The Small State Senate Bias

One of the factors that is often overlooked in discussions of the rise of the conservative movment in the past few decades is how this was supported by the way the US constitution was set up to give undue influence to the smaller states. As each state gets the same number of senators, those with smaller population are relatively more important on a per capita basis.

This may not have been too important when the plan was devised, most states at that time were not too large in either size or population and the distortions were not that evident. In the 200+ years since then the country has expanded into unforeseen directions. The results have produced unexpected results.

The most serious of these is the ability of a group of states with small, and most rural, populations to dominate the senate. The table shown below illustrates the effect. It shows the states arranged by population, with the smallest first. The most important columns for our purposes are the rightmost two. Notice that when the cumulative senate seats reaches 50 the cumulative population has only reached 16% (Kentucky). Notice this effect continues even further. By the time we have reached 70 seats we are still only at 34% of the population. The converse of this is that the eight or nine largest states contain about 50% of the population. They are mostly heavily industrialized and contain large cities and, in many cases, fairly large minority populations. Their interests are being under represented.

Within the twenty five states at this point only two (Maryland and Rhode Island) can be considered urban. The rest are primarily rural. So, in effect, rural states with about 1/5 of the population control the senate. Also note the color coding in the first column (red for Republican, blue for Democrat and purple for split party affiliation) for the senators. It is obvious from this that there is not a strong party effect. However, there is an important effect, nevertheless. These smaller, rural states represent the more conservative type of voters. Their concerns are far from those of big city states and the heavily industrialized larger states.

The result is that the political viewpoint has drifted rightward over the past twenty five years. One could argue that these states always had this power. This is true, but early in the 20th century, these states were rural farm states. Many of their citizens were directly involved in agriculture. They tended to side with, or at least sympathize with, the Progressive movement. So they also found themselves allied with industrial workers against the "trusts." The result of this commonality of interests was the passage of much of the progressive social legislation of the time.

Since then the family farm has essentially disappeared. Thus, those remaining in rural areas are no longer populists. The farms that remain are primarily big, corporate enterprises, and support the same sorts of policies as do those in other large industries. The result of this demographic shift is that the interests of the common man are overwhelmed by the power of corporatism in states representing a tiny fraction of the population.

The conclusion to be drawn from this is, that if progressives are to regain political power, they will need to find a way to overcome the institutional bias against their interests. Even Democrats from many of the smaller states take pro-business positions; that is where they get their funding for their political campaigns. There is no way to alter this built-in electoral distortion, so any progressive movement will have to find a way to shift the dynamics of the senatorial elections towards more progressive candidates. This means finding progressives who are willing to run for office and then finding enough financial support for them to be able to run an effective campaign in spite of the expected opposition from the moneyed interests.

With the popular vote in the country pretty evenly divided, the undue influence of the smaller states means that small changes in state elections can tip the senate to the Republicans. The Republican party knows this and can put the effort into influencing small-state elections at a much lower cost than a campaign in a larger state. The seats one wins are just as useful, however.

The progressives have their work cut out for them if they are going to change the political dynamics. Replacing Republicans won't be enough, they need to go after the "Republican-Lite" Democrats as well.

Senate Seats vs Population

State Name Population 2004 Population Rank Cumulative Population Cumulative Senate Seats Cumulative Pop %
Wyoming 506529 50 506529 2 0.17%
Vermont 621394 49 1127923 4 0.38%
North Dakota 634366 48 1762289 6 0.60%
Alaska 655435 47 2417724 8 0.82%
South Dakota 770883 46 3188607 10 1.09%
Delaware 830364 45 4018971 12 1.37%
Montana 926865 44 4945836 14 1.69%
Rhode Island 1080632 43 6026468 16 2.06%
Hawaii 1262840 42 7289308 18 2.49%
New Hampshire 1299500 41 8588808 20 2.93%
Maine 1317253 40 9906061 22 3.38%
Idaho 1393262 39 11299323 24 3.86%
Nebraska 1747214 38 13046537 26 4.45%
West Virginia 1815354 37 14861891 28 5.07%
New Mexico 1903289 36 16765180 30 5.72%
Nevada 2334771 35 19099951 32 6.52%
Utah 2389039 34 21488990 34 7.33%
Kansas 2735502 33 24224492 36 8.26%
Arkansas 2752629 32 26977121 38 9.20%
Mississippi 2902966 31 29880087 40 10.19%
Iowa 2954451 30 32834538 42 11.20%
Connecticut 3503604 29 36338142 44 12.40%
Oklahoma 3523553 28 39861695 46 13.60%
Oregon 3594586 27 43456281 48 14.83%
Kentucky 4145922 26 47602203 50 16.24%
South Carolina 4198068 25 51800271 52 17.67%
Louisiana 4515770 24 56316041 54 19.21%
Alabama 4530182 23 60846223 56 20.76%
Colorado 4601403 22 65447626 58 22.33%
Minnesota 5100958 21 70548584 60 24.07%
Wisconsin 5509026 20 76057610 62 25.95%
Maryland 5558058 19 81615668 64 27.85%
Arizona 5743834 18 87359502 66 29.81%
Missouri 5754618 17 93114120 68 31.77%
Tennessee 5900962 16 99015082 70 33.78%
Washington 6203788 15 105218870 72 35.90%
Indiana 6237569 14 111456439 74 38.03%
Massachusetts 6416505 13 117872944 76 40.22%
Virginia 7459827 12 125332771 78 42.76%
North Carolina 8541221 11 133873992 80 45.67%
New Jersey 8698879 10 142572871 82 48.64%
Georgia 8829383 9 151402254 84 51.66%
Michigan 10112620 8 161514874 86 55.11%
Ohio 11459011 7 172973885 88 59.01%
Pennsylvania 12406292 6 185380177 90 63.25%
Illinois 12713634 5 198093811 92 67.59%
Florida 17397161 4 215490972 94 73.52%
New York 19227088 3 234718060 96 80.08%
Texas 22490022 2 257208082 98 87.75%
California 35893799 1 293101881 100 100.00%
Total
293101881





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Copyright © 2005 Robert D Feinman
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