The phrase “elections have consequences” is both a cliché and a truism. Some used to say, “It doesn’t really matter who wins” a particular election, but it has been a while since those words have been heard.
The two parties’ ideologies and values have rarely, if ever, stood in such contrast as they do today. A change in party control of an office isn’t a 180-degree change, but it’s not that far off. And the rate of ticket-splitting—casting a ballot for a candidate from one party for one office, but from the other party for another office—is the lowest in almost a century.
According to the incomparable Vital Statistics on Congress by Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein in collaboration with the Campaign Finance Institute’s Michael Malbin, only 26 congressional districts in 2012—6 percent of the House—voted for a presidential candidate from one party and a House candidate from the other. In 2016, it wasn’t much higher with 35 districts, or 8 percent.
The last time there was so little ticket-splitting was in 1920. For 40 years, from 1956 through 1996, the percentages of House districts splitting from the presidential outcomes ranged from 24 percent in 1992 to as high 44 percent in the 1970s. It hit a consistent downward trajectory after 1984, and dropped below 20 percent in 2000 for the first time in 48 years.
While some of this is the byproduct of gerrymandering, much is people voting straight tickets.
While most are simply voting straight party tickets for whichever party they belong or lean to, some are swinging back and forth, voting down the line for candidates of one party in one election, then for the other party in another, punishing any candidate wearing the same color jersey as the person or party they are most mad at.
“Negative partisanship,” partisans hating the leaders and elected officials of the other party more than they love or even like those in their own party, is a new term in politics. It’s arisen with an increase in the nationalization of our elections.
The 2016 election was the first in which every Senate race was won by a candidate who belonged to the party of the presidential candidate who won the state. University of California San Diego political scientist Gary Jacobson points out that five of the six Senate seats that changed parties in 2018 went for the party that won the state in the 2016 presidential election and that 89 out of 100 senators belong to the same party as that state voted in 2016.
Only nine out of 47 Democrats hold seats in states won by President Trump: Doug Jones (Alabama), Kyrsten Sinema (Arizona), Gary Peters and Debbie Stabenow (Michigan), Jon Tester (Montana), Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Bob Casey (Pennsylvania), Tammy Baldwin (Wisconsin), and Joe Manchin (West Virginia).
Just two Republicans hold Senate seats in states where Hillary Clinton prevailed: Cory Gardner (Colorado) and Susan Collins (Maine), and both are up in 2020.
Cook Political Report House Editor David Wasserman points out that “no House Republican won a district where Trump won less than 45 percent of the vote, and no Democrat flipped a district where Trump took more than 55 percent of the vote.” Only on House Democrat, 15-termer Collin Peterson of Minnesota, represents a district that gave Trump more than 55 percent.
While one could argue cause or effect, it does suggest there is an increased explosiveness in politics today. Keeping in mind that Democrats held House majorities for 40 consecutive years starting in 1954, and controlled the Senate for 34 out of those 40 years, that period of stability is long gone.
Republican pollster Glen Bolger points out that the House has now changed parties—to the party out of power in the White House—under four consecutive presidents: Bill Clinton (1994) George W. Bush (2006), Barack Obama (2010) and Donald Trump (2018), all in midterm elections.
The Senate has flipped In five out of the last seven presidencies: Jimmy Carter (1980), Ronald Reagan (1986), Clinton (1994), George W. Bush (2006), and Obama (2014). Republicans didn’t have the Senate to lose in George H.W. Bush’s single term, and so far Trump has held onto the Senate.
Four out of the five Senate flips were in midterm elections. In 1980, Carter’s 10-point loss to Reagan cost Democrats the Senate, and while the party retained the House, it lost 34 seats for a far narrower 243-192 majority. The previous time that a substantial House shift occurred in a presidential year was in 1964, when President Lyndon Johnson beat Sen. Barry Goldwater by 23 points.
Partisanship is not only very potent, it has become highly combustible. While there are fewer swing states and districts, the ones that are have become quite swingy, which is one reason why this upcoming election is so pivotal. For both better and worse, Trump is a highly polarizing figure, one that casts a long shadow that helps his party in some areas and hurts in others.
So, we can study historical patterns as we analyze 2020, but it’s good to remember that there is no precedent for a Donald Trump.