In 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.
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.