Bush won two presidential elections last decade and Democrats controlled the House for four years. Republicans also didn’t take control of state legislatures in many conservative states until the 2010 midterms. But for whatever reasons this has come to pass, this is one of the most striking trends in American politics today.
Chris Palko works as an assistant media analyst at Smart Media Group, a Republican political media buying agency in Alexandria, Va. He is a graduate of American University and George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management. A version of this post was also published on Smart Media Group’s blog, Smart Blog.