Despite uncertainty early in the night, the midterm election results are remarkable for their lack of surprises. Democrats’ strength on the Coasts and in suburban areas propelled them to a House majority, while the GOP’s dominance in the middle of the country ousted most of the Senate’s remaining red-state Democrats. As a result, some commentators have seen this election as a continuation of the long-term trend of voters becoming more entrenched in their partisanship and geographical polarization. However, this narrative cannot explain one important development from Tuesday night: The success of liberal ballot measures in conservative states.
If the redder is getting redder and the blue is getting bluer, one would expect states to double-down in their partisan identities and vote with a high degree of ideological homogeneity that reflected elite partisan opinion. However, on Tuesday night, some the reddest states—Missouri, Nebraska, and Utah—all approved Medicaid expansion, a provision of the Affordable Care Act, despite electing Senators who have supported ACA repeal. Similarly, Floridians, by an overwhelming majority, passed Amendment 4, an amendment backed by Democrats and progressive groups, while also electing Republicans to state-wide office who opposed the Amendment.
How did so many voters cast such contradictory ballots? Perhaps we should not be that surprised. Since most Americans are driven more by partisanship than a consistent and thorough ideological framework, many of these voters likely felt no cognitive dissonance when casting their split tickets.
Most American voters are not very sophisticated. Among the many studies supporting this fact, the most relevant for understanding Tuesday’s split results is a study by the political scientist Phillip Converse. Converse discovered there is very little correlation between a voter’s preferences across issue areas, meaning a particular stance on one issue is not very predictive of opinions on other issues. These unsophisticated voters with an ad-hoc approach to policy, then, does not see their various votes as reflecting their well-reasoned, internally-consistent theory of politics. Instead, each office and amendment presents a discrete and independent choice. With this in mind, Tuesday’s split-ticket result is not completely anomalous, and the conventional wisdom that red states are becoming uniformly more different than blue states may be overstated.
If opinions on issues do not inform voting behavior, what does? Partisanship is the best predictor of voting behavior.
This model of a tribal, not ideological voter places great weight on the arguments politicians choose to make. In particular, if voters are more interested in whether or not their team wins than the policy outcomes of an election, they are likely to conform their opinions their opinions to what a politician argues. This insight is key to understanding the red state progressive ballot measures’ success in 2018.
Since its passage in 2010, the Affordable Care Act has been at the center of Republican election messaging. Indeed, the GOP’s election success in both 2010 and 2014 can be at least partly attributed to backlash against the Obamacare. Similarly, 2016 exit polls strongly suggest Trump’s consistent criticism of the Affordable Care Act helped him lock down the votes necessary to win. As Republican candidates kept Obamacare in the front of voters’ minds, the law’s approval rating was consistently underwater—especially among Republicans.
However, once Republicans gained unified control of government in January 2017, the Democrats rigorous defense of the ACA put the GOP on their heels. At this point, the ACA achieved its highest net approval rating since its passage, and numbers among Republicans similarly improved. Trying to cut their losses, Republicans, instead, focused their energy and ad money on tax cuts, caravans, and Nancy Pelosi. This made Obamacare one step removed from the partisan battle, allowing Republican partisans to support it without feeling they were betraying their team.
Tuesday’s split decision between state-wide office and amendments suggests the conventional wisdom that every state is becoming entrenched in the color they already were cannot be a product of substantive differences on policy. Therefore, growing polarization is not inevitable, and red and blue areas will offer differ to the extent partisan messaging diverges.
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