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The Ticket-Splitter, by Walter DeVries and Lance Tarrance, Jr.

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The Ticket-Splitter: A New Force in American Politics.
by Walter DeVries and Lance Tarrance, Jr.
Eerdmans. 149 pp. $4.95.

Trends are news and continuity is not. Thus, even though there is far more stability than change in any polity, it is change and rumors of change which capture the headlines.

We hear about political change—realignments, new coalitions, “twenty-five million new voters,” new issues, new politics. The perhaps dreary truth is that there is relatively little change in American voting patterns and political behavior. Survey Research Center data indicate that between 1952 and 1970 the “independents” have picked up nine percentage points—three of them at the expense of the “don’t knows,” two from the Republicans, and four from the Democrats. Gallup evidence shows that the net “independent” gain in the last decade has been four percentage points. Hardly a revolutionary social change.

There is no evidence that the new voters are much different from their parents, or that the old New Deal coalition is no longer the effective majority most of the time, or that the “ethnics” are being won away from the Democratic party by Kevin Phillips. And if there be any realignment at all, it is that regional realignment isolated by my colleagues Norman Nie and David Greenstone: since 1960, the South has become predictably non-Democratic in Presidential elections and the Northeast has become predictably Democratic.

But Walter DeVries and Lance Tarrance, Jr. have apparently pinpointed a change which exists in the real world apart from the “Op-Ed” page of the New York Times. If party identification has not changed much, “ticket-splitting” has. In 1944 there were 41 Congressional districts which voted for one party for the Presidency and another for the House of Representatives. In 1956 there were 130 such districts; in 1964, 145; and in 1968, 139. Some of this “splitting” can undoubtedly be explained by the regional realignment which Nie and Greenstone have documented. In the last decade and a half, the South has developed a pattern of sending Democrats to Congress and voting for non-Democrats for the Presidency. DeVries and Tarrance have not taken this factor into account and hence their argument for an increase in “ticket-splitting” as evidence of political change is somewhat weakened.

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But there is enough evidence of “ticket-splitting” between Gubernatorial and Senatorial candidates to establish their case. From 1914 to 1962 there was only one year when there were more than six states which elected a Senator from one party and a Governor from another (1940, when there were eleven such “incongruences”). Since 1962 the average number of “incongruences” has been eleven per year; and the states in which the ticket-splitting occurred were frequently important ones. In 1970, for example, “incongruences” occurred in California, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. The ticket-splitter is becoming part of the political environment.

DeVries and Tarrance are delighted, particularly because they have managed the effective “ticket-splitter” strategy of the Michigan Republican party. They point out that the “ticket-splitter” is not the “independent” described by Angus Campbell and his colleagues from the Survey Research Center—a voter without conviction or commitment. Rather, the “ticket-splitter” is both more concerned and better informed than the straight party voter. He is more likely to be young, professional, college-educated, and to have an income over $10,000. He is part of America’s post-World War II college-educated professional class.

So far so good; perhaps we do indeed have a more mature and sophisticated electorate. But then the authors tell us how the ticket-splitters make their choice. They are not concerned so much about the old-fashioned things like group loyalties and party identification. That may be reasonable enough, though one becomes uneasy. The differences among groups and between parties are real. If one ignores them, one is ignoring an extremely important aspect of American life. It further develops that the ticket-splitters are more concerned about the candidates’ “personality,” their “ability to handle issues,” and their “stands on issues.” This makes one even more uneasy; how do potential ticket-splitters know the personality of the candidate? How do they judge his ability with issues?

When we learn what the “very important” factors are in the ticket-splitters’ decisions, our worst fears are confirmed. The ticket-splitters are most likely to be influenced by TV newscasts, documentaries, editorials, and talk shows, and by newspaper editorials and stories. What we are dealing with is one-dimensional man, a character who looks neither to his gut (as does the poor man) nor to his head (as does the sophisticated man) for guidance on how to vote but to the models of reality served up by the mass media. The ticket-splitter is provided with his world view by NBC and Time, Inc.

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It seems incredible that anyone would take seriously the shallow analyses of newspaper and television editorials as a voting guide. It seems even more incredible that a two-minute spot on the eleven-o’clock news could be thought of as providing any more than a horrendously oversimplified description of an election issue. It is beyond belief that the incompetent hacks who write most of the local political columns in the American press can win acceptance as responsible analysts of the political scene. It may be less incredible but it is still profoundly disturbing to discover that there is a segment of American society which believes that the real world is like the one portrayed on the national newscasts or described in the pages of the New York-dominated national journals.

Both the sophisticated and the poor are profoundly suspicious of the media, the former because they know reality is more complex and the latter because the media analysts are identified with “them” (or, to use the media’s own term, “the Establishment”). It is precisely the half-educated who are likely to be influenced by what they see on the tube and read in the newspapers; and, unfortunately, a college degree is just about what it takes to be half-educated.

The old theories of “mass society” and “merchandising candidates” have been stood on their heads. It is precisely not the poor and the uneducated who can be swayed by the media. It is, rather, the upper-middle class who are most likely to look to David Brinkley or Newsweek for guidance (other recent research confirms the argument of DeVries and Tarrance: the moderately well-educated are the ones most likely to change their minds when the media models of reality change) . A sophisticated TV campaign won’t swing the working man away from his loyalty to the party that takes care of his interests. You don’t merchandise a papier-mâché candidate to everyone but only to the potential ticket-splitters.

The technique for getting to a ticket-splitter is neatly described:

The Milliken television commercials were created following a “mini-documentary” or “telenews” concept, to make the commercials look like news. Each of the nine spots opened with a dramatic still photograph representing one of the state’s most urgent problems. Most of these stills were in black and white accentuating the graphic starkness of the problem. The scene then dissolved from the still photograph to the governor, who in each of the nine spots was seen as demonstrating his understanding of that particular problem and addressing himself to its solution. These color segments of the governor all contained identifiable symbols of the governor’s office—state seal, flag or desk. The commercial ended by dissolving to a card which read: “Milliken: A Leader You Can Trust.” An announcer’s voice-over editorialized in a soft-sell manner: “Think about that on November 3rd.” The format: present the problem, demonstrate an understanding and ability to handle that problem, and end with a soft-sell editorial.

It is indicative of the authors’ ethical sensitivities that they show no signs of thinking there might be something wrong in describing a complex social issue in a few minutes of TV time. Nor do they seem at all troubled by the thought that it might be inappropriate to pursue ticket-splitters weekly or even daily to see how they are responding to such fundamentally phony campaigning.

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Ticket-splitting in response to media guidance and the manipulation of ticket-splitters by corrupting campaigners are a fairly serious threat to American democracy, though probably not a fatal danger. Both the wise and the simple see through the media, though, alas, the number of the simple will decline as college education becomes more nearly universal. You cannot fool even the ticket-splitters with a “sex-appeal” candidate who has failed miserably in public office—though the history of both New York City and New York State in recent years indicates that plastic office-holders can continue to be reelected by ticket-splitters despite abject failure to cope effectively with public responsibilities, especially when the opposition party cannot put up an “attractive” alternative candidate. Nor is there any reason why Republicans like Michigan’s Governor Milliken (a client of DeVries) should have a monopoly on ticket-splitting strategy.

The real problem is that a political style keyed to influencing the ticket-splitter through the media could exclude from public office candidates of intelligence, integrity, and ability simply because they lack TV presence—a presence which is not required by all voters but is required by the half-educated group which is most prone to take its cues from the media.

Though Hubert Humphrey may have been too closely identified with Lyndon Johnson ever to be elected President, no one questions his intelligence or competency as a public official. However, he looks bad on TV and probably always will. Is he therefore disqualified from public office? Or if the Democrats could come up with a plastic candidate who looked better than Mr. Nixon on TV (it ought not to be hard but apparently is), is Mr. Nixon to be disqualified from reelection because he has poor TV presence?

Even more pertinent is the question of Senator Muskie’s much-discussed temper. The press will undoubtedly push him to the absolute limit hoping he will blow up—not out of malice but rather because blowing up is news, particularly if a Presidential candidate blows up. Then the Wise Men of the media will announce to those ticket-splitters, eagerly waiting to learn what they ought to think next, that Senator Muskie’s explosion probably cost him the Presidency. The ticket-splitters will docilely vote for the other candidate because, of course, you can’t have a President who loses his temper.

But why the hell not? Most American working men would be perfectly delighted with a “tough Polack” who told off a “smart-aleck” newsman. And a number of us who would not quite use those words would still think that a pyrotechnic temper (such as the late John Kennedy was also reputed to have) might be a very useful psychic safety valve in a President.

Brinkley, Smith, Cronkite, Wicker, Novak, Fritchley, Alsop, Wills, White, Drummond—all splendid and insightful men. They provide some of the best entertainment to be found in the media; and of course that’s what the media are in business to do—provide entertainment. But heaven help us all if an increasing number of people are going to let such men tell them who should be President of the United States .

And then Mike Royko will be able to tell us who should be Mayor of Chicago.

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