An electoral wake-up call in New Hampshire
It’s often said that in the United States, every vote counts, but some votes count more than others. In the 2016 presidential election, the 77,000 votes in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin that nudged Donald Trump into the White House counted for quite a lot. But the presidential race wasn’t the only election that year in which a tiny sliver of votes was enormously consequential.
Every year in races across the country, small margins of victory are quickly forgotten because elections, by definition, have only one winner. Their binary nature doesn’t just make it easy to overlook the impact of shockingly small margins. It also obscures just how often history hinges on good fortune and a few key votes.
Take New Hampshire. Barely a thousand votes separated winner from loser in the state’s 2016 U.S. Senate race. That small fraction, though, helped determine the balance of power in the Senate and quite possibly saved the Affordable Care Act. And if Democrats somehow retake the Senate this November, it seems likely they’ll do so with a bare majority — a majority that might have remained a minority but for 1,000 votes in one of the least-populous states in the country two years earlier. It’s a stark reminder of both the precariousness of electoral outcomes and the fact that in politics, these outcomes are clear-cut only in hindsight.
Outside the Granite State, few political observers pay regular attention to first-term senator Maggie Hassan. That’s understandable. She’s 94th in seniority, a reliable vote for the minority party, and giving little indication of seeking the White House in 2020. But Hassan’s role starts to look more significant in the context of how few votes separate her party from the majority — and how much that party’s minority status has allowed an out-of-control president to run roughshod over the norms of American democracy. And her election victory looks a lot different when you consider how close she came to losing it.
In 2016, Hassan, previously a two-term governor, challenged sitting GOP senator Kelly Ayotte in a race that drew national attention, owing in large part to Ayotte’s national profile and her inability to decide how she felt about Trump. Nearly three-quarters of a million people voted in the New Hampshire Senate race. Of those 738,620 votes, Hassan eked out a win by a margin of 1,017 votes — 0.14 percent of all votes cast, and less than one-tenth of one percent of the state’s voting age population at the time.
New Hampshire is not a big state. But its votes in the Senate are just as big as those of Texas or California or Florida. If Ayotte, who had been a fairly reliable GOP vote, is in the Senate last year instead of Hassan, the repeal of the Affordable Care Act probably doesn’t hinge on John McCain’s thumbs-down or Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski’s heroic opposition — because the law is already gone. By that metric, a thousand votes in New Hampshire mark the difference between life and death for some Americans who depend on Obamacare.
This November, it’s possible that a “blue wave” does indeed crash over America, depositing huge Democratic majorities in the House and Senate. It’s also possible that Republican gerrymandering and voter suppression efforts have so rigged the electoral map that the GOP easily retains control of both chambers. There are, of course, plenty of other ways Democrats could come up short, from poor candidates and shoddy campaigns to low turnout. And when it comes to calibrating expectations for Democratic victories in November, we shouldn’t forget just how steep the hill is (or how much interest the media has in making the meaningless appear meaningful).
But it seems likely that control of both houses of Congress will come down to a small number of seats, and that those seats themselves will be decided by a relatively small number of votes. While a single rank-and-file member of the House of Representatives doesn’t affect the chamber as much as an individual senator, the difference between a one-seat Democratic majority and a one-seat Republican majority is just as consequential. It’s hard to overstate the impact of the 2018 midterms on the future of American democracy. That means every race — every vote — matters this fall.
Close races with highly leveraged outcomes exist at every level of government. Last year, control of a seat in Virginia’s House of Delegates — and with it control of the entire chamber — rested on a single vote. As the Washington Post reported, when a “judicial panel declared a tie… officials picked a name out of a bowl to determine a winner,” giving control to Republicans. But the Post later found that “more than two dozen voters — enough to swing the outcome of that race — cast ballots in the wrong district, because of errors by local elections officials.” Any one of those twenty-six votes, out of the roughly 23,000 cast, could have kept control of the House of Delegates from being determined by pure chance.
Not every midterm race will be this close; gerrymandering by both parties and America’s political self-sorting will see to that. But plenty could be, which is why ongoing efforts to fight voter disenfranchisement and mobilize a new generation of voters are so critical. Whether it’s a state-level seat in Virginia, a U.S. Senate race in New Hampshire, or control of the White House itself, a remarkably small number of votes can change the course of history and the lives of people who live many miles, or many time zones, away.
It’s no exaggeration to suggest the Affordable Care Act was saved by a thousand votes in New Hampshire. The margins may be just as small this November, but the stakes are even greater.