It’s become an oddity in an era of bitter partisanship. The voter who will vote for a candidate with a D next to his/her name and an R next to his/her name. They’re ticket-splitters and they have become less and less common in the new millennium. But, they are far from extinct. Yet, with Trump sinking in the polls and North Carolina, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania competitive the GOP will need these voters more than ever.
According to RCP, Clinton holds a 5 point lead in Pennsylvania, a narrower lead in North Carolina and a 3-4 point edge in New Hampshire. While it is true Clinton leads in Florida, Marco Rubio seems to have the race well in hand suggesting he is winning over suburban whites and Cuban-Americans in much greater numbers than Trump. In the prior 3 states, Republican Senators are swimming against the tide.
Not so long ago voters commonly split their tickets at every level. When Republicans dominated the White House from 1968-1988 they held the Senate for only 2 years and never held the House. While the South was voting for Nixon, Reagan and HW they also supported Democratic Governors and supermajority Democratic legislatures. That time has faded into the dim memory of history.
Since Republicans took control of Congress in 1994 and Democrats have won 4 of the last 6 presidential elections ticket splitting has become rarer. True, divided government has been around more often than not but that is often because of the ebb and flow of politics. Fewer voters are actually shifting their voting preferences. Instead, Democratic voters only show up in large numbers in Presidential elections. Still, there are ticket-splitters and that gives the GOP hope.
The polls bear this out. In New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida, GOP candidates are outperforming Trump by various margins. In Nevada, Joe Heck is running the strongest GOP campaign of any non-incumbent in a blue leaning state. Still, there is a direct correlation between how Trump does in the polls and how these Senate candidates, especially Ayotte (NH) and Toomey (PA) do. At what point does a Clinton margin of victory become insurmountable for these candidates?
The question is hard to answer but until recently Republicans had hatched an escape plan for their candidates. Ditch Trump and talk about being a check on Clinton. While candidates are certainly talking about checks and balances they do not directly reference it in such a way to assume a Trump loss.
For Republicans fretting there are few ticket splitters left they should find some relief in that recent history shows they exist in greater numbers than initially thought. Recently, in 2012, 10 percent of the voters who backed Scott Walker in his recall election also supported Barack Obama in November. That November, we saw an inordinate amount of split-ticket voting. Mitt Romney won Missouri, Montana, West Virginia, North Dakota and Indiana. All five states elected Democrats to the Senate. Nevada narrowly elected a GOP Senator while voting for Obama.
It is true that ticket-splitting dropped in 2014. According to a WashPo analysis less than 1-8 voters split their tickets for Senate and House. Fewer House districts than ever are splitting their tickets for President and Congress. It should be mentioned midterms often feature less ticket-splitting than presidential elections historically.
Republican Senators are thus doing better than Trump not just because they are winning more Republican partisans than their candidate but also because they are actually finding and appealing to these rare voters. They’ve done it in various ways. In Pennsylvania, Pat Toomey has embraced background checks on firearms. In New Hampshire, Kelly Ayotte has supported climate change action by the President. Rob Portman has embraced federal funding to fight the opioid epidemic, Marco Rubio supported Zika funding legislation and Joe Heck supports the DREAM Act.
In an ironic twist of fate, the Democrats path to a majority in the Senate may also hinge on ticket-splitters. If Democratic candidates fall short in Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and New Hampshire, or Heck wins in Nevada, Democrats would need to look for victories in red Indiana and Missouri. While they have solid candidates in both the trend for Bayh in Indiana has been down and Republicans are set to spend millions in Missouri.
Despite their small numbers split-ticket voters could determine the fate of the GOP’s grip on power in Congress. And perhaps. the Presidency.