Tag Archives: divided government

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.

Once More, With Feeling! Divided We Stand

As we begin assessing the results of the 2012 elections, perhaps the most important takeaway is that, once again, the country has voted for divided government.  When this newly-elected Congress finishes its term in January, 2015, we will have had divided government during 42 of the last 68 years, dating back to the first-post World War II Congress in 1947.  Much of the media focus, understandably, has been on Obama’s narrow victory, but we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that, as of this writing, it appears the Republicans lost a net of about 6 House seats, and therefore they will retain their House majority with something close to 236 of the 435 House seats.  The Democrats, meanwhile, defied expectations (at least mine!) and actually gained two seats in the Senate, upping their advantage there (assuming the two independents Angus King and Bernie Sanders vote with them) to 55-45.

What explains Americans love affair with divided government?  In part, our explanations may vary depending on what type of divided government we see – right now the Congress is divided.  That is the more rare form of divided government, occurring in just 12 years since 1947. In most other years we see a unified Congress facing a president from the other party.  It is tempting to think, but harder to prove, that voters are engaged – consciously, or subconsciously – in some type of partisan balancing act.   If they are consciously dividing control, the question is why?  One explanation that was particularly popular when split control meant choosing a Republican president and Democratically-controlled Congress is that voters saw the parties having different strengths.  Republicans were stronger on defense, and hence better suited for the Presidency, while Democrats were more protective of the social safety net and therefore were given control in Congress.  However, the partisan roles have been more often reversed in divided government since 1994, with Republicans controlling at least the House and Democrats sitting in the Oval Office.  Note that, as Mo Fiorina reminds us, not all voters need to be engaged in this type of reasoning for split government to occur – divided government only requires a minority of voters to split their ticket.  Despite this, critics of the balancing argument suggest this still imposes a relatively high threshold of purposive voting on the part of voters.

A second argument explaining divided government focuses not on ideological or partisan balancing, but instead on structural factors.  Thus, one explanation for why Democrats retained control of the House for so long, even as the nation elected Republican presidents, is that Democrats, by virtue of more active political participation in state government, simply fielded a more experienced and hence stronger set of candidates at the national level.  That is, they benefited by, in effect, having a stronger minor league program. It wasn’t until 1994, after Newt Gingrich had been actively recruiting Republicans to run for office at the local level for a number of years that this structural imbalance was finally overcome.  In recent years scholars have cited a second structural factor – one that advantages Republicans.  They note that Republican voters are more efficiently distributed across the country, while Democrats are bunched up in large urban areas along the coasts.  This more efficient distribution – one accentuated by Republican-controlled gerrymandering in many states after the 2010 census – means Republicans “waste” fewer votes in congressional elections.

Does it matter that government is divided?  In particular, does it lead to legislative gridlock? On this question, scholars are also divided.  David Mayhew has shown that major legislation generally gets churned out whether government is unified or not.  Others argue, however, that under divided government it is more likely that the national government will fail to address pressing problems.   That is, our answer may depend on whether we are looking at pure policy productivity or at the saliency of the legislative Congress passes in relation to societal concerns more generally.

The answer may also depend on more than whether government is divided or not.   Larry Dodd and Scott Schraufnagel suggest that Congress’ legislative productivity depends also on the level of partisan polarization dividing the two parties.  When the two congressional parties are internally very unified, but the ideological distance between them is large, legislative productivity can be hampered even during periods of unified government.  This is because our bicameral legislative process, with its supermajoritarian hurdles, makes it easier for a unified opposition party to stymie action.  Under the current conditions of quasi-divided (split Congress) government and high polarization, the tendency toward gridlock is even greater.

The bottom line is that, for whatever reason, the voters last Tuesday essentially opted for the status quo.  Despite protestations to the contrary, Obama did not receive a mandate – if anything, his position is weaker now than it has ever been.  That means from his perspective,  the legislative window of opportunity starts small, and will likely close quickly.  To be sure,  I don’t expect that both parties, in their lameduck version,  will be willing to drive the country over the fiscal cliff come the start of the New Year. But the long-term outlook for inter-party cooperation on legislation in the incoming Congress is not promising.  Republicans, responding to their own constituent pressures, are likely to be as unified in the new Congress as they were in the last.  This does not mean major legislation won’t be passed.  Mayhew shows that it can still happen – but only when it addresses the political interests of both parties.  Those cases are rare indeed.