Why Joe and Jane Sixpack – and James Madison – Are Likely Pleased With Tuesday’s Results

Bob Johnson, as is his wont, chastises me once again for implicitly suggesting in my previous post that Americans last Tuesday again voted for divided government.  Bob writes, “In fact I suspect that we could and in fact may be getting divided government despite the wish of every voter that the national government be unified — under their party’s leadership, of course.”  In one respect Bob is right, of course; as I should have said more directly in my post, most Americans are not voting for divided government.   However, that is not the same as saying most Americans who voted on Tuesday preferred to have unified government under Democratic control!  (Or Republican control, for that matter.)

It is true that, in the aggregate, Democrat candidates likely won slightly more popular votes in House races than did Republicans. House votes are still being counted, and we need to be careful about counting votes in districts where incumbents from the same party were pitted against each other.  But at this point preliminary numbers suggest that, in the aggregate, Democratic House candidates tallied about 50.3% of the vote to about 49.7% for Republicans, for a margin of about .6% in Democrats’ favor. And, of course, Obama won the popular vote; although the final numbers aren’t in, he’ll likely get close to 51% of the vote.  Not surprisingly, Obama supporters cite these numbers to argue that most Americans voted for unified government under Democratic control.  But this is probably not the case. Consider the National Election Study data regarding split ticket voting in the nine most recent elections to Congress and the Presidency, as summarized in this table:

As you can see, going back to 1976, not once did a majority of voters, at least based on the NES data, vote for unified government under Democratic or Republican control.  Bob is correct, of course, that a strong majority of voters would prefer unified government – if their preferred party was in control. However, there is always a small plurality of voters who, for whatever reason, split their ticket.   And that means a majority of voters typically oppose unified control under the opposition party.

Put another way, the 50.4% of voters who voted for Obama last Tuesday are almost surely not the same 50.3% of voters who voted Democratic in the Congressional race.  Indeed, on average across the last 9 national elections, about 13% of voters have supported the Democratic presidential candidate while voting Republican at the House level.   That percentage has dropped in recent years, as has split-ticket voting more generally, but even if we restrict out analysis to the last four elections, it is still about 8% of voters who split their ticket in this fashion.   Another 10% on average across the last four elections have opted for the Republican presidential candidate but supported a Democrat in the House race.   So, we see a bit more than 17% of voters splitting their tickets in the last four elections.  This is in part a testament, no doubt, to the power of incumbency in House races.

But it is also reminder, apropos Rob Mellen’s comment, that we do not have a parliamentary system, in which our president is selected based on the popular vote for the legislative branch. Instead, ours is a system of separated institutions, each with its own electoral base, sharing powers.  As Bob notes, it is that combination of staggered elections and separated  electoral constituencies that makes it easier for elections to produce divided government.

But is divided government really all that bad?  Bob will undoubtedly be happy to learn that David Mayhew has come out with still another book, Partisan Balance, extolling the virtues of our system of shared powers, despite – because of? – its propensity to return divided government. Mayhew’s essential point is that despite the intense partisan polarization that characterizes government at the national level, the system of staggered elections and different constituencies means the policy process never systematically tilts too much in favor of one party at the expense of the other.   This, of course, drives party purists at both ends of the ideological spectrum nuts – far better, they argue, that one party be allowed to control the government, pass their agenda, and be held accountable for the results, than to have to endure a policy process characterized by partisan bickering, fiscal cliffs and incremental change at best.

That might be true.  But polls indicate that, although there is variation across time, typically as many Americans support divided government as do prefer unified government, although opinion varies  by whether their preferred party controls the presidency or not.  Moreover, consistent with the NES data, there’s never been a majority of Americans surveyed who express a preference for unified government; most are either opposed or indifferent.

Yes, we are facing two more years of divided government.  That’s nothing new.   And it may not be a problem, at least from the perspective of Joe and Jane Sixpack.  And, for that reason, I’m guessing Tuesday’s results would please “Little Jemmy” Madison as well, even if modern-day party purists are frustrated once more.


  1. Henry – Gerrymandering took place in 2010, and as I acknowledged, it certainly explains some of the 2012 results, although the more efficient distribution of Republican voters probably matters too. Nonetheless, you need to explain to me why we had divided government in most previous elections as well. You are a first-time poster, so you might not realize that this isn’t a partisan site, where you are speaking to a chorus of like-minded readers who view results through a partisan lens. If you don’t engage in the debate, people are going to call you out on it here.

  2. I have been trolling for polls that analyzed the African American vote in 2012. Aside from the fact that the African Ameridan vote turned out in huge numbers partially due to a reaction against the voter suppression efforts of the Republican party, no one seemed interested in what were the important issues for this segment of the electorate. I can only conclude that the polling powers that be simply assumed African Americans only voted for Obama because he is an African American. The LA Times exit poll – http://www.scribd.com/doc/112746306/2012-Presidential-Election-Exit-Poll-Results – which included black voters was interesting, but the only poll I could find reflecting their views. Can you help me out, here?

  3. Matt,

    Thanks for the data on ticket-splitting. The percentages are low but certainly significant.

    My next question is, are there any studies that use exit poll data or other techniques for determining WHY these voters are splitting their tickets? Are they doing it to created checks on the dominant party or do they have other reasons? Are there instances in which the presidential candidate of one party and a congressional candidate of another are more in tune policy-wise? And how do you score a state like Maine this year, when the Democratic candidate for the Senate ran third and the independent won? Could it be that some ticket-splitters are not interested in partisan differences, but genuinely “vote for the man, not the party”?

    I am reminded of 1964, before carpet-bagging in Senate elections became common, when Bobby Kennedy (only recently a New Yorker) ran against Kenneth Keating. I was voting in New York City in those days and I voted a straight Democratic ticket (starting with LBJ) except for the Senate race where I voted for the Republican, Keating. My thinking (which seems quaint now) was that New Yorkers should have someone who had spent years in the state, not a newcomer.

    My point is, I wasn’t voting for divided government — it was quite clear to me that the Democrats were going to have an across-the-board blowout. But I would show up as a ticket splitter in any analysis of that election.

    To put all of the above another way, have any studies gone beyond the statistics to drill down to individual voter motivations?


  4. Matt,

    I’d like to make two points:

    1) In response to your first responder…there is little evidence that gerrymandering after 2010 is responsible for divided government. Yes, Republicans gained some seats in states where they controlled the process but they also lost seats in states where the Democrats controlled the process. On net, it looks as though Democrats gained around 7 seats, several because of their own gerrymanders. A better explanation is that it is a result of the power of incumbency and name recognition. Most of the people I know are not partisan ideologues and vote to return members of Congress whom they perceive to be doing a good job for THEIR district.

    2) Count me among those who USUALLY prefer divided government as one more form of checks and balances on government excess. But like Bob, I did not consciously make the decision to split my ticket on Tuesday in order to get divided government. I did so because I believe the individuals I voted for are serving their constituents well and that is what matters most to me.


  5. Thanks, Rob, for the additional clarifications. Just to build on your point re: the NET impact of gerrymandering – note also that gerrymandering is not likely to be the major cause for the polarization of the parties either, since we see polarization occurring in the Senate as well as the House.

  6. Matt and Bob, as you may recall, it wasnt until 1994 when the Republicans took over the House that Congress and the President got serious about balancing the budget. Way back then grid lock was considered a positive for the governing process.

  7. Arnim,

    Note that that African-American presidential vote skews consistently toward the Democratic presidential candidate in recent elections. So, 88% of African-Americans voted for John Kerry in 2004, and 90% supported Gore in 2000. Moreover, the proportion of the vote this year by African Americans was about the same as it was in 2008. All a long way of saying that I doubt voter suppression was the primary factor driving their vote, although it certainly may have motivated some African-Americans. But they have been a strong and consistent vote for Democrats for a long time now.

    If you are interested in polling data, you can start with the national exit polls (CNN Election Center has them) and you can look at any of the pre-election polls that tapped into voters’ attitudes, such as those issued by Pew.

  8. Bob,

    Just to echo Rob’s point, I suspect much of the split-ticket voting is driven by the different standards by which some voters evaluate their member of Congress versus the President. Constituency service at the local level can trump partisanship for at least some voters. So, to be clear, I’m not saying all ticket splitters are deliberately voting for divided government, although I suspect some are. If I can dig up individual data beyond polls, I’ll pass it on.

    – Matt

  9. You’re ignoring the role very conservative Southern Democrats played until 1994, as well as the generally weaker ideological polarization between the parties up until around that point. That voters gave Republicans and people who would by say 2002 basically all be Republicans unified control between 1980 and 1986 is at least an arguable point. And since then, 1992, 2000, 2002, 2004, 2008, and, very nearly 2012 all produced one-party control of both chambers and the Presidency.

  10. Your point regarding the sources of split-party control until 1994 – that it is in part a reflection of the fact that partisan ideology didn’t fully match with party labels – is well taken, but it remains the fact that, for whatever reason, it has rarely been the case in the modern era that a majority of Americans have opted for one-party control under a specific single party. so, even as parties become more internally homogenized in the post-1994 era, we still don’t see instances in which a majority of House voters opted for one-party control under one party.

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