Republicans control the U.S. House of Representatives by 33 seats, an advantage Speaker John Boehner once suggested gives them a mandate to block tax increases.
Some House Democrats have countered this idea with their own talking point: GOP members may control more seats, but they did not win the popular vote in 2012.
U.S. Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the No. 2 Democrat in the House, mentioned it to Capitol reporters on Feb. 12, 2013.
"The American people elected a Democratic president, a Democratic Senate, and the majority of them voted for a Democratic House, but we have a Republican House, and it's necessary for all sides to come together and take responsible action," Hoyer said.
It’s a claim that’s been repeated several times in recent months, so we decided to check it out.
Hoyer spokeswoman Stephanie Young directed us to a December 2012 analysis by the Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan, Washington, D.C. publication that analyzes and handicaps congressional and gubernatorial races, with the headline "House GOP Won 49 Percent of Votes, 54 Percent of Seats." (The story and corresponding chart are accessible to subscribers only.)
By Cook’s calculations, House Democrats out-earned their Republican counterparts by 1.17 million votes. Read another way, Democrats won 50.59 percent of the two-party vote. Still, they won just 46.21 percent of seats, leaving the Republicans with 234 seats and Democrats with 201.
It was the second time in 70 years that a party won the majority of the vote but didn’t win a majority of the House seats, according to the analysis.
The National Republican Congressional Committee did not dispute these findings. NRCC spokesman Dan Scarpinato pointed out that Republicans enjoy a comfy majority, their second largest since World War II (234 seats in 2012, 242 seats in 2010).
Cook’s House editor David Wasserman pointed to two "unprecedented" factors that explain the phenomenon: the thick concentration of Democratic votes in urban areas and the GOP’s wide control of drawing congressional districts in 2010.
For the record, Wasserman considers the House popular vote an imperfect read of the nation’s attitude about House party control, for several reasons. Weak opposition to incumbents in many districts will usually lead to a bloated vote count for the incumbent party. In some districts, a "personally popular moderate" will usually outperform his or her party’s national popularity. And a new top-two primary system in California, which featured eight districts with races between two Democrats or two Republicans, meant the other party did not get any votes in some cases.
Regardless, he wrote, House Democrats will need to win 55 percent of all House votes cast in order to win a majority of seats for the next decade. (That has only happened twice in the last 15 cycles, he wrote.)
What if we consider votes for candidates whose political party is not Democratic or Republican?
Michael McDonald, George Mason University public affairs professors, says it’s almost certain the Democrats would not maintain their majority of the popular vote. However, the Clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives, which publishes official vote counts of federal elections, has not yet posted its 2012 tally. (McDonald thought the delay in posting may be due to New York pushing back its reporting due to Hurricane Sandy.)
Still, "I am certain we will find that the Democrats received more votes than Republicans," McDonald said.
Wasserman compiled his own tally of the national popular vote for House races. With the addition of late December data from New York, the Democratic advantage widened to 1.36 million votes.
According to his breakdown, House Democratic candidates got 49.15 percent of the vote, Republicans got 48.03 percent, and other candidates got 2.81 percent. Again, that means the Democrats gained a plurality of the vote.
Looking at the data this way shows that third parties, not Democrats, are really more disenfranchised in terms of votes versus seats, said Eric McGhee, a research fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California.
"They win almost 3 percent of the vote but get 0 percent of the seats," McGhee said.
Hoyer said the majority of Americans "voted for a Democratic House." We found an impartial and thorough analysis that supports his claim, at least when considering votes for the two dominant parties. Indeed, Democrats earned a majority.
When considering votes for candidates of all parties, House Democrats still earned the most votes. But the share is a plurality, not a majority. It’s a small but noteworthy difference.
We rate Hoyer’s statement Mostly True.
Email interview with Stephanie Young, Hoyer spokeswoman, Feb. 15, 2013
Congressional Quarterly transcript of Hoyer’s pen and pad with reporters, Feb. 12, 2013
The New York Times, "How maps helped Republicans keep an edge in the House," Dec. 15, 2013
Cook Political Report, "House GOP Won 49 Percent of Votes, 54 Percent of Seats," Dec. 13, 2012
Interview with Daniel Scarpinato, RNCC spokesman, Feb. 15, 2013
Washington Post The Fix blog, "Democratic House candidates winning the popular vote, despite big GOP majority," Nov. 9, 2012
Washington Post The Fix blog, "In 1996, House Democrats also won the popular vote but remained in the minority (kind of)," Nov. 12, 2012
Washington Post Wonkblog, "How redistricting could keep the House red for a decade," Nov. 9, 2012
Washington Post Wonkblog, "Redistricting didn’t win Republicans the House," Feb. 17, 2013
Washington Post Wonkblog, "House Democrats got more votes than House Republicans. Yet Boehner says he’s got a mandate?" Nov. 9, 2012
Mother Jones, "Now that’s what I call gerrymandering!" Nov. 14, 2012
POLITICO, "Hoyer: Dems could save Boehner," March 29, 2011 (accessed via Nexis)
Think Progress, "Why Americans Actually Voted For A Democratic House," Nov. 7, 2012
Ballot Access News, "Only Four U.S. House Elections in the Last Hundred Years Gave One Party a House Majority, Even Though the Other Major Party Polled More Votes for U.S. House," Nov. 12, 2012
Interview with Michael McDonald, George Mason University public affairs professor, Feb. 18, 2013
Interview with Nicholas Goedert, Washington University post-doctoral fellow, Feb. 18, 2013
Email interview with Eric McGhee, Public Policy Institute of California research fellow, Feb. 18, 2013
Email interview with David Wasserman, Cook Political Report House editor, Feb. 19, 2013
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