The two major American political parties, the Democrats and Republicans, have wide political bases of support that they have grown over the last 150-plus years. This has given both parties the ability to count on millions of votes in their favor during presidential and congressional elections.
The Democratic Party has more voters than the Republican Party, and by a wide margin. But this advantage in raw numbers can be deceiving. Despite the clear Democratic advantage, Republicans in recent years have still won presidential elections and elections giving them control of the House and Senate.
The Democratic Advantage
In the 2020 presidential election now-President Joe Biden got 81,281,502 votes (51.3% of all votes) and Donald Trump received 74,222,593 votes (46.9% of votes). Both candidates received more votes for their parties than ever in history. Biden received 7,058,909 more votes than Trump did.
Democrats have earned more votes than Republicans in 7 of the last 8 presidential elections between the years of 1992 and 2020. The most successful Democratic candidate in that period was Barack Obama, who received 52.9% of the vote with 69,498,516 votes in 2008. The Democratic nominee for president received more votes in 1992 (Bill Clinton), 1996 (Bill Clinton), 2000 (Al Gore), 2008 (Obama), 2012 (Obama), 2016 (Hillary Clinton) and 2020 (Joe Biden).
By contrast, the only Republican to earn more votes than the Democrat over that time period was George W. Bush, who got 50.7% of the vote with the support of 62,040,610 voters in 2004.
The base of support for the Democrats gives them an edge in elections. Democratic voters generally tend to live in big cities with large populations. The five largest cities in America – New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, and Phoenix all lean heavily Democratic.
Republican voters tend to live in rural and suburban areas and are not concentrated in one area like Democratic voters.
Democratic cities help to give the party an advantage along the east and west coasts of the United States. Populous states like California, New York, Illinois, and Pennsylvania have been supportive of the Democratic Party in most recent elections.
Why Republicans Win Elections With Fewer Voters
Despite the raw number advantage that Democrats have, Republicans have been able to achieve success in recent presidential and congressional elections. This has often been due to the electoral college and the gerrymandering of congressional seats.
Donald Trump won the 2016 election against Hillary Clinton even though his 62,984,828 votes were fewer than her 65,853,514 votes. This is because Trump appealed to enough voters to win enough states to earn more than 270 electoral votes, which is needed to be elected president — not the most votes. Trump secured 304 electoral votes and Clinton received 227 electoral votes.
It was a similar story in 2000, when George W. Bush was elected president even though he received fewer votes than Al Gore. Gore got 48.4% of the vote (50,999,897 votes) and Bush received 47.9% of the votes (50,456,002 raw votes). Bush got 271 electoral votes while Gore got 266 votes. The result of the election was highly contentious, involving a case that went to the Supreme Court, Bush v. Gore. Bush won the case, which led to him winning the pivotal 25 electoral votes from the state of Florida. Bush’s official margin of victory in Florida was ultimately only 537 votes, but that was enough for him to win the presidency.
A similar dynamic assists Republicans running in congressional elections.
Congressional districts are drawn up by state legislatures, and in most states the shape of those districts is determined by which party is in control of the legislature. As a result, many congressional districts are set up to give an advantage to the party in control of the state house. This is called a “gerrymander.” So while nationwide, overall Democrats have more voters, Republicans have been able to win congressional seats with fewer voters.
Since 1990, Republicans have won control of the House in multiple elections. They first took control in 1994, then after losing power regained control in 2010. Republicans led the House until Democrats won the 2018 midterm elections.
Republicans have also been better at turning out their base of voters to show up in midterm elections. While Democrats turn out to vote in presidential years, there historically has been a major falloff for the party in the years in between. Republican voters, who are older on average than Democrats, are historically more reliable and consistent voters. Republican turnout in midterm elections has allowed them to hold on to control of both the House and Senate, even following years where they lost the presidential election.
This happened in 2010, when Democrats lost control of the House just two years after Obama won the presidency in a landslide. Republicans also won the House in 1994, just two years after Bill Clinton won the presidency in 1992.
Republicans have an advantage in the Senate as well. Every state, regardless of population, automatically receives two senators. What this means in practical terms is that small, rural states that have mostly Republican voters can end up with just as many senators as large states. For instance, only 578,759 people live in Wyoming. But Wyoming has the same number of senators as California, where 39,368,078 people live. Wyoming regularly sends two Republican senators to Washington, D.C., who are just as powerful as the two Democratic senators that California sends to represent them.
What Will Happen In The Future?
In all likelihood the Democratic advantage in total number of voters is going to continue for the foreseeable future.
Democrats have strong levels of support with non-white voters, particularly Latinos and Blacks. In the 2020 presidential election, for instance, Joe Biden won 87% of Black votes, 65% of Latino votes, and 61% of Asian votes. Biden also won other non-white ethnic groups against Trump, by a margin of 55% to 41%.
Democrats also have a strong advantage when it comes to younger voters. In 2020, 65% of voters between the ages of 18 to 24 voted for Biden, while Trump got 31% of that vote.
But despite these advantages, Republicans will continue to exert strong political power. They have a considerable advantage with older voters that are key to consistently winning elections. In 2020, Donald Trump won 52% of votes for people aged 65 or more. Those voters have historically tended to turn out more in midterm elections, which has assisted Republicans in their attempts to take control of the House and Senate.
Republicans and Democrats will continue to turn out millions of votes for their respective parties and both parties will continue to be viable contenders for control of the presidency, House, and Senate.