By Samuel Stone
The last time Rhode Island voted for a Republican nominee for president was in 1984, a year in which only Minnesota – Democratic nominee Walter Mondale’s home state – and the District of Columbia voted Democrat. In the 28 years and six elections since, the state has voted for the Democrat running for president by an average of 23.5 percent and is expected to do so by a similar margin in 2012. Nevertheless, the state has not elected a Democratic governor since 1992, and between 1976 and 2007 Republicans held one of its United States Senate seats. This phenomenon of people voting for one party’s presidential nominee and then voting for the other party’s congressional or gubernatorial candidates is not confined to Rhode Island. North Dakota, which has voted for Democratic presidential nominees in only five out of the last thirty presidential elections, had an all-Democratic congressional delegation between 1987 and 2010. Most of the states in New England have followed a similar pattern, as have a number of states in the Mountain West, Hawaii, Alaska, and West Virginia.
Why are so many people willing to split their tickets and vote for a Democratic president but a Republican member of Congress or vice versa? The answer is good candidate recruitment and the elasticity of the states involved. Elasticity is a term in the political lexicon coined by political guru and statistician Nate Silver of the New York Times’ 538 blog. In short, elastic states are those where there are a large number of independent voters, regardless of whether the state is considered a “swing” state or not in presidential races. Rhode Island is very Democratic, with a full 41 percent of voters identifying with that party. Nevertheless, there are an astounding 49 percent unaffiliated voters, and only 10 percent Republicans. Rhode Island is elastic and usually votes for Democrats because there are a lot of Democrats and a lot of unaffiliated voters. If those unaffiliated voters were presented with a viable Republican option, they may support it and swing the election to Republicans as they have done repeatedly.
The examples of states like Rhode Island are many and varied. A number of heavily Democratic states have a history of moderate Republican governors and senators. Perhaps most prominent among them in recent years are the pair of women representing Maine in the Senate – Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins – who have served together since 1995. John Chaffee and his son Lincoln, who represented Rhode Island in the Senate, are also prime examples (the younger Mr. Chaffee is now the independent governor of the state). Former Governor Linda Lingle won two terms in Hawaii and is currently running for the Senate. This year, there are two competitive Senate elections in New England featuring pro-choice, moderate Republicans in the form of Senator Scott Brown of Massachusetts and Linda McMahon in Connecticut. Finally, Maine is poised to elect Angus King, one of its two former independent governors, to the Senate to replace the retiring Ms. Snowe. All of these states have large numbers of Democrats, as well as large numbers of unaffiliated voters.
Examples in the reverse are also many. In 2006 and 2008, a number of Democrats were elected to the Senate in traditionally Republican, but elastic, states. Mark Begich of Alaska, Jon Tester of Montana, and Kay Hagan of North Carolina are only the prime examples. In 2010, Joe Manchin III won the open Senate seat in West Virginia, and this year Heidi Heitkamp, a former state attorney general, is keeping the open Senate race in North Dakota competitive for Democrats in a state that bleeds crimson.
Elasticity is not the only force at work; it tends to work best when what we can refer to it as the minority party – Republicans in Massachusetts for example, or Democrats in West Virginia – pick the right candidate or when the incumbent candidate from the majority party has a scandal. In recent years Democrats have been better at picking the right candidates in elastic states, but traditionally Republicans also had an excellent track record.
The easier cases are those where the incumbent of the majority party has some sort of scandal and the minority party picks the right candidate for the state or district. This type of scenario is currently occurring in the Massachusetts 6th congressional district between Congressman John Tierney (D) and Richard Tisei (R), a former state senator. Mr. Tisei is inherently moderate, openly gay, pro-choice, and has a generally sterling personal record. Mr. Tierney, on the other hand, has been plagued by financial scandals involving his wife and her brother in the past years, and Mr. Tisei’s campaign has capitalized on that. The race is currently considered a tossup in a state where Democrats hold every single congressional district.
Even when there is no scandal, the minority party can win in an elastic state with the right candidate. West Virginia has voted Republican in recent presidential elections, but both its senators have been Democratic since 1959. That run was threatened in 2010, when a special election was held to fill the Senate seat of longtime Senator Robert Byrd (D), who passed away that summer. Democrats, however, recruited popular governor Joe Manchin III to run. Mr. Manchin is the quintessential West Virginia moderate; as it became increasingly clear that 2010 was a terrible year for Democrats, Mr. Manchin distanced himself from his party by highlighting his pro-coal stance. In order to do so, he ran an add in which he literally shot a bullet through a copy of the cap and trade bill nailed to a tree. Mr. Manchin went on to win 53.5 percent to 43.4 percent. Running for a full six-year term in 2012, he has run a new ad in which he carries a rifle, looks at the camera, and says that voters do not need to see him shooting the cap and trade bill again because he “already killed it.” He is expected to win by a wide margin in the conservative state – as is Mitt Romney.
Bad candidate selection can also bring down a party in an elastic state. While 2010 was a wave election for Republicans, picking the wrong candidate cost the Republican Party three seats in the Senate, two of which were in elastic states. Sharon Angle in Nevada, Ken Buck in Colorado, and Christine O’Donnell in Delaware lost races that were Republican to lose. Of the three, Delaware is a simpler case – while the state is heavily Democratic and inelastic, now former Congressman Mike Castle, the candidate favored by the Republican establishment and who would have likely prevailed over Democrat Chris Coons, was a staple of Delaware politics and a scion of moderation that made him the favorite. When he lost the Republican primary to Tea Party-backed Ms. O’Donnell (of “I’m not a witch” fame) the race was all but over as could be expected in a deep blue state.
Colorado and Nevada have similar stories but show how bad candidate selection can be devastating in states that have traditionally voted Republican in presidential elections but are elastic. In both cases, the candidates were portrayed as extreme Tea Partiers, whose reputations were enhanced by the candidates’ own statements. Ms. Angle famously said that a possible solution for the country’s healthcare dilemma was for patients who could not afford healthcare to barter with their doctors. As an example of what could be bartered, she offered chickens. She lost the election to the highly unpopular Harry Reid by five points. Had the establishment-favored candidates won the primaries, Mitch McConnell would be only two seats away from becoming majority leader today, instead of four.
A final factor that can affect the phenomenon of ticket splitting is whether the election is a wave election or not. Wave elections are those in which one party makes large gains because of a national mood in its favor or against the other party. Both the 2006 and 2008 elections were Democratic waves, while 2010 was a Republican one, meaning that the last non-wave election in recent years was in 2004. Often times, a the “wave” can push candidates of the favored party to victory in states where they would not usually win regardless of elasticity or candidate selection. Arguably, this was the case in some Senate races in 2006 and 2008. Elasticity and candidate selection can, however, beat a wave, as Senator Michael Bennett (D-CO) and Mr. Reid saw in their 2010 reelection races. In 2012, those two traits are even more important than in wave elections, as can readily be seen in the Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maine, Nevada, Arizona, North Dakota, and Montana Senate races. Whether events play out differently in this non-wave year is yet to be seen, but the influence of elasticity and good (or poor) candidate selection cannot be understated.