The midterm election is behind us and people are frantically scrambling to divine some underlying political message by reading its entrails. Probably the worst take Ive seen is that the system is somehow unfair because the Democrats won the Senate Popular Vote and yet the Republicans gained seats in the Senate. Its an interesting lesson in just how much the rules matter.
I was puzzled when I first saw people writing about the House Popular Vote and the Senate Popular Vote as if they are meaningful and informative. So what if Democratic candidates won more votes than Republican candidates? The rules are what they are, for better or for worse, and with different rules candidates and parties would have pursued different strategies. If vote share mattered, I doubt the Republicans would have let my districtthe seventh district of Alabama, which was actually the subject of a bit of secession chatter in 2010go uncontested.
But it doesnt, and people respond to the incentives in place. This is true in politics just as its true in business, sports, and the rest of life. And with the incentives we have in place, it doesnt matter if you win by one vote or a million votes. The result is the same. Heck, in a Presidential election you dont even have to get a majority of the popular vote as long as you get enough electoral votes.
The fact that (for example) Hillary Clinton won the popular vote in 2016 and the Democrats won the Senate Popular Vote in 2018 is interesting, but its not terribly informative. Imagine a losing football coach at a postgame press conference saying sure, the other team had more points, but we really won because we had more total yards. Imagine the ensuing argument:
But we kicked more field goals!
But we had more time of possession!
Or imagine a sportswriter arguing that while a team won the World Series or NBA Finals or Stanley Cup four games to three, they really lost because the other team scored more points over the seven-game seriesor that sports is fundamentally broken because the team that scores the most points in a season isnt guaranteed the championship. The Boston Red Sox, after all, scored 878 runs and had 1598 hits compared to the Chicago Cubs 808 and 1409 in 2016, after all. Shouldnt the Red Sox have been the 2016 champions of Major League Baseball?
This is all very interesting, no doubt, and total runs and total hits and total points over a series or a season are highly correlated with the probability of winning a championship. By the rules of the relevant games, though, they arent decisive.
Importantly, teams and political parties would change how they play in response to different rules. If total yards decided who won a football game or runs scored over the season determined the champions of Major League Baseball, we would see very different behavior on the field. If the Presidency or composition of the Senate were decided by nati0nwide popular vote, we would see very different behavior on the campaign trail and very different long-run political strategies. Maybe that would be a good thing and maybe the rules should be different, but as it stands a Democratic victory in the Senate Popular Vote is not especially informative.