US Senate numbers and the ‘small state effect’

Posted as comment on Real Clear Politics site, December 2020

There have recently been views expressed by some left-wing commentators that the Republican numbers in the Senate are artificially inflated due to the number of small (by population) states where both senators are Republican. Analysis of the numbers, however, does not bear this out.

We can determine whether a state is ‘small’ by looking at the number of House members it has. There are 14 states which have three or fewer House members. Of these, Montana, Maine and West Virginia are split, with one senator from each party. These three can, in effect, be removed from analysis.

Of the remaining 11, there are five – Alaska, Idaho, North Dakota, Wyoming, and South Dakota – where both senators are Republican. There are six – Delaware, Hawaii, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Rhode Island, and Vermont – where both senators are Democrats.

It is true that the Republicans do well in the small mid-western states. But this is offset by the Democrats doing well in the New England region (counting Bernie Sanders as a Democrat). The only Republican senator in New England is Susan Collins in Maine (the other Maine senator, Angus King, can be classed as a Democrat, on the basis of his voting record). So it is the Democrats, not the Republicans, who have an advantage from the ‘small state’ effect, although it is not great.

At the other end of the size scale, looking at states that have 15 or more House members, and can therefore be classified as ‘large states’, the Democrats have both senators from California (which has 53 Representatives). The Republicans have both senators from Texas (36 Representatives) and from Florida (27 Representatives). New York (also 27 representatives, although Florida is larger on a total population basis) has two Democrat senators. Illinois (18 Representatives) has two Democrat senators, and Ohio (16 Representatives) has two Republicans. Pennsylvania (18 Representatives) has one senator from each party so it can be removed from analysis.

Overall, it might be said that Democrat senators in the six largest states (not counting Pennsylvania) represent more people than Republicans. But it should also be said that California and New York are, according to census data, shrinking in population and are likely to lose a seat, while Texas and Florida are growing and likely to gain.

It should also be noted that the highest-profile Democrat, Joe Biden, represented the state of Delaware in the Senate for 36 years. Delaware can be classified as an ‘ultra small state’; it has only one member in the House of Representatives. Bernie Sanders, the leading light of the socialist left, represents another ‘ultra small state’, Vermont. This is something that commentators of the left might consider when alleging a systemic bias tied to small states and their Senate numbers.

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