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Democrats should worry less about Trump and more about the House and Senate

Democratic House Leader Nancy Pelosi Holds Her Weekly News Conference
Nancy Pelosi will quite possibly be gerrymandered out of the Speakership.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

Heading into Election Day, Donald Trump has a nonzero chance of becoming president, with FiveThirtyEight’s influential model putting him at 30.5 percent. That, naturally, has many liberals freaking out: How could this guy be within striking distance of becoming president, even if he’s not favored?

It’s a fair point — Trump is a genuinely terrifying candidate. But Democrats’ freakout shouldn’t end with the presidential race. The overwhelming focus on the presidency risks drowning out other dangers the party faces, threats that have much greater odds of actually happening than a Trump win.

For instance, Democrats’ odds of retaking the Senate are much lower than their odds of winning the presidency. At the high end, HuffPost Pollster gives them 91 percent odds; but the New York Times’s Upshot is at 56 percent, and FiveThirtyEight is at 46.2 percent — meaning Nate Silver’s model projects a Republican hold is likelier. That leaves much more room for a Republican Senate hold than it does for a Trump win. With control of the Supreme Court on the line, and the possibility that Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s seat remains permanently unfilled should Republicans hold the Senate, that should have Democrats worried.

Even worse is the situation in the House. It appears possible, even likely, that Democrats will, as they did in 2012, win the popular vote but lose the chamber due to extreme Republican gerrymandering. Analyst Stephen Wolf looked at the presidential results district by district and found that Mitt Romney won more districts than Obama — despite losing the ultimate election.

Wolf also drew nonpartisan maps for the 2012 race, using the same criteria that California's nonpartisan redistricting commission uses, and found that Democrats would have retaken the House that year if nonpartisan maps were used. They’d lose seats in Democratic-gerrymandered states like Illinois and Maryland, but Republican gerrymandering is much more common (since the party controlled more legislatures during the last redistricting), so Democrats would gain on net.

Reversing that kind of gerrymandering — either by pushing nonpartisan commissions in states like Ohio and Pennsylvania or by using the courts to do so — is absolutely crucial if Democrats are going to hold federal power again in the near future. Without it, a President Clinton would have more or less no hope of getting most of her social policy agenda through; only bipartisan initiatives like infrastructure spending or immigration reform would be conceivable.

Then there are state-level races. Democrats are getting totally clobbered in state legislatures right now, with only 12 to Republicans’ 30 (eight are split). But this year, about 18 chambers could flip hands: 13 now controlled by Republicans, and five now controlled by Democrats. Colorado, Minnesota, and Washington could go fully blue, giving Democratic governors freer rein. Democrats could lose control of the lower houses in Maine and Kentucky, sacrificing the ability to resist those states' Republican governors. This is big-deal stuff that's been totally overshadowed by Trump.

And then there are governorships. Most of those aren’t even up for election this year — instead they’re up in midterms, when Democratic constituencies like young people, African Americans, Latinos, and low-income whites show up in much lower numbers. In addition to worrying about competitive governors’ races this cycle (like the ones in Missouri, Vermont, New Hampshire, North Carolina, and Indiana), Democrats should be panicking about how to boost their turnout in midterms, or else figuring out ways to realign elections to the presidential schedule, which a minority of states (like Missouri, North Carolina, and Washington) do for governors.

All of this should merit more concern on the part of Democrats. Nervously fretting over Donald Trump is well and good, but he is a pretty clear underdog. They should also spend some time worrying about the fact that the lower down the ballot you go, the worse the party is doing.