Politically Uncorrected: The Decline of Ticket Splitting & Why It Matters

ballotIn electoral politics, the things that most matter are too frequently obscured by the things that most entertain. This isn’t new or novel in American political campaigns where the raw, sensational and gaudy often eclipse the sober, serious and consequential for the attention of the electorate.

Thus in 2016, media attention and voter focus has alternated between the circus like nomination battle being waged by national Republicans and the soap opera drama sponsored by national Democrats.

What will the Donald say next? Can the son of a Cuban father born in Canada grow up to be president some day? Is Hillary really to blame for Bill’s behavior? Should Bernie answer any more questions about Bill’s behavior?

The future, if not the survival, of the nation rests on these and other weighty questions of similar merit.

Or not!

More realistically, on these and similar questions might rest the fate of TV ratings – and not much more.

That trivia and trash dominate our national presidential election dialogue is more a symptom of a problem than the underlying problem itself. Substance is absent from our politics because our politics no longer confronts substance – indeed no longer can confront substance.

Instead, we’ve become a nation of ideologically driven, politically polarized partisans who increasingly eschew the bargaining and compromise that have historically lubricated politics. Not only are moderates gone from American politics; moderation is gone as well.

Nothing illustrates this better or explains this more fully than the enormous decrease in ticket splitting.

Ticket splitting in presidential elections, a norm in American elections since World War II, is the act of voting for the presidential nominee of one political party while also voting for one or more congressional nominees of a different party.

According to the American National Election Study, ticket splitting in presidential elections dropped to a record low in the 2012 presidential election. In virtually every election cycle, fewer and fewer voters split their ticket. A Pew Foundation study in 2014 estimated that at least eight of 10 voters are now voting a straight ticket.

Historically this represents a revolution in voting behavior. As recently as the presidential election of 1972, more than four of every ten congressional districts (44 percent) could be characterized as ticket splitters – voting for one party’s candidate for president and one or more candidates of the other party for the U.S. Senate or House of Representatives.

That number has now dropped to about 1-in-20 House districts that show vote split results (5 percent). That decline represents almost a century low for ticket splitting. One has to go back to 1920 and the election of Warren Harding to discover a lower percentage of ticket splitting (3.2 percent).

Moreover, the swing away from ticket splitting marks a consistent downward trend line covering the past 44 years, encompassing eleven presidential elections – the sole exception being the 2000 election. For every eight voters who split their ticket in 1972, just one voter did so in 2012. In the same period, the number of congressional districts recording split results between the top of the ticket and so-called down ticket races declined precipitously – from 190 districts in 1984 to just 25 districts in 2012.

The raw numbers make explicit how enormous the decline in ticket splitting has been. There are 435 members in the House of Representatives.  Only 26 of them represent districts won by the presidential candidate of the other party. So, only nine Democrats won in districts also won by Republican Mitt Romney, while only 17 Republicans won in districts also won by Democrat Barack Obama.

No crystal ball is necessary to foresee where the trends in ticket splitting are taking us. If the decline documented above continues into 2016 we may see a virtual demise of ticket splitting – even among independent voters.  This is pregnant with implications for American politics.

In the upcoming 2016 presidential election, even narrow victories of a few points in many states will mean that some if not all of statewide candidates including U.S. Senate races will be determined by the top of the ticket. Even close races at the top of the ticket may sweep in many down-ticket candidates.

Democrats defending only 10 of the 34 Senate seats up for grabs in 2016 need only win five seats if they fail to capture the presidency. Consequently, there is going to be intense pressure brought upon presidential campaigns in both parties to remain competitive in as many states as possible. Already high profile Senate races in key states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, New Hampshire, Nevada, Wisconsin and Florida are being scrutinized for the effect presidential nominees will have on competitive contests.

But the decline of ticket splitting casts a long shadow that spills far beyond the 2016 election – auguring not well for the health of our democracy. Straight ticket voting produces elections that only increase the virulent polarization infecting our politics.  Worse perhaps, it undercuts ever further the compromise and accommodation so central to our intricate governmental system of checks and balances – inevitably unleashing more of the divisive and dysfunctional governance that increasingly alienates American voters from their government.

January 22nd, 2016 | Posted in Congress, Features, Front Page Stories, Presidential, Top Stories | 9 Comments

9 thoughts on “Politically Uncorrected: The Decline of Ticket Splitting & Why It Matters”

  1. Parts Mike says:

    California – where two candidates from the same party are the only ones on the ballot.

  2. TRUMP WINS says:

    Both parties screw the public all the elected class want to do is take money from people so that they can stay in office their whole life . A serious revolution is needed in the USA to take back or country from the Greed and averis of The Elected Class and The Mega Corporations that keep on Shifting the Jobs off shore . You People in power better start to understand that we the people are coming for you with our Pitch Forks

  3. Brad Kirsch says:

    May I suggest that this approach to ticket splitting as being good is not realistic at this time. And the times dictate the needs we have no just social philosophies made to explain the needs of the people to have ticket splitting.

    The present congress remains as gerrymandered toward one party in districts from the 2010 election.

    The recent congress’s have been blocking legislation and losing lead time needed, in my opinion, to adapt our governments infrastructure growth and/or renewal in vital areas of public concern stretching from climate abatement to modernized transportation and electrical grids that would benefit long term business growth and adequate water systems for this nations growth of our superior biospheres.

    Thus, we live in a world where the President even after being elected is increasingly unable to get a coherent set of programs and is merely a focus of frustration used by the
    general electorate to no better purpose that jawboning our futures because no matter who is elected they can’t do anything because or ticket splitting!

    I suggest that the Party system needs to articulate the will of their members in platforms that they hold their party candidates and officials to accomplishing and also be able to elect or reject congress more on the acceptance or rejection of a specified and Party platform. This would also allow congress’s to negotiate around issues of concern rather then obfuscations based on feelings of entitlement or victimization.

    I believe the writers have taken a position of a philosophical nature rather than recognizing that our political process has been slowed to a dangerous degree relative to this nations ability to function in real time to really serious events.

  4. steventodd says:

    Sorry, I left off the first line below:

    If indeed “we’ve become a nation of ideologically driven, politically polarized partisans,” and we are a sovereign people, it sounds like we need more than just two suspiciously (eerily, on the big issues) similar teams that don’t address anything of substance to us.

    Surely that would improve “the act of voting for the presidential nominee of one political party while also voting for one or more congressional nominees of a different party.”

    “The virulent polarization infecting our politics” is of, by and for We The People. If only we were allowed to better exercise it, we might also get more ticket splitting.

  5. steventodd says:

    partisans,” and we are a sovereign people, it sounds like we need more than just two suspiciously (eerily, on the big issues) similar teams that don’t address anything of substance to us.

    Surely that would improve “the act of voting for the presidential nominee of one political party while also voting for one or more congressional nominees of a different party.”

    “The virulent polarization infecting our politics” is of, by and for We The People. If only we were allowed to better exercise it, we might also get more ticket splitting.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Ticket splitting is more of a characteristic of Democratic voters. As the writers note, almost twice as many Republicans represent districts won by Obama as districts represented by Democrats won by Romney. Surveys have consistently shown for the past 9 presidential elections that GOP voters stick with their presidential candidates at a significantly higher rate than Democratic voters. And 2014 proves the point. PA Democrats voted heavily for Wolf with exceptionally high turnout in an off year and some gave their votes to down ticket Rs. Only in lightly populated central Pa did Corbett lose R voters and many of those Rs plunked rather than vote for the Democrat. Rollo is right.

  7. Nm says:

    Gerrymandering, duh.
    Look at ticket splitting down the ballot and then write an article.

  8. Rollo thomassey says:

    Republicans wouldn’t get elected to anything if Democrats didn’t split their tickets. Between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia lies…the universal constant. Alabama is a nice place to visit but even Forrest Gump ran away…often.

  9. South Pittsburgh Voter says:

    2014 shows us that ticket splitting is alive and well.

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