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The cruel truth of American democracy, usually experienced by Democrats, is that a political party can get more votes than the other without winning much power.
This year, however, it’s Republicans who got more votes – more than 3 million more votes for GOP House candidates – and don’t have as much to show for it.
Republicans actually lost ground in the Senate, where Democrats will have a slim 51-49 majority. The GOP House majority, while an important check on the White House, is small and spread across a broad enough ideological spectrum that it will be difficult for potential House speaker Kevin McCarthy, or whoever is ultimately able to win that position, to use the majority to act decisively.
“Simply put, Republicans picked up the votes they needed, just not where they needed them most. Clearly something or someone intervened, affecting the outcome of the election in the places that mattered,” Cook Political Report founder Charlie Cook wrote in November.
Votes at that time were still trickling in from California and Washington, and the margins have thinned, but Cook argued that Republicans’ edge should have gained them 20-30 seats and a larger majority than the 222-212 margin they’re going to have in the House in January. There will be one House vacancy.
Instead of suffering massive losses, Democrats lost a net of nine seats. It cost them the House majority, but at the same time made President Joe Biden appear strong. Presidents usually lose scores of seats in the House.
Republicans’ failure in the Senate has been attributed to poor statewide candidates who were sidetracked by personal issues and former President Donald Trump’s election fantasies.
Republicans aren’t used to this feeling
The GOP frequently, in recent years, gets more power even with fewer votes.
Trump in 2016 and George W. Bush in 2000 both won the White House with fewer votes than their Democratic opponents. Democrats won substantially more votes than Republicans in 2012, when they reelected then-President Barack Obama, but Republicans kept the House majority.
The 2022 midterm is the first election in which Republican candidates got more votes than Democrats since 2014, when the GOP picked up House seats and the Senate majority.
A close election = slim margins in the House and Senate
Not everyone in a congressional district can vote, and not everyone did.
There was extremely good turnout in certain states, like Georgia, which featured hotly contested Senate and governor’s races and set records for midterm turnout, according to the state’s top election official, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger.
Turnout was down in places like California, which featured statewide races that were not so hotly contested. The California Secretary of State’s office pegs turnout at 50.8% of voters, far below the more than 64% turnout it reported in the last midterm in 2018, but above the 42% turnout in 2014.
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Frustrations at the state level too
Republicans can also be frustrated that they failed to gain control of any new state legislatures.
On the one hand, it’s a historic failure by Republicans – the first midterm election since 1900 when the party out of power nationally did not gain control of at least one state chamber, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
On the other hand, Republicans still control a majority of state houses after focusing on making gains in state politics for the past decade-plus. Republicans will still control both legislative houses in 27 states, compared with Democrats, who will control both houses in 19.
Fewer Americans overall voted
The overall US turnout rate for the 2022 midterm was 46.8% of the voting eligible population, according to the US Elections Project, which is run by the political scientist Michael McDonald at the University of Florida.
That’s down from more than 50% in 2018, but well above the 36.7% recorded by the project in 2014.
There is going to be a lot of debate about how controversial voting laws in key states like Georgia and Texas may have kept some people from voting. Read more on that from CNN’s Fredreka Schouten, who covers voting rights.
In a separate report, CNN’s Edward-Isaac Dovere notes that Black voter turnout was down in 2022, which has alarmed Democratic operatives as they look ahead to the coming presidential election.
The New York Times analyst Nate Cohn wrote this week that turnout was much higher in predominantly White areas than it was in predominantly Black and Hispanic areas. This could explain how Republicans got so many more votes without getting many more House seats. In many states, redistricting can clump like voters together, creating safe districts.
Split tickets are a thing
It’s also important to note here that while American voters have gotten more tribal in recent years, split-ticket voting is an important feature of the system.
More voters chose Republicans in House races, but a lot of voters supported both parties on their ballots.
Georgia, most notably, picked a Republican governor and a Democratic senator. But it wasn’t the only state to do so – Vermont, New Hampshire and Nevada also chose Democratic senators and a Republican governor.
Maryland and Massachusetts went the other direction in 2022, replacing Republican governors with Democrats to match their senators. Kansas and Wisconsin chose Republican senators and Democratic governors.
The national popular vote is an interesting side note, but doesn’t mean much, as Republicans will tell you this year.