Ross Perot's abrupt exit from the 1992 presidential campaign may cheer George Bush and Bill Clinton, but it leaves the electorate with one less option. How now are we to do something about the logjam in Washington? By staying home on election day? Drafting Norman Schwartzkopf? Actually, the solution is simpler than that, and a lot less original: vote the party line.
There's no doubt that the American electorate is enormously unhappy with Washington. Consider the following:
- George Bush's approval ratings have reached a low akin to Richard Nixon's during the Watergate scandal; just over a year ago, he enjoyed the highest ratings of any president since polling began.
- No less than five outsiders - David Duke, Pat Buchanan, Paul Tsongas, Jerry Brown, and Perot - entered the 1992 presidential campaign and each enjoyed a moment of glory.
- Congress' approval rating has fallen to record lows and 1992 may set a record for the number of representatives not seeking re-election; less than two years ago, pundits complained that 98 percent of congressmen seeking re-election won seats.
Deadlock in the capital lies behind this discontent; nothing much gets accomplished. While polls show that the American electorate blames politicians for this unhappy state of affairs, the problem lies actually less in the politicians than in the electorate's behavior. And it concerns the seemingly innocuous habit of ticket splitting, choosing Republicans for president and Democrats for Congress. While Republicans have won the presidency five out of the last six elections, Democrats have controlled one or both houses of Congress since 1954.
This is a new phenomenon. Until the 1950s, every president since Lincoln enjoyed the advantage of having his party control one or both houses of Congress at least once during his term; our most admired executives (Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, both Roosevelts, and Kennedy) enjoyed uninterrupted control of Congress by their own parties. At the turn of the century, voters maintained party loyalty; less than 5 percent of congressional districts split their vote for president and Congress. After World War II, however, this practice spread rapidly, so that almost half of the country's 435 districts split their vote in recent elections. In 1988, for example, Bucks County's 8th congressional district chose George Bush for president and Democrat Peter Kostmayer for Congress. Similarly, Northeast Philadelphia's 3rd district went for Bush and Democrat Robert Borski.
The Constitution established a system of government which requires the executive, legislative, and judicial branches to share power. The American electorate has created a check and balance of its own by dividing branches of government along party lines. Unlike the original division, this one doesn't work. Instead, it leads to deadlock. Neither side can pass its initiatives, neither the president nor Congress can govern.
Instead, politicians wage endless war on each other with such unpleasant tactics as mudslinging television commercials, public inquisitions (like Anita Hill versus Clarence Thomas), leaks of sensitive information to the press, and criminal indictments (such as Caspar Weinberger's). Public disgust is a natural result.
No outsider, not even a can-do billionaire, could fix this problem. For all his bravura about riding roughshod over Congress, Perot would have had to deal with Republicans and Democrats in Congress. Unable to rely on his own party on Capitol Hill, he would have been even more ham-strung than Bush and would have sunken deeper into the political warfare that already paralyzes Washington.
While the two major parties have become too weak and diffuse to retain the party loyalty of decades past, they do retain distinct identities. On defense policy, for example, Republicans are prepared to use force, Democrats are not. On economic issues, the Republicans are free-market oriented while Democrats feel the lure of government intervention. Republicans stand for social conservatism, Democrats for experimentation. The one reads the Constitution literally, the other looks at it figuratively. In other words, the parties have distinct identities.
Voters who wish to "clean up the mess in Washington" should stop splitting their tickets, and vote for parties rather than personalities. If you like the Democratic philosophy, vote for Bill Clinton and your local Democratic candidate for Congress. If you prefer Republicans, then give President Bush a Republican Congress to implement his program.
Restoring partisanship to voting would have the ironic effect of making the government less partisan, and more productive.
Feb. 6, 2010 update: For precisely the opposite take, see Jonathan Rauch's analysis at "The Curse of One-Party Government."
Dec. 27, 2012 update: Nate Silver of the New York Times points out today in "As Swing Districts Dwindle, Can a Divided House Stand?" that the era of split tickets is over. Conveniently, he draw a comparison of today with 1992, the year McNamara's and my article appeared:
there has also been a sharp decrease in ticket-splitting. Far fewer districts than before vote Democratic for president but Republican for the House, or vice versa. In 1992, there were 85 districts that I characterize as leaning toward one or another party based on its presidential vote. Of these districts, 27, or nearly one third, elected a member of the opposite party to the House, going against its presidential lean. In 2012, there were only 53 such districts based on the presidential vote. But the decline in the number of ticket-splitting districts was sharper still. Of the 53 districts, just six, or about 11 percent, went against their presidential lean in their vote for the House.
Similarly, in 1992, there were 247 districts where the presidential vote was at least 10 percentage points more Republican or Democratic than in the country as a whole. Of these 42, or about 17 percent, split their tickets between their presidential and Congressional votes. Such splits are much rarer today. Of the 347 districts that were at least 10 points Democratic- or Republican-leaning in their presidential vote this year, only 6 (less than 2 percent) crossed party lines in their vote for the House.
In 1992, there were 103 members of the House of Representatives elected from what might be called swing districts: those in which the margin in the presidential race was within five percentage points of the national result. But based on an analysis of this year's presidential returns, I estimate that there are only 35 such Congressional districts remaining, barely a third of the total 20 years ago. Instead, the number of landslide districts — those in which the presidential vote margin deviated by at least 20 percentage points from the national result — has roughly doubled. In 1992, there were 123 such districts (65 of them strongly Democratic and 58 strongly Republican). Today, there are 242 of them (of these, 117 favor Democrats and 125 Republicans).
Aug. 4, 2016 update: Observing that "Our legislative process is not designed to withstand the current levels of partisan polarization in the electorate," Silver's colleague David Wasserman blames this problem in part on straight-ticket voting:
Voters are splitting their tickets — voting for a Republican for one office and a Democrat for another — at lower rates than we've seen in decades. They're just not making distinctions between parties' presidential and congressional candidates like they used to.
He offers one reason for this change: "The decline of local news readership probably plays a role — after all, these outlets have traditionally provided an avenue for candidates to build a persona."