Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Did 2016 Kill Ticket-Splitting?

One of the stranger things that happened, with the Associated Press now officially having called New Hampshire, one week ago today was that for the first time since the passage of the 17th Amendment, ticket-splitting between presidential candidates and senators didn't exist.  Not one state that Donald Trump won went for a Democratic senator, and not one state that went for Hillary Clinton went for a Republican senator.  In over 100 years, that's never happened.  While there has frequently been a comorbidity between the two, there have always been stragglers-popular Republican incumbents in New England or longtime stalwarts in the South, but no longer.  The question here is-what does that mean for an increasingly polarized country?

It's worth noting that this was not expected (it's also worth noting that nothing about this election was expected).  Most people assumed that we'd get some combination of a Clinton win in Florida, but a loss in the Senate, or perhaps Donald Trump would emerge victorious in Indiana, but the Democrats would get a victory for Evan Bayh.  But this might make more sense than you'd think, quite frankly.  Increasingly we have, as voters, easier access to what our federal officials do, and our federal officials are more-and-more likely to stick with the party line.  Gone are the days of someone like a Ben Nelson or a Connie Morella-today's moderates are far, far more prone to support their party than those that would have been considered moderates in the past.  It would make sense that if Washington starts to function more in the vein of a parliamentary system that American voters would begin to reflect that, rewarding straight-ticket voting.

But it's still note-worthy, and something that could have profound ramifications, particularly for Democrats, who start inherently with a disadvantage in the US Senate thanks to a number of hard-red states in the South and Rocky Mountain region that give them a number of senators that don't have nearly the population ramifications of, say, California or New York, which have in some cases 20x the populations of a Wyoming or a Mississippi, but have an equal number of senators.  This is why, in the past, the Democrats have been so reliant upon southern moderates to fill up their chamber in order to achieve a majority.

This is also why it's unlikely the Democrats regain the majority in 2018, and will struggle with 2020 unless they can reinvent the map.  We don't know quite yet if 2016 was a fluke in states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, all states that have traditionally been solid Democratic states, or if Trump opened up a path to turn this region into the next "South," but it's a question Democrats will need to answer soon as they have incumbents up for reelection in these states in two years.  The Democrats have a hauntingly large number of seats to defend in 2018, with 25 seats up for reelection, and ten of them being in states that Donald Trump just won (assuming his lead holds in Michigan), with only one GOP seat (Dean Heller in Nevada) being a Clinton state, and only two more Republicans in states she won by less than ten points (Jeff Flake and Ted Cruz).  The Democrats will have a slight traditional advantage in the form of presidential midterms usually favoring the party out of power, but that doesn't always hold-Democrats with longer memories will recall that in 2002 President Bush won back the Senate in a very rough election for the left, in particular besting incumbents in states like Missouri and Georgia that he had just won that previous cycle.  This is part of why the Democrats felt so defeated after Tuesday-they desperately needed a good showing in 2016 to have any say in what happens in the country in the next four years.

All of this could, of course, be an anomaly.  While the end results are the same across the board, there are still differences in the margins attained by candidates this cycle.  Hillary Clinton, for example, lost Wisconsin by less than a point, while Ron Johnson won by a more comfortable four; 27,000 votes (a pittance in a state that size) could easily have disrupted this mirror image.  And there are bigger differences in states that weren't necessarily as close as Wisconsin.  John McCain, for example, ran eight points ahead of Donald Trump in Arizona, and Marco Rubio ran seven points ahead of Trump in Florida.  Most staggering of all is Missouri, where Jason Kander was 16-points ahead of Hillary Clinton, and it says something about how badly she underperformed with working class white voters that still wasn't enough for him to end up the victor in that state.  Additionally, House races (which are also looking more and more likely to mirror the top of the ticket) still had anomalies like Collin Peterson winning a district that went solidly for Trump, though even Peterson struggled this past cycle, which is a-characteristic.

These lend support to nervous incumbents like Claire McCaskill, Heidi Heitkamp, and Bill Nelson looking at their reelection prospects in two years time, but it does appear like the Democrats may need to expand the map for the White House not just to compete in 2020, but also to start making gains in congressional elections.  Stemming losses in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, combined with converting places like Arizona, North Carolina, Florida, and Georgia much more quickly than their current rate, is going to be seen as a crucial in the fight to gain ground in the Senate and the House in coming years.

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