You are unlikely to go wrong by betting against trends in American politics. Political polarization in the United States is one of those allegedly immutable and irreversible trends. That polarization, we were told, had rendered “ticket-splitting” voters an endangered species. Those lifelong Southern Democrats who voted GOP in presidential years and Republicans on the coasts and the Mountain West who could be convinced to back a Democrat for the White House now and again were supposedly extinct. That transformation of the political environment may not have been as permanent as many suspected. The unique landscape in 2016 is leading observers to think that the ticket-splitting voters may be making a comeback.
A dispatch in the Wall Street Journal on Monday illustrated how the presumptive presidential nominees for their respective parties–Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton–are alienating long-time partisans, leading the way for a ticket-splitting revival. Augmenting anecdotal evidence that a statistically significant number of Democratic and Republican stalwarts are ready to jump ship is some hard data compiled by the GOP polling firm Deep Root Analytics. Their research confirmed what many have suspected—that Donald Trump is not a conventional Republican candidate, and he draws from an unconventional pool of voters.
Their survey revealed that, when compared to a “generic Republican” candidate, Trump performs much worse among white Republican women with or without a college degree. By contrast, Trump out-performs the generic candidate by 10 points among white men, whether they are Republican, Democratic, or independent. “Those findings are in line with Wall Street Journal/NBC polling data that show Mr. Trump runs far behind where 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney was among white women with college degrees, but performs much better than Mr. Romney did among white men who didn’t attend college,” the Journal reported.
If these findings were to hold until November, it’s reasonable to expect a substantial number of Republican women will abandon the GOP to vote for Hillary Clinton—if they were to vote at all. Likewise, it’s probable that a smaller, but by no means negligible, number of Democratic men would be compelled to cast their ballots for Trump. None of that means that these partisans are going to abandon their party’s candidates further down the ballot, though. Traditionally, the top of the ticket has what are called “coattails”—that is, a winning presidential nominee often drags lesser-known candidates further down the ballot with them to victory. The opposite is also true; a presidential candidate who performs poorly with general election voters also hinders the ability of Senate, House, and legislative candidates on their column to generate votes. This frequently observed phenomenon might be more subdued this year if we see a resurgence of ticket-splitting voters.
It was only a few short years ago that political observers were chronicling the death of the interparty voter. In 2014, voters in a total of five congressional districts who had voted for Mitt Romney two years prior also sent Democrats to the House. In presidential years since 2004, split-ticket voting has become reliably rare. Former Senator Mary Landrieu’s defeat in a December runoff election signaled to some that the age of intense polarization had completed the South’s transition from solidly Republican in presidential years to solidly Republican across the board. Elections analyst Stuart Rothenberg explained the origins of this new reality with some intuitive reasoning. “The more each party is seen as representing an uncompromising ideology and certain constituencies, the more straight-ticket voting we will see,” he wrote.
Say what you will about Donald Trump, but he is by no means ideologically rigid. The nearly unprecedented and persistent resistance to his candidacy among conservative voters can be traced to his penchant for heterodoxy. Likewise, Hillary Clinton is still doing her best to win over Bernie Sanders voters by embracing unworkable and convoluted progressive policy prescriptions even as Sanders himself appears poised to endorse his erstwhile opponent. Both of these candidates are still running primary races that they long ago won.
The remarkable level of overall dissatisfaction with the results of both party’s primaries should lead American political observers to think twice about whether partisanship is really so undesirable. If the alternative to lockstep partisan straight-ticket voting is Clinton and Trump, perhaps the status quo ante wasn’t all that distasteful in the first place.