Professor: All politics is now national, leading to ‘confrontational politics’

by Steve Brawner ([email protected]) 422 views 

Partisanship is increasing because of voters’ dislike of the other party rather than loyalty to their own, leading to a cycle of confrontational politics. Meanwhile, presidential races increasingly determine voter behavior in down-ballot races including at the state legislative level.

Those were the observations of Dr. Alan Abramowitz, an Emory University political science professor, speaking Thursday (Feb. 9) at the Clinton School of Public Service. Abramowitz’s address was titled, in part, “All Politics Is National,” a play on the expression by the late U.S. Speaker Tip O’Neill, who said, “All politics is local.”

Abramowitz said Americans more consistently are casting straight-ticket ballots, starting with the presidential candidates. He said the 2012 election saw the highest rates of party loyalty and straight-ticket voting in 60 years, and post-election research is showing the 2016 election was no different.

Straight ticket voting reached about 80% in both parties in 2012, much higher than the rates in 1970, and it was true among strong partisans, weak partisans, and independents who lean toward a political party, whom he called “closet partisans.” In 2016, based on exit poll numbers, 92% of Republicans voted for President Donald Trump and 92% of Democrats voted for Hillary Clinton, and the numbers were similar in U.S. House and Senate races.

Straight-ticket voting has overtaken incumbency in determining how people vote, making it much more difficult for a candidate to differentiate himself or herself from their party among their state’s or district’s voters. A good example is the 2014 elections, when four Democratic U.S. senators, including Arkansas Sen. Mark Pryor, were defeated in states carried by Republican Mitt Romney two years earlier. In 2016, all 34 Senate races were won by the candidate whose presidential candidate won the state, and the only two incumbent senators who lost were Republicans in states won by Clinton. Of the 435 U.S. House seats, 400 were won by the candidate whose party’s presidential candidate won their district.

Why is partisan behavior increasing even as more Americans identify themselves as independents and more Americans view both parties negatively? Negative partisanship, Abramowitz said. Americans are more negative about the other party than they are more positive about their own, and they increasingly see one party as completely unacceptable.

Asked to rate parties on a temperature scale with 100 being hottest and 0 being coldest, since 1968 Americans have consistently rated their own party around 70 degrees. However, the opposing party has dropped from just below 50 degrees to 30 degrees. Fifty-eight percent of Democrats rated Trump at zero, and 56% of Republicans rated Clinton at zero. Republicans disliked Clinton even more than they disliked President Obama.

All of this is creating a cycle where confrontational politics leads to voter disgust with the other party, increasing straight-ticket voting and encouraging elected officials to engage in more confrontational politics. That means negative partisanship will continue to be a feature of American life, he said.

The nationalization of American politics has benefited Republicans because their voters are more evenly distributed than Democrats, who cluster in big cities and in overwhelmingly Democratic districts, Abramowitz said. Although Clinton won the popular vote, Trump carried 230 House districts while Clinton carried 205, and Trump carried 30 states.

Still, Republicans do face challenges moving forward. Republicans have lost the popular vote in six of the last seven presidential elections and are focusing their efforts on a shrinking share of the electorate – white voters without a college degree. The country is becoming more diverse, which reducing immigration won’t change because minorities compose a growing percentage of young people. At some point, Republicans will have to change their strategy, he said.