How the Lack of Ticket-Splitting Leads to Gridlock

by Nathan L. Gonzales March 3, 2021 · 2:22 PM EST

It’s easy to blame politicians for gridlock on Capitol Hill. It’s the voters, however, and the lack of ticket-splitting, that are key to the lack of compromise. For some reason, people act surprised that a divided country is reflected in a divided Congress.

The bottom line is that there are fewer and fewer mismatched districts and states; places that backed one party’s candidate for president and another party’s choice for House and/or Senate. And thanks to the quadrennial effort by Daily Kos Elections to calculate presidential results by congressional district, we can dive deeper into what happened in 2020. 

While some Republicans tried to cast doubt on Joe Biden’s presidential victory because the GOP gained a net of 12 House seats while President Donald Trump lost the popular vote and the Electoral College, that combination is easily explained by district-level results. 

Biden finished ahead of Trump in 224 districts, while Trump finished ahead of Biden in 211. That is remarkably similar to the 222-213 Democratic edge in House races, now that the contest in New York’s 22nd District is finally over and we have results in all 435 districts.

2020, a Correction
Basically, Democrats pushed into Trump territory in 2018 and captured some House seats when some of the president’s coalition stayed home. Two years later, when the full Trump coalition came out to vote with the president on the ballot, Republicans recaptured some of those seats. In essence, 2020 was a correction of sorts.

In 2020, with a few exceptions, where Trump won, Republican candidates won and where Trump lost, GOP candidates lost as well. It’s not a conspiracy. It’s a similar trend in the other chamber. Of the 69 Senate races in the last two presidential cycles, in just one state did voters pick a president from one party and a senator from the other. That context makes Sen. Susan Collins’ victory in Maine even more impressive.

This decrease in ticket-splitting is more than an electoral dynamic or the “nationalization of our politics,” as the political team at NBC News detailed recently. There’s a legislative dimension as well. 

Right now, there are just 16 House members in mismatched districts. In comparison, there were 35 such districts corresponding with the 2016 presidential race and 83 mismatched districts as a result of the 2008 elections, according to Daily Kos Elections.

Just 16 House ‘Mismatches’
That means just 16 out of 435 members, or less than 4 percent of the entire House, would feel an immediate cross-pressure from the most recent presidential results to support policies promoted by the opposing party. 

For the other 419 members, why would they work across the aisle to support legislation if it pulls them out of alignment with the partisanship of their districts? In fact, because of this dynamic, most members who buck the partisan lean of their constituencies are often punished, or at least threatened with a primary challenge.

Of course, there are some members who “match” the presidential result but not by a wide margin in their own race and could thus feel some electoral pressure when voting. That universe, however, isn’t particularly large. Just 37 races, or less than 9 percent of all House races, were decided by less than 5 points, according to our Jacob Rubashkin. And that total includes mismatched members.

There are currently seven Democrats representing districts Trump won in 2020: Jared Golden (Maine’s 2nd), Matt Cartwright (Pennsylvania’s 8th), Andy Kim (New Jersey’s 3rd), Elissa Slotkin (Michigan’s 8th), Cheri Bustos (Illinois’ 17th), Cindy Axne (Iowa’s 3rd) and Ron Kind (Wisconsin’s 3rd). 

There are nine Republicans representing districts Biden won: Brian Fitzpatrick (Pennsylvania’s 1st), John Katko (New York’s 24th), María Elvira Salazar (Florida’s 27th), Beth Van Duyne (Texas’ 24th), Don Bacon (Nebraska’s 2nd), David Valadao (California’s 21st), Mike Garcia (California’s 25th), Young Kim (California’s 39th) and Michelle Steel (California’s 48th). 

And with 2022 being a redistricting cycle, there are some unique factors when coupling electoral and legislative pressures. 

There’s a temptation to highlight the 16 mismatched members every time there’s a controversial vote. That’s not unreasonable except that, while we know what their current district looks like, we don’t know precisely what constituency they will face in the upcoming elections until new congressional districts are drawn.

In the end, these initially vulnerable members could find themselves in better, less competitive districts while some of their colleagues who look solid for reelection now could end up in serious races, or even choose not to run again because of the new partisan makeup.

Short List of ‘Persuadable’ Senators
The lack of ticket-splitting is not unique to the House. 

Just six senators currently represent a state that voted for the other party for president in 2020. Mismatched senators include Democrats Jon Tester (Montana), Sherrod Brown (Ohio) and Joe Manchin III (West Virginia) along with Republicans Patrick J. Toomey (Pennsylvania), Ron Johnson (Wisconsin) and Collins. 

That’s why we seem to come back to the same short list of potentially persuadable senators time and time again. Very few senators are swing votes based on the partisanship of their state, and sometimes that cross pressure isn’t enough to inspire compromise. For example, Johnson doesn’t appear to be capitulating to the Democratic agenda anytime soon, even though Biden won the Badger State.   

Overall, when you hear the drumbeat for legislative courage, remember that more than 95 percent of current members of Congress represent districts and states that are largely aligned with their party already. It’s easy to see how lawmakers see that as a directive from voters to compromise less, not more.