31,751 Votes: How Close Races Decide the Battle for the House

by Jacob Rubashkin December 17, 2020 · 1:53 PM EST

More than 158 million voters cast ballots in the November election. And while Joe Biden won the Electoral College (by a margin Republicans called a landslide four years ago) and Democrats maintained control of the House, the emerging narrative is one of Republican resurgence and resilience down the ballot after the party made unexpected gains in the House and successfully defended nearly all of its vulnerable Senate seats.

A closer examination of House results, however, reveals how precariously that narrative rests on just a relative handful of votes, a fraction of a fraction of the total ballots cast nationwide. Small shifts in either direction could have resulted in substantial changes in outcome (and the overall narrative), to either party’s benefit.

The Edge of Seventeen
The GOP fell short of reclaiming the House majority by just 31,751 votes. More than 152 million votes were cast in House races this year.  

Republicans needed a net gain of 17 seats. They won 10, and may net another two (Iowa’s 2nd and New York’s 22nd), where their candidates cling to slim leads but are fending off challenges from their Democratic opponents. 

If those results stand, Republicans will be five seats shy of a majority. In the five closest races won by Democrats, the Republican candidates lost by a combined 31,751 votes.

Of those five races, three were in districts targeted by both parties: New Jersey’s 7th, Iowa’s 3rd, and Virginia’s 7th. But the other two, Illinois’ 14th and Texas’ 15th, were not considered to be competitive. 

The closeness of both races reflects two important takeaways from the 2020 election.

In times of extreme polarization, individual candidate quality matters less than the partisan lean of the district. In Illinois’ 14th, Democratic Rep. Lauren Underwood was far better funded and more well-regarded as a campaigner than her opponent, GOP state Sen. Jim Oberweis, who had lost six high-profile races for Senate, governor, and Congress heading into this election.

But Joe Biden only carried this district 50-48 percent, winning 203,744 votes, and Underwood did not outperform him, winning 203,209 votes and defeating Oberweis 50.7-49.3, a margin of just 5,374 votes.

Texas’ 15th, a nailbiter truly out of left field, threw Biden’s struggles with Latino voters into stark relief in addition to also illustrating the importance of partisan lean over individual candidate strength. Biden won this district just 50-48 percent, with 120,031 votes to Trump’s 115,200 votes, after Hillary Clinton carried it 57-40 percent in 2016 with 104,454 votes to Trump’s 73,689. Down the ballot, two-term Democratic incumbent Vicente Gonzalez won it by just 3 points, 51-48 percent, after winning in his two previous elections by more than 20 points. He earned 115,605 votes to Republican Monica De La Cruz-Hernandez’s 109,017.

Missed Opportunities for Democrats
Democrats, who had expected to pick up as many as 14 seats this cycle, came nowhere near that mark. But they were not so far away from breaking even, a result that would have substantially altered post-election narratives.

The combined margin of the 12 closest races won by Republicans (including Iowa’s 2nd and New York’s 22nd) was 59,590 votes. Again, that is out of more than 152 million cast for House candidates nationwide.

Moreover, the closest races of the cycle all appear to have broken decisively against Democrats. Of the 10 races decided by the fewest votes, Republicans won or hold leads in eight.

Democrats also lost the seven closest races of the cycle; their narrowest hold was New Jersey’s 7th, with a margin of 5,311 votes, while Republicans won or lead seven races by thinner margins. 

And this analysis does not even count the 15 races viewed as competitive up until Election Day that Republicans won by more than 10 points.

The Historical Picture
While Republicans are poised to run the table in the closest of close 2020 races, the larger picture is more nuanced. There were 37 races where the margin of victory was less than 5 points; Democrats won 19 of them, while Republicans took 18. And of the 74 races decided by 10 points or less, Democrats won 38 to Republicans’ 36.

That level of parity is consistent with House results from 2018, 2016, and 2014. 

In 2018, when Democrats picked up 40 seats, House races with a margin under 10 points split 48-40 for the GOP, while races within 5 points split 23-20 for the GOP. Republicans also won six of eight races where the margin was under 1 percent, and six of the 10 races decided by the fewest votes.

In 2016, when Democrats gained six seats, the 32 races with margins under 10 percent split evenly, 16-16, though the 15 races with sub-5 percent margins broke 10-5 in favor of Democrats. Of the 10 races decided by the fewest votes, Republicans and Democrats each won five, while Republicans won four of 10 contests with the narrowest percent margin, including two of three with sub-1 percent margins.

In 2014, even as Democrats lost 13 seats, they won 31 of the 45 races decided by 10 percent or less, and 14 of the 22 races decided by 5 points or less. Republicans won just three of the 10 closest races (both by absolute vote and percent margins).

And in 2012, as President Barack Obama won re-election and Democrats gained eight seats in the House, there were 59 races within 10 percent. Democrats won 32, and Republicans won 27. Of the 29 races within 5 percent, Democrats won 17 to the GOP’s 12. Of the 10 races decided by the fewest votes, the two parties split evenly, but in the six races under 1 percent, Democrats won four to Republicans’ two.

Despite 2014 being a bad year for House Democrats, they still won a clear majority of close races. Likewise, Republicans won a majority of close races in 2018 despite suffering heavy losses overall. This indicates that wave years and winning close races don’t necessarily go hand in hand. It may even suggest that (at least those two) wave years had the potential to be even larger, given the number of close calls won by the party on its heels.

So while Democrats suffered an unusually high number of heartbreakers in 2020, the distribution of close races (those with margins under 5 percent and 10 percent) remained similar to previous years this decade, little consolation that is to the seven Democratic candidates who each lost by a hair.

In Conclusion
In the event anyone needed a post-2000 reminder that every vote counts, 2020 has delivered in spades: the week spent anxiously awaiting the counting of absentee ballots that decided the presidential race in crucial swing states, and the two congressional races where candidates are separated by fewer than 100 votes, including one by fewer than 10.

And a difference of 31,571 votes in one direction, or 59,590 votes in the other (a mere Rose Bowl full of voters) could have had an outsized impact not just on the majority and the post-election narrative but in the governing of the country over the next two years.