Contrary to popular opinion, split ticket voting is far from dead. The news should hearten Republicans tenuously defending several state legislatures in blue (NY State Senate) or purple states (Colorado Senate), a slim Senate majority hinging on purple state Senators and the largest House majority the party has had since 1928.
Admittedly, split-ticket voting has declined significantly over the years, especially at the federal level. From 1954 to 1994 Democrats held the US House of Representatives (20 elections). But over that period Republicans won 6 of 10 Presidential elections. Additionally, the Senate constantly flipped between the parties during this time period. But, in 2008, only a single GOP Senator won their contest in a state Obama carried. By the time the 2014 election dust had settled, only five Democrats sat in districts Obama carried and only 25 Republicans sat in Obama districts. Most notably, not a single Democratic Senator or candidate won their contests in a state Romney carried two years earlier.
This phenomenon has even filtered down into state legislative contests. Take as an example the North Carolina legislature. It has possessed a Democratic legislature for over a century (since Reconstruction actually) yet the state has voted for a Republican for President every time but once between 1968 and 2012; and elected GOP Governors and Senators. Yet, in 2010, along with many other Southern states, voters elected a GOP legislative majority for the first time in generations.
This shift has bolstered Democratic arguments that the Senate is theirs for the taking this year. If fewer voters are willing to split their tickets then the logic goes that many GOP Senators sitting in Obama states are dead incumbents walking. Yet, so far, we have not seen such a trend. It is true that Ron Johnson in WI and Mark Kirk in IL are losing, yet Marco Rubio leads in Florida and Rob Portman is running away in Ohio. In New Hampshire and Pennsylvania, GOP incumbents are running neck-and-neck with their challengers. Such results suggest that split-ticket voting is far from dead.
Indeed, for all the talk of the death of split-ticket voting, many proponents of this belief overlook the obvious massive caveats. Popular former elected state officials can overcome these headwinds and an unpopular opponent helps a lot. Take the examples of 2010 and 2012’s victorious Democratic Senate candidates.
Joe Manchin, now the senior Senator from West Virginia, was a former Governor of the state who opted to run for Robert Byrd’s seat when he passed. Running against a well-funded challenger, Manchin won a special election in 2010 and than won a full term in 2012 by outrunning the President by 24 percent. In 2012, a litany of Democratic Senators in Missouri, Montana, West Virginia and a Republican in Nevada were in serious danger. Not a single one lost. Indiana even flipped from red to blue due to a weak Republican defeating an incumbent. Claire McCaskill in MO had the honor of crushing an opponent by 16 percent in a state the President lost by 10. Jon Tester in MT managed to win his state by winning 11 percent more of the popular vote than the President. Finally, Dean Heller won a squeaker in NV in a state the President carried by 6.
True, most voters cast their ballots for one party. The majority of Senate incumbents and challengers of the Presidential nominee who carries their state win. But, most incumbents win regardless. That is like saying water can be hot or cold. It’s also true the number of true swing voters is shrinking, A wealth of research has shown most Independents behave as closet-partisans.
Still, even partisans or closet-partisans can split their ballots. Governors and state legislators can campaign on non-partisan issues changing the lens through which voters decide their vote. Congressmen & women and Senators can win votes through strong constituency services and carving out a niche for themselves via special efforts (Feingold-Campaign Finance, Warren-Wall Street reform). These factors all help explain why split-ticket voting is not dead.
But most important of all are that voters are not always rational and every election is unique. Essentially, voters can be driven to vote a certain way for a candidate on social or fiscal issues even when they side with another party or candidate on the rest of the issues if the factors driving the election are unique enough.
Whether 2016 is one of those unique elections, whether it can save the Senate Republican majority and whether it damages the Democrats 2018 chances are open questions. But we know one thing. Split-ticket voting is far from dead.