Voting the Person and not the Party

To the consternation of many, a good number of Massachusetts voters are again flirting with a split ticket.

Why don’t citizens just listen to political scientists, party leaders, and political commentators and vote a straight party ticket?

Critics of our political and constitutional system have found themselves befuddled by the lack of clarity that is often the hallmark of our politics due, in part, to split ticket voting.

The late Washington Post columnist David Broder regularly encouraged—implored– Americans to vote a straight party ticket to avoid further dividing a system that was, in his estimation, already too separate.

Broder and others lamented the American voter’s tendency to place two political parties in control of the federal government, encouraging isolation, fragmentation, and gridlock.

Political scientists who looked at divided government from the 1970’s to the 1990’s developed a term for the preference of voters: cognitive Madisonianism–the conscience belief that the federal government had become too strong and needed further division between the parties.

Woodrow Wilson was one of the first political scientists to decry the separation of powers inherent in the Constitution and encouraged Americans to look abroad to see how parliamentary democracies conducted their business.  He wanted to bring a ministerial form of government to American soil and in his early years as president, Wilson governed as an American prime minister, with majorities in both houses regularly passing his initiatives.

Wilson believed that with parliamentary techniques and characteristics we’d become much more efficiently organized and political parties would develop programmatic platforms of clarity and substance.  His insistence in party government would have rather sad consequences during the last two years of his term.  Still, his criticism of the system had quite an impact on generations of political scientists and commentators.

But Americans don’t seem convinced given the evidence. Since the Republicans roared back to life in the 1946 congressional elections, the American national government has been under divided party control for 40 out of 66 years.

While it is important to note that split ticket voting is not the sole reason we end up with divided government, the bottom line is that we’re not buying what Wilson is selling.

I find the reason to be pretty clear: we do not live under a parliamentary system where party platforms are summarily enacted once the election is over.  Our system of separation of powers and federalism encourages division even when one party controls both of the political branches because the branches have different constituencies and different interests.

Party platforms are not parliamentary contracts and, even if they were, the institutional structure of the system continues to disrupt the Wilsonian goal of programmatic efficiency and clarity of party purpose. My colleague Professor Duquette finds in “partisan policy formation and enactment” the “most significant factor in charting the direction of American public policy.”

I see institutional struggles as equally significant and while it is true that unified control of the branches by one party allows a president to enact a legislative agenda with greater ease, it is also true that substantial public policies have been enacted during times of divided government.   To be sure, those moments are sporadic but they are so by design.

The Framers feared not only executive tyranny but also a majority tyranny, the latter more likely in a parliamentary system.  Hence the creation of various checks and balances into the structure of government where each branch would compete against the other for power.

This type of governing arrangement is by its very nature somewhat vague and the Constitution does not neatly package the executive, legislative, and judicial powers.  Each branch can play a role in the affairs of the other and this is how the Framers intended the system to work.  That competition can lead to impressive policies.  It can also lead to stalemate which many of the Framers would have also found to be impressive.

The institutional competition built into our system is anti party.  And that fact has had a significant impact on the development of our political culture.  Look at the recent polls in the Massachusetts Senate race and it’s clear that voters are not simple cogs in the political party wheel.  We don’t line up neatly and perfectly with one side or the other.  The parties themselves are not that neatly defined and individual voters find themselves perfectly at home in Whitman’s characterization of himself: “I am large, I contain multitudes.”

Three recent polls from Western New England University, WBUR, and the University of Massachusetts find Scott Brown winning 11% or 21% or 19% of the Democratic vote.  He’s winning unenrolled voters by anywhere between 52% and 62% spending on the poll.

Yet Obama is crushing Romney in the state.

Many voters will pull a lever for Scott Brown and Barack Obama and find nothing amiss about that action.  Massachusetts voters found something they liked and admired in the politics and personalities of Ronald Reagan and John Kerry in 1984.  They sent Ed Brooke back to the Senate in 1972 while giving their votes to George McGovern.  They sent Bill Clinton to the White House in the same year they sent Peter Blute and Peter Torkildsen to Congress for the first of two terms.

None of which predicts a Brown win, of course.  And the winds at the back of the Elizabeth Warren due to the overwhelming Democratic advantage in the state remain very strong.

Win or lose, a significant number of people with split their tickets.  We do so because Americans are not wedded to their political parties.   Our system is anti-party by design.  We are anti-party by temperament and culture.  We pick and choose and we have done so for a good long time despite Woodrow Wilson’s best efforts to convince us otherwise.

About Peter Ubertaccio

Peter Ubertaccio is the Director of Joseph Martin Institute for Law & Society at Stonehill College in Easton and Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science & International Studies. His work focuses on political parties, marketing and institutions. He received his Ph.D. in Politics from Brandeis University in Waltham, MA. Professor Ubertaccio and his family live on Cape Cod where he is on the Board of Directors of the OpenCape Corporation and the Sandwich Economic Initiative Corporation.
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2 Responses to Voting the Person and not the Party

  1. Pingback: Headlines for Wednesday, October 10, 2012 » MASSterList

  2. Professor Us post is a familiar and conventional way to describe modern American voters as a group, but it in no way minimizes the reality that the rationality of “ticket-splitting” is entirely dependent on the context of each election. Nor, does it minimize the reality that ticket-splitters tend to be what political scientists call “low information” voters. Their “Madisonian” instinct is a product of ignorance and cynicism, not strategic thinking.

    The folks contemplating a split-ticket between Obama and Brown are not trying to create a “check” in a contextually rational Madisonian sense. They are attracted to Scott Brown as an individual who they see as a moderate among extremists. They do not understand the institutional reality of the US Senate in 2012. It is simply inconceivable that a Republican Senate would INCREASE legislative productivity, or moderation. They understand that Brown is a moderate (though only in comparison to his party’s leaders), but don’t understand the procedures of the Senate that make Brown’s personal moderation irrelavant to the present immoderate tone in the US Senate.

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