Parliamentary Politics Has Killed Bipartisanship

AW
March 11, 2021

Much of the conversation around bipartisanship (or the lack thereof) is rooted in the belief that it is a product of personal relationships. During the Obama-era, many GOPers blamed the president’s aloofness for the lack of Republican-buy in to his policies. The disdain that Democrats had from day one for President Trump was only deepened by his acerbic Twitter feed. President Biden, meanwhile, came into office as a guy who liked the back-slapping, lapel-grabbing part of the process. He loved building and maintaining cross-party relationships. Yet, his decision to push through a party-line vote on a $1.9T COVID package, plus his record-setting pace of executive actions (he’s issued more executive orders and memorandums than the last three presidents), suggest that his administration is going to be as partisan as the previous two. 

But, what is missing in the diagnosis of the death of bipartisanship, is an appreciation of the structural barriers to compromise. Put simply, voters reward partisan allegiance over ideological or policy consistency. And, that is something that even the best relationship builder in the world is going to be hard-pressed to overcome. 

By now, all of us know that few voters split their tickets. But, seeing the data is quite sobering.

After the 1992 election, for example, there were 103 split-ticket House seats; 53 that voted for George HW Bush and a Democratic member of Congress, and 50 that voted for Bill Clinton and a Republican member of the House. In 1996, there were 109 of those districts - almost all of them Clinton-Republican (Democrats were blown out in the 1994 mid-terms and Clinton rolled up a huge win in 1996). Overall, about one-quarter of the entire House of Representatives represented a split-ticket district.

By 2001, however, that percentage dropped to 20 percent. The 2004 election produced the smallest split-ticket split of the previous 12 years with just 59 CDs (or just 13 percent of the House).

There was a burst of split-ticket voting in 2008 (thanks in part to Democrats’ significant 2006 gains and Obama’s huge win that year), but by 2013, there were just 26 split-ticket districts. 

The 2016 Trump election produced just 35 split-CDs. And, post-2020, there are only 17, or just four percent of the House. 

The drop off in split-ticket voting in Senate races has been even more dramatic. From 1992-2000, voters in 10 to 13 states split their ticket between the presidential candidate of one party and the Senate candidate of the other. By the time we hit the mid-2000’s that had dropped to single digits (seven in 2004 and 2008 and six in 2012). In 2016, no state split their senate and presidential vote. In 2020, just Maine voted for president from one party and a Senate candidate from the other party. 


Split-ticket House and Senate seats


The lack of split-ticket districts and states means that:

  1. The two parties are more ideologically homogeneous than ever
  2. There’s no political bonus or benefit to casting an independent vote. 

For example, after the 2004 election, there were 22 Democrats who sat in districts Bush carried by 10 points or more. Most of them were southern districts represented by folks like Dan Boren in OK-02 (Bush +19) and Gene Taylor in MS-04 (Bush +37). To keep their seats, they needed to prove to voters that they were not ‘national’ Democrats. Plus, and this is a really important thing missing now, voters believed that. 

Today, there are only three Republicans who sit in a district that Biden carried by 10 points or more. All three are in California (CA-21, CA-25 and CA-39). Meanwhile, there are no Democrats who sit in a district Trump won by more than seven points. It’s not just that there are few Republicans for Biden to work with — but there are even fewer Democrats who have to worry about suffering a backlash at home for supporting a Democratic agenda.

When it comes to understanding the breakdown of bipartisanship, it’s not personal, it’s parliamentary.