The Violence of Faction: Partisanship Hardens in 2016
In the Federalist Papers, James Madison warned about “the violence of faction.” The design of the republic was intended to accommodate a plurality of factions, so that none could control the government to the detriment of the public good. In U.S. politics, that has taken the form of parties lacking total control over representatives, who instead represent more diverse constituent interests, and form ad hoc coalitions in the Congress. For that to exist, it requires representatives whom voters see as individuals, rather than rubber stamps for their party leadership.
A hallmark of American democracy is that we vote for candidates and not parties. As voters, we pride ourselves on supporting the best candidates, irrespective of their political party affiliations. This “crossover voting” or “ticket splitting” - voting for nominees of different political parties for different offices - is credited with preserving Madisonian ideals of democracy and making the United States a uniquely stable presidential system.
Unfortunately, it seems to be dying. Election results demonstrate that voters increasingly vote for the same political party nominee in presidential and congressional races.
The Disappearance of Crossover Representatives
The easiest way to demonstrate this fact is by considering the change in the number of “crossover representatives” over time. A crossover representative is a Member of Congress elected from a district that favors the opposite political party. As we reported in a 2013 analysis, the number of such representatives has decreased markedly. In 1993, 88 Democrats won election in districts that favor Republicans, and 25 Republicans won election in districts that favor Democrats. By 2013, those numbers were 16 and 10 respectively. After the 2014 election, they were 9 and 16 respectively.
In other words, in 22 years, the total number of crossover representatives decreased from 113 to 25. In the wake of the 2016 election, we can now report that the number of crossover representatives in Congress appears to have decreased again. The exact number will require an update to the partisanship of each district, which is coming soon, but using 2012 partisanship, the number is 24. Using the Cook Partisan Voting Index, it is only 13. Looking more carefully at these numbers after the 2016 election makes the picture even more bleak.
There are 313 districts (about 72% of districts) locked within either a “red wall” or a “blue wall,” that are utterly safe for their party’s nominee. Of these, 166 districts are all at least 57% Republican (by 2012 partisanship) and were all won by Republicans. The other 147 are at least 56% Democratic and were all won by Democrats.
Things are not much better outside of those walls, either. Of the 223 districts that are at least 52% Republican, Republicans hold 220. Of the 181 districts that are at least 52.5% Democratic, Democrats hold 177.
That means that of the 404 districts with a clear lean toward one party or the other (not merely swing districts), a grand total of 7 elected a Representative of the opposite party. These are the only districts where Members have a clear electoral incentive to reach across party lines. Only 31 competitive districts remain, and as we know from the presidential election, candidates do not necessarily have to appeal to the center to win election with a roughly 50-50 electorate.
Another way to consider this is by looking at raw vote totals. Only 32 out of 435 contests were won by less than a 10 point margin. The other 303 were not really competitive. Also, a majority of the House (218 seats) are now held by Republicans who won by at least 12.7 percent. This year appears to be a somewhat Democratic year overall, and yet the median congressional district was won by a relatively huge margin by a Republican. That reinforces the plain fact that Democrats will have an extremely difficult time winning the House of Representatives for the foreseeable future.
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