The Black World Today
Election 2002: Why The Democrats Lost
January 14, 2003
For several months now, political analysts from both
major parties and the media have pushed the argument that President
Bush and the Republicans achieved an unprecedented victory in this
November's Congressional elections. Only hours after the polls
closed, for example, Bush's press secretary Ari Fleischer announced,
"It is a big victory." Tony Coelho, Al Gore's 2000 campaign
chairman, agreed. "The White took a huge gamble; they rolled the
dice, and it worked," Coelho said with apparent admiration. Bush
"got his mandate, he got his victory and now he can govern for two
Republicans attributed their victories to President Bush's
"personal popularity." Of the twenty-three Congressional districts
Bush visited to support Republican candidates, 21 of them won. Out
of 16 Senate candidates Bush campaigned with, twelve won.
vantagepoint of political history, the Republicans seemed justified
to declare that they had won a "mandate to govern." For over a
century, the party whose candidate was elected president almost
always lost seats in both the House of Representatives and the
Senate two years later. This was true even for popular presidents,
like Eisenhower and Johnson. Reagan, for example, won a landslide
victory for re-election in 1984, but the Democrats regained control
of the Senate two years later. Democrats remained in the majority in
both houses of Congress until 1994. By picking up seats in both the
House and the Senate, Bush had accomplished what no other Republican
since Theodore Roosevelt had done, back in 1902.
believe the Republican hype. In reality, there is absolutely no
mandate for the Republican regime.
First, let's count the votes.
About 77 million Americans cast votes last November in 435 House and
34 Senate races. A shift of only 43,000 votes, according to the
Washington Post, would have given the Democrats 51 Senate seats and
continued control. Republicans today control about 52 percent of the
House seats, and about one-half of the state governorships-hardly a
The hidden story of the 2002 elections was the dramatic
breakthrough registered by third parties. In California, 13 percent
of the total vote went to third parties. According to historian
Gerald Horne, this was "the largest total" received by California
third parties "since 1913." Green Party gubernatorial candidate
Peter Camejo won five percent of the statewide vote. Even more
impressively, Camejo received 15.4 percent of the vote in San
Francisco, a higher total than Republican candidate Bill Simon. In
Alameda County, Camejo won nearly 11 percent of the vote.
York, the progressive Working Families Party won 85,000 votes in the
gubernatorial race, two percent of the overall statewide vote.
Frequently, third party candidates affected the outcomes of
important elections. In South Dakota, for example, Libertarian Party
candidate Kurt Evans attracted 3,000 conservative votes away from
Republican Senate candidate John Thune. As a result Thune lost by a
narrow 500 vote margin against incumbent Democratic Senator Tim
Throughout the U.S. in 2002, there were 362 Green Party
candidates running in 39 states last fall. Sixty-seven of the Green
candidates won, bringing the total number of Green Party elected
officials to 171 nationwide. Over 250,000 Americans are now
registered members of the Green Party.
The reason that millions of
Americans are exploring third parties, and tens of millions are
staying home on Election Day, is that the United States does not
hold democratic elections. In fact, we should call them "no-choice
elections," because in most Congressional districts, the voters had
no real choice due to the lack of competition.
As historian David
Garrow recently observed in the New York Times, in California, only
3 of 52 Congressional races were won with less than 60 percent of
the vote. In New York State, only 3 of 29 House races were won with
less than 60 percent. Out of 435 House of Representatives races,
only 39 "were won with less than 55 percent of the vote," observes
Garrow. "Even of the 49 races not involving an incumbent, 35 were
won with 55 percent of the vote or more." Although Senate races are
generally much more competitive than House elections, nevertheless
there were 14 races last year that were won by over sixty percent of
Our legislatures at both the national and state levels
are rigidly gerrymandered by both the Republican and Democratic
parties, whose interests are served by minimizing truly competitive
elections. Districts are carefully constructed to create "safe"
constituencies that are almost guaranteed to go either Democrat or
Republican by their social and political composition. Third parties
are usually excluded through absurdly complicated ballot qualifying
requirements. The winner-take-all voting system we have also makes
it difficult for minority groups to influence majority decisions.
The Center for Voting and Democracy observes that about 95 percent
of all House incumbents "cruise to victory, usually by huge margins.
Voters are bunkered down in one-party districts where their only
real choice is to ratify the candidate of the dominant party."
2002, less than one in four Americans of voting age actually elected
a House member, due to the limitations imposed on our voting
procedures. The question we should be asking is not "how do we
encourage more people to register and vote," but "how can we restore
true democracy to the American political system?"
countries are moving to fairer voting systems, such as proportional
representation and instant runoff voting (IRV). The U.S.
Constitution permits the creation of multimember districts, where
winners would be selected through full or proportional
representation voting. With these reforms in place, independent and
third party candidates would have a chance to compete without being
"spoilers." And finally, we might begin to have a political system
that truly reflects what the great unrepresented majority of
The Democrats lost, and will continue to lose, so
long as they reject policies that would encourage a vast increase in
the size of the national electorate. If 80 percent of all Americans
regularly voted, and if we had a democratic electoral system that
truly reflected real choices for voters, conservatives would have a
hard time winning.
Dr. Manning Marable is
Professor of History and Political Science, and the Director of the
Institute for Research in African-American Studies at Columbia
University in New York. "Along the Color Line" is distributed free
of charge to over 350 publications throughout the U.S. and
internationally. Dr. Marable's column is also available on the
Internet at www.manningmarable.net