Mary Landrieu’s Loss and the End of Ticket Splitting

by Stuart Rothenberg December 10, 2014 · 9:41 AM EST

Louisiana Sen. Mary L. Landrieu’s defeat in the Dec. 6 runoff certainly was no surprise. If anything, it seemed inevitable since the evening of Nov. 4, when it became clear a Republican rout was underway and Democrats would lose control of the Senate.

But the veteran Democrat’s defeat is another reminder we have entered a period of parliamentary elections, where the parties stand for starkly different ideological agendas and where ticket-splitting, which follows from individual evaluations apart from party, is relatively rare.

In the end, the “Landrieu brand” in Louisiana did not matter any more than the Pryor brand mattered in Arkansas or the Begich brand mattered in Alaska. Party labels mattered far more than the individual names of the candidates. Voters in all three states saw the incumbents’ Democratic label, and that made their decisions easy.

I wrote about this dynamic in a column in March 2011, but I wasn’t entirely sure whether the trend, which I called “increasingly partisan nature of American voting,” would continue. It has.

The new reality of congressional campaigns doesn’t mean candidates can’t ever swim against the national tide. Some will, because each election cycle, and each race, is different. But political reporters and handicappers must now evaluate individual contests within the context of our increasingly ideological politics.

The defeat of more pragmatic Democrats — particularly in the South, but nationally as well — makes parliamentary voting more likely in the years ahead — just as the disappearance of more liberal Republicans has. The more each party is seen as representing an uncompromising ideology and certain constituencies, the more straight-ticket voting we will see.

The Democratic Party has become defined as the party of Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Al Franken of Minnesota; just as the GOP has become defined as the party of Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky.

Because of this, partisan voters in blue states will be increasingly hesitant to elect Republicans to the Senate, just as partisan voters in red states will be more and more reluctant to send Democrats to the Senate.

Of course, both parties still have a handful of more moderate senators — North Dakota Democrat Heidi Heitkamp and Maine Republican Susan Collins are obvious examples — as well as more pragmatic ideologues (for example, New York Democrat Charles E. Schumer and Kentucky Republican Mitch McConnell).

But increasingly, the parties have followed ideological agendas that more often than not define their members. The growth of ideological media, both on cable television and the Internet, has added to this political polarization.

The change in our parties and our politics created particular problems for Landrieu this time, since she always based her re-election strategy on turning out liberal African-Americans and getting enough support from moderates and whites in the business community. As my colleague Nathan Gonzales noted at the end of September ($) and again two days after the elections, Landrieu has had a terrible time with whites, and particularly white men, this cycle.

But if the Louisiana senator’s defeat demonstrated a long-term trend over which she had little or no control, the campaign also was a poster child of what is wrong with today’s campaigns.

Over the past few cycles, the party committees and many campaigns have embraced the notion of the permanent campaign. Campaigns begin the day after elections and campaign rhetoric and messaging that once built slowly over time now lasts for at least a year and a half. Everything and anything is campaign fodder, no matter how little impact it may have on the voters and no matter how ridiculous the rhetoric.

The Landrieu campaign, along with help from the Louisiana Democratic Party, was perhaps the best example of this. I am still not convinced that the folks in Landrieu’s press operation weren’t paid by the number of releases they sent out.

The press releases clearly had little impact on voters. Nobody cared about newspaper endorsements in the race or about what an Indiana Democratic senator thought about Landrieu’s performance in the Senate. The November elections and last week’s balloting make that abundantly clear.

Yet, I’m not optimistic that other campaigns will take the hint and substitute quality for sheer quantity.

Most of the things that campaigns do have little or no effect on the outcomes of their races. I only wish that most campaigns — and all journalists — would remember that.