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Tilting at Windmills

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March 21, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

INDEPENDENT VOTERS.....In the Washington Post, Hillary Clinton pollster Mark Penn writes that swing voters are more important than ever these days. I'm certainly receptive to this notion, but as I mentioned last month, there's some contrary data too: it turns out that most of the voters who call themselves "independents" actually act pretty partisan when they get to the voting booth.

What's more, as Philip Klinkner points out, although the number of "split ticket" voters has indeed gone up over the past 50 years, a chart of the data presents a rather more complicated picture. The number of split ticket voters went up in the 60s but has been going down ever since. That's not really very good evidence that independence is on a relentless upward march.

But I suspect Klinkner's chart is also an illustration of Kevin's First Law of Political Wonkery: any analysis that ignores the South is worthless. This is just a guess, and maybe someone with access to the data can check this, but here's what I think happened: during the 60s, Southern whites started voting for Republican presidents while continuing to vote for local Democratic congressmen. After 1972, though, as the Republican shift of the South continued, they started voting for Republican congressmen too. In other words, I'll bet that the split-ticket phenomenon both up and down is almost entirely explained by the South, not by some massive nationwide shift toward independence.

It's not possible to build an enduring majority without appealing to centrist swing voters, but the notion that they're significantly more important than they've ever been isn't really supported by the facts.

UPDATE: Philip Klinkner runs the numbers for the South here and finds that (a) split-ticket voting is indeed more prevalent in the South and (b) split ticket voting has declined everywhere since the mid-70s.

Kevin Drum 12:47 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (43)

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Excellent point about the South. I didn't buy much of Klinkner's stuff either. For example, he says that in 1996, "Soccer Moms" were a big deal, but now they are older and their kids are in college. Just one minute there buddy! I live among soccer moms. The ones whose children have grown up have been replaced by many more. Are they independent? Not here in Maryland, but they never were anyway. The basic tendencies of the population are to be pretty much split down the middle. At that point, the question really becomes whether or not homosexuality is scarier to the last 527 voters than demonstrably criminal incompetence. Anybody's call, as far as I can tell.
peace,
jim

Posted by: jim preston on March 21, 2006 at 12:56 PM | PERMALINK

The South is forever lost to Dems. Johnson and Nixon made sure of that.

Ever hear the one where the dumbest people in the North moved to the South, improving the average IQ of both areas?

That is why you Libs lose!

Wasn't W just so manly today, standing up the Helen Thomas??

Posted by: Freedom Phukher on March 21, 2006 at 12:58 PM | PERMALINK

"In other words, I'll bet that the split-ticket phenomenon both up and down is almost entirely explained by the South, not by some massive nationwide shift toward independence."

Stupid is as stupid does.

Posted by: bubba on March 21, 2006 at 1:03 PM | PERMALINK

At least 50% of Americans are independent voters, regardless of what they tell pollsters. The results of presidential elections since WWII prove this.

Posted by: Jeff II on March 21, 2006 at 1:04 PM | PERMALINK

The chart peaks in '72, mamybe it has more to do with scandle and people getting fed up with their party. I bet there are a lot more independants this year than last. Too bad the chart stops in '04.

Posted by: ScottW on March 21, 2006 at 1:08 PM | PERMALINK

The dip you see in 1976 on the chart would tend to support Kevin's hypothesis.

Posted by: Joe on March 21, 2006 at 1:08 PM | PERMALINK

I'm certainly receptive to this notion, but as I mentioned last month, there's some contrary data too: it turns out that most of the voters who call themselves "independents" actually act pretty partisan when they get to the voting booth.

Wrong again Kevin. What about Nascar Dads and Security Moms (who are independents) who are voting for Bush because they support his strong, resolute stance on the War on Terror?

Posted by: Al on March 21, 2006 at 1:13 PM | PERMALINK

Wasn't W just so manly today, standing up the Helen Thomas??

What'd he say?

I did just read the AP story: Smirky says the job of getting our of Iraq will fall to the next president, and announces that Rummy is doing "a fine job."

What a hunk of rotting garbage this man is.

Posted by: shortstop on March 21, 2006 at 1:15 PM | PERMALINK

Ah, here it is. The money quote: "I didn't really regret it. I kind of semi-regretted it."

QUESTION: I'd like to ask you, Mr. President -- your decision to invade Iraq has caused the deaths of thousands of Americans and Iraqis, wounds of Americans and Iraqis for a lifetime.

Every reason given, publicly at least, has turned out not to be true. My question is: Why did you really want to go to war? From the moment you stepped into the White House, your Cabinet officers, former Cabinet officers, intelligence people and so forth -- but what's your real reason? You have said it wasn't oil, the quest for oil. It hasn't been Israel or anything else. What was it?

BUSH: I think your premise, in all due respect to your question and to you as a lifelong journalist -- that I didn't want war. To assume I wanted war is just flat wrong, Helen, in all due respect.

QUESTION: And...

BUSH: Hold on for a second, please. Excuse me. Excuse me.
No president wants war. Everything you may have heard is that, but it's just simply not true.

My attitude about the defense of this country changed on September the 11th. When we got attacked, I vowed then and there to use every asset at my disposal to protect the American people.

Our foreign policy changed on that day. You know, we used to think we were secure because of oceans and previous diplomacy. But we realized on September the 11th, 2001, that killers could destroy innocent life.

And I'm never going to forget it. And I'm never going to forget the vow I made to the American people, that we will do everything in our power to protect our people.

Part of that meant to make sure that we didn't allow people to provide safe haven to an enemy, and that's why I went into Iraq.

Afghanistan provided safe haven for Al Qaida. That's where they trained, that's where they plotted, that's where they planned the attacks that killed thousands of innocent Americans.

I also saw a threat in Iraq. I was hoping to solve this problem diplomatically. That's why I went to the Security Council. That's why it was important to pass 1441, which was unanimously passed.

And the world said, "Disarm, disclose or face serious consequences." And therefore, we worked with the world. We worked to make sure that Saddam Hussein heard the message of the world.

And when he chose to deny the inspectors, when he chose not to disclose, then I had the difficult decision to make to remove him. And we did. And the world is safer for it.

QUESTION: Thank you, sir. Secretary Rumsfeld...

BUSH: You're welcome.

I didn't really regret it. I kind of semi-regretted it.

Posted by: shortstop on March 21, 2006 at 1:19 PM | PERMALINK

The split tickets were happening also in the Northeast where moderate Republicans previously held many congressional seats, while their constituents voted for Democrats for president. It's not that this was anywhere near as big in the Northeast as in the South, but that it has pretty much changed and those voters too aren't splitting their tickets anymore as Moderate Congressional Republicans become part of history.

Posted by: david on March 21, 2006 at 1:25 PM | PERMALINK

The same pheonomenon in reverse might be found in states like NY that increasingly vote democratic in national elections but do have a fair number of local Republican officials, including House Reps. A generation ago, Republican nominees, in particular, were more moderate, and more likely to get crossover split ticket voters. This was certainly true where I grew up, in Pennsylvania. I voted for John Heinz once upon a blue moon. He's the only Republican I've ever voted for.

Posted by: Barbara on March 21, 2006 at 1:26 PM | PERMALINK

david, it appears that great minds think alike.

Posted by: Barbara on March 21, 2006 at 1:27 PM | PERMALINK

The split tickets occur during landslide elections, plain and simple.

Popular winning candidates (combined with ineffective opponents)produce more split tickets by siphoning off more voters from the other party

You see this in some of the peaks, Eisenhower in '56, Nixon '72, and Reagan in '84. To a lesser extent, this is seen in '80, '88 and '92.

What's happening is simply an artifact of a landslide. I hate when people try to make these numbers say more than is glaringly obvious.

Posted by: david on March 21, 2006 at 1:33 PM | PERMALINK

Thanks Barbara. But I've come around to think that whichever party produces a landslide winning candidate will in fact do that through ticket splitting. In a 33-33-33 nation, landslides only occur in conjunction with ticket splitting.

I think when you control for everything, the popularity/success of the winner negates everything else.

For the Democrats, who analyze this to death...pick a candidate with incredible potential to tap into the zeitgeist and take your chances. Short of that, don't expect miracles from average candidates.

Posted by: david on March 21, 2006 at 1:41 PM | PERMALINK

Until the late 80's in Alabama, if you were going to win a statewide office you had to run as a Democrat. So many politicians would be repubs their whole careers and then switch right before they ran. The reverse seems to be happening now (started with Richard Shelby switching sides after the Republican takeover).

Posted by: Martin on March 21, 2006 at 1:42 PM | PERMALINK

I completely believe Bush when he says this:

Our foreign policy changed on that day. You know, we used to think we were secure because of oceans and previous diplomacy. But we realized on September the 11th, 2001, that killers could destroy innocent life.

Of course, I think he's speaking for himself, not for me.

This, on the other hand, was a deception:

And when he chose to deny the inspectors, when he chose not to disclose, then I had the difficult decision to make to remove him. And we did. And the world is safer for it.

The inspectors were let in, eventually. And they found no WMD, and we invaded anyway. Furthermore, containment was working. But to pursue a policy of containment requires some faith, which Bush lacks.

Posted by: Doctor Jay on March 21, 2006 at 1:48 PM | PERMALINK

Looking at the graph closely, it seems to be based on off years. The points line up with 2002, 1998, etc.

I wonder what the method was. How is splitting the ticket defined?

Posted by: reino on March 21, 2006 at 1:50 PM | PERMALINK

Sorry Kevin,
I disagree with you whole-heartedly.

I'm a former Republican, now independent, and though I'm a fiscal conservative with *some* social concerns, I find myself inclined to vote for Barbara Boxer.
And this is where I get all confused because in the 90's and early 2000's Boxer represented everything I hated about the liberal Democrats (Past opinion was of soft, yielding, feminist socialists who cared more about the lint in their collective navel than what was best for the country). In fact, I voted against her every chance I got, and yet during the investigations, during all the sound-bytes she was the only one who had the "balls" to take the administration, and the Republicans to task.
She didn't pussyfoot around, she didn't get all meek, she got down and nasty with this administration...and I found my viewpoint invalid.
She unabashedly challenged my perception.
She spoke for me when I felt voiceless, she got aggressive for me when I felt weak and helpless, and she defended my rights while everyone else was willing to give them away.
Barbara Boxer's actions turned my viewpoint about liberals upside down, and I will reward her with my vote and with my support.
I'm still an old time fiscal conservative, but on this issue, Barbara Boxer has more than earned my vote, she has earned my respect.

Posted by: sheerahkahn on March 21, 2006 at 1:55 PM | PERMALINK

it turns out that most of the voters who call themselves independents actually act pretty partisan when they get to the voting booth.

Almost all of the independents I meet are lying, whether they know it or not. Today, partisanship is bad. There is a big chunk of voters that have internalized that, and call themselves independent even though they vote R or D pretty regularly.

Id bet that a good chunk of ticket splitters are nothing more than capricious swayed by commercials or image or a promise of a tax cut or whatnot.

I very rarely meet real independents that split tickets and analyze each and every candidate regardless of partisanship. Being an honest-to-goodness independent is really hard work. Very few are willing to do it. The independent is as much myth as reality in America. Many (but still a minority) make the claim: few live up to it.

(and of course, close to a majority does not even bother to vote).

Posted by: teece on March 21, 2006 at 1:56 PM | PERMALINK

You know, we used to think we were secure because of oceans

Didn't December the 7th, 1941 change everything when the Japanese attacked us--across the ocean--at Pearl Harbor?

Posted by: croatoan on March 21, 2006 at 1:57 PM | PERMALINK

My attitude about the defense of this country changed on September the 11th.

Did it change to "Maybe I should start defending the country?" He ignored the August 6, 2001, PDB saying Bin Laden wanted to attack inside the US, along with the 40 other PDBs that mentioned al Qaeda during 2001.

Posted by: croatoan on March 21, 2006 at 2:00 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin wrote: "here's what I think happened: during the 60s, Southern whites started voting for Republican presidents while continuing to vote for local Democratic congressmen. After 1972, though, as the Republican shift of the South continued, they started voting for Republican congressmen too."

I was living in the South during that time period and, yes, that happened as he said. I can't vouch that it's solely responsible for skewing the Klinkner's data but it must have had an impact.

Posted by: Taobhan on March 21, 2006 at 2:08 PM | PERMALINK

It's more complicated than that, at least in northern California. The "decline to state" people are not, as some analysts seem to think, exactly half-way between Democrats and Republicans, unable to make up their minds. At least, most of them aren't.

One sizable group is actually to the left of the Democrats, votes for Democrats, but can't stand the mealy-mouthed wimpitude of today's party. These folks usually vote Democratic, but a lot of them voted for Nader. They love Barbara Boxer, but hate Dianne Feinstein.

Another sizable group are libertarian, but not so ideological about it to register Libertarian. Some them will explicitly say that they are ticket-splitters because they want the two parties to stop each other from enacting anything significant, because anything the government does will be a mess. They are horrified by the Christian right.

A third group went heavily for Perot in the early days of his campaign. They think of themselves as pragmatists that just want to fix things. A lot of them don't pay much attention to politics. They are probably the closest to "half way between". A lot of them like John McCain, and they voted for Arnold in a big way, though many of them now regret it.


Posted by: Joe Buck on March 21, 2006 at 2:13 PM | PERMALINK

'Independents' are either Democrats who live in Republican towns, or Republicans who don't really like to be associated with people they know are the worst people they could vote for, but they'll end up voting for them anyway because their brandedness neurons have been so overwhelmingly pre-programmed.

Posted by: cld on March 21, 2006 at 2:20 PM | PERMALINK

While independents may be down in relative numbers, their influence is potentially great given the pretty evenly split partisan electorate these days. Given two straight presidential elections within a few percentage points, both in popular vote and the electoral college, a 15 percent independent fraction can easily swing an election if you can pick up 2/3 of them. Both parties seem to have taken a 'mobilize the base' rather than 'win over the moderates' strategy in recent years, but that doesn't mean the latter couldn't work (Hillary and Bill apparently think so, anyway).

Posted by: ChiSox Fan in LA on March 21, 2006 at 2:27 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin

I think you've got the large parameters of this right. A certain number of folks who were largely culturally conservative in the South kept on voting locally and statewide and congressionally as "yellow dog" Democrats well into the 70s and 80s. Some still do today, tho they still tend to move towards the conservative-corporate Democrats. the Tyson family for instance, in Northwest Arkansas, represents just the kind of big business interest that you'd expect to vote and support republicans, but,as yellow dog democrats (and as folks who weren't at all part of the religious-social conservative set) they were an integral part of the funding for Clinton's early campaigns. I don't know how they vote/donatee today, but I'm certain that it's all about where the money goes and not based on any particular set of social values.

And...I probably sound like a broken record to some folks here, but this "the south is full of stupid people" thing from y'all is really pissing me off. Part of what makes me a liberal is the beleif in the common good, the belief that you can't just divide people up ethnically or regionally and then write off the ones you disagree with. There are ALOT of different people in the South, there are cultures and countercultures, progressives, liberals, conservatives and independents. To write off alot of these folks simply because the conservaitve paleo-Republicans have managed to craft electoral majorities there is unconsionable and intolerant. it also ignores how those electoral majorities have been built and or maintained.

As Kevin points out, Nixon's southern strategy was important, but it's not the whole story. the other part of the story is the way that the powerful grassroots organizational tactics (direct mail comapigns, etc.) of the Religious Right mobilized voters there by preying on the fears of people who had, in the 60s, undergone huge political changes (the dismantling of de jure segregation) & in the 70s & 80s were buffeted by serious economic problems. "Values" appeals worked on these voters not just because they were predisposed to these notions, and certailnly not because they were/are 'stupid" but also because they represented a kind of continuity in the face of unsettling changes. Sure, some of these people ARE stupid, and/or evil, but, as a people they aren't any more stupid or evil than people elsewhere. Those of them that do have good intentions have had those intentions hijacked by ideolouges and oppurtunists.

The South has been dominated by assholes for a long time, from planters to Dixiecrats to evangelical conservatives. But they are'nt all the same kinds of assholes, and they aren't by any means the whole story. This domination has a profound effect on national, Presidential politics, but we can't change it through Presidential politics. we defintely can't change it with a bunch of dumabass name calling.

Posted by: URK on March 21, 2006 at 2:27 PM | PERMALINK

"They are horrified by the Christian right."

Count me in that category, too.

Posted by: sheerahkahn on March 21, 2006 at 2:28 PM | PERMALINK

The last few decades have seen an increasing percentage of voters falling into one of two groups that usually don't ticket-split: minorities (mostly voting straight Democratic) and Christian fundamentalists (mostly voting straight Republican).

Posted by: Peter on March 21, 2006 at 2:29 PM | PERMALINK

An analogous issue is also at work: the ideological polarization of the political parties. As late as 1978, there were prominent Republican liberals. Edward Brooke was a Republican Senator from Mass., endorsed by Jesse Jackson in the '78 campaign. John Anderson was among the more liberal members of Congress, regardless of party.

With the rise of the New Right, the liberal and moderate wings (the Ripon Society faction Dionne highlights in his piece, and the Main Street faction highlighted in the NYT article on GOP outreach to labor, coincidentally) have been all but eviscerated. Sherwood Boehlehrt is one of the least of a dying breed.

The Democratic Party didn't go through the same level of ideological tumult (or rather, it flaired up and quickly burnt out in the late sixties), but has gradually assumed more ideological uniformity. Guesstimate, the Dems are now about where the GOP was immediately pre-Reagan.

Ticket splitting now is not the same thing as ticket splitting in the 60s, 70s, or 80s. It's predictive of party loyalty, not ideological position.

Posted by: Dave Meyer on March 21, 2006 at 3:03 PM | PERMALINK

I've explained "independent" aka "swing" voters to you so many times, Kevin, that I can't ccount them. Close your mouth and listen up:

They simply can't decide. They wait till the last minute to decide, hoping for more data.

People like that, when they get in the voting booth, make the ultimate NON-decision -- they tend to take the default (vote for incumbant, or no change in party).

This phenonemon becomes much more pronounced in tim,es of fear (as in fear of terorism). They become like deer in the headlights.

Posted by: Libby Sosume on March 21, 2006 at 3:07 PM | PERMALINK

Note to Hillary, the DLC, and other Spineless Dems:

The swing vote doesn't mean SHIT if you lose your base. And you've lost this Proud Liberal.

Posted by: Osama_Been_Forgotten on March 21, 2006 at 3:20 PM | PERMALINK

The swing vote doesn't mean SHIT if you lose your base. And you've lost this Proud Liberal.

Amen to that. Even if the mythical independents were really the key to winning a tight race, YOU STILL NEED YOUR DAMN BASE! *
Republicans know this. Democrats do not, much to their peril.

* (unless you really believe that indies make up enough people to replace your base, in which case you've just changed the party's core. But there are not that many indies, not by a long shot).

Posted by: teece on March 21, 2006 at 4:02 PM | PERMALINK

Bush's friend published a book where he said that Bush in 1999 said he wanted a war. Why? To push his domestic agenda.

You might question the accuracy of his friend's report, but what exactly contradicts it? Everyone reports the same thing. 9/12 -- pin yesterday on Iraq. And on and on and on.

If I had a semi, I'd regret it.

Posted by: Jeffrey Davis on March 21, 2006 at 4:04 PM | PERMALINK

Wait. Why was there 40% ticket splitting in the South in 1952? I get it in 1972; they were voting for Nixon rather than McGovern, but otherwise for Democrats. But I didn't know they abandoned the Democrats for Eisenhower -- oh, probably did. The military guy against Adlai Stevenson (temptation here to bash Southerners about inability to pronounce Adlai, must repress). Of course. But on rerun in 1956, percentage of splitters dropped way down, about 20%. Did they forget Ike was in WWII, or what???

Posted by: David in NY on March 21, 2006 at 4:45 PM | PERMALINK

Hey folks, remember that ANY analysis of split ticket voting will by definition ignore voters who vote only for President. You can't split your ticket if you only vote for one race. Too small a population you say? Here's a test: what percentage of 2004 Presidential election voters did not vote in their congressional race? 1 percent? 2 percent? Certainly in a close election that's a population worth paying attention to. But if you said 7.4%, or a full 9 million voters, you would be exactly right. The fact that 9 million people don't show up in a split ticket analysis means y'all are missing the point. These are the voters who go back and forth from election to election, not within the voting booth.

POTUS, U.S. House.

Posted by: Sage Observer on March 21, 2006 at 4:49 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin wrote: It's not possible to build an enduring majority without appealing to centrist swing voters

It seems to me that discussions about "how Democrats can win elections" seem to assume that Democrats have to take the existing political views, whatever those are supposed to be, of "centrist swing voters" as a given, and then "appeal to them".

I think it's not possible to build an enduring majority without staking out a principled position and then persuading the so-called "centrist swign voters" that that's the right way to go.

In other words, rather than "appealing to the center", the thing to do is to change the center.

That's one reason that after more than 30 years as a registered Democrat I changed my voter registration to Green.

Posted by: SecularAnimist on March 21, 2006 at 5:00 PM | PERMALINK

I've explained "independent" aka "swing" voters to you so many times, Kevin, that I can't ccount them. Close your mouth and listen up:

They simply can't decide. They wait till the last minute to decide, hoping for more data.

People like that, when they get in the voting booth, make the ultimate NON-decision -- they tend to take the default (vote for incumbant, or no change in party).

This phenonemon becomes much more pronounced in tim,es of fear (as in fear of terorism). They become like deer in the headlights. Posted by: Libby Sosume

Very well put, Libby.

Most Americans do not have a political ideology. Arriving at one requires concentration and thought - you might have to read something other than the local weekly "newspaper."

Most Americans, whether it is a local, state or national election, are overwhelmingly one issue voters. However, they are unable to integrate even that one all-important issue into the proverbial big picture to see if it is really all that important to the health and security of the nation (gay marriage and abortion are obvious examples).

Posted by: Jeff II on March 21, 2006 at 5:23 PM | PERMALINK

I'm an independant. And nobody ever explains my politics correctly. I have no use for the far left or the far right.

I don't want homosexual propaganda in my breakfast food, and I think creationism is insanity.

My votes come down to who is LEAST insane.

So far, Bush scares me more than Brokeback Mountain, but I don't want my kids learning that gay is the SAME as straight.

My issues are always with the fringes. And I don't like any of them.

I think American Jews run our foreign policy to the detriment of the country. I think Islam should be engaged rather than vilified.

And I think we should make it illegal for people to hire non citizens. Why build a wall? Just make it illegal to work without a visa or citizenship card.

All this stuff is pretty self evident, but the country is run by zealots for Israel, Big Business addicted to cheap labor, together with activists for religion and homosexuality.

Nobody wants to hear from people like me.

Posted by: mike on March 22, 2006 at 10:20 AM | PERMALINK

Oh, and I think Israel and the neocons are responsible for 9/11 - it was in inside job.

Posted by: mike on March 22, 2006 at 10:22 AM | PERMALINK

thank you mike

ME TOO!!

Until we begin to speak up honestly about the dual loyalties of some Americans - we are all at risk.

I don't think Jews believe they are treasonous when they advance policies to benefit other Jews.

They think it's just good business and politics to put your money on your own horses.

But when they start to tell the rest of us we are nazis for calling them on it - well, that's the stuff jew hatred is based on.

Posted by: Christine on March 22, 2006 at 3:56 PM | PERMALINK

I have been coming to this site for years now I guess and Kevin is starting to get it. People complain about trolls but they really do sometimes tell you the other side of the story.

One day Kevin's going to have a post on how the party that is wanting to spend is determined by which party has the Southerners in it. Fact is Southerners did what Kevin suggests. And as Democrats previously and Republicans now, Southern politicians talk about not spending, but Yankee politicians VOTE to not spend. There's a big difference.

Posted by: Chad on March 22, 2006 at 5:55 PM | PERMALINK

I was living in the South during that time period and, yes, that happened as he said. I can't vouch that it's solely responsible for skewing the Klinkner's data but it must have had an impact.

Completely agree!

Posted by: Azerbaijan on March 23, 2006 at 1:20 AM | PERMALINK




 

 

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