The most fascinating dynamic of election night might not be the regimented partisan alignment everyone is predicting, but the reemergence of ticket-splitting and how that might determine the balance of power in the U.S. Senate.
The magnitude of ticket-splitting is hard to predict, but it’s clear the phenomenon will be more rampant this cycle than in recent history. After three consecutive wave elections for Congress and three straight presidential elections defined by partisan rigidity, this back-to-the-future voting dynamic will be more than a novelty—it will allocate power and change legislative behavior.
By contrast, the presidential election will likely be decided by get-out-the-vote efforts of partisans. I very much doubt it will hinge on the flaky affections of the overhyped “undecided voters.” Statistically, those who are still undecided are almost certain not to vote; in this they are much like unicorns—figments of our imagination.
Partisans—meaning those locked into President Obama or Mitt Romney—will decide the presidential election. But these same partisans will, in conspicuously large numbers, split their ticket on Senate races.
And Romney and Obama know it. In the final presidential debate, they both spoke across the ballot. Romney’s demeanor and rhetoric was soft and reassuring. That will help Scott Brown in Massachusetts, Linda McMahon in Connecticut, George Allen in Virginia, and Dean Heller in Nevada. Obama was tough and aggressive. That will help Jon Tester in Montana, Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota, Claire McCaskill in Missouri, and Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts.
“I don’t think there is any question that Senate races have the wherewithal to be more about the choice between the two candidates on the ballot than a referendum on the presidential race,” said Guy Cecil, executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “And we shouldn’t draw too many conclusions from the last three cycles because they have been wave elections. This one is decidedly not that.”
While it’s true that some conservatives like Rich Lowry of National Review and talk-show host Laura Ingraham recoiled at what they regarded as Romney’s debate diffidence, the “base” Romney cared about most found much to latch on to and admire. That base is primarily made up of the growing number of women voters who have helped Romney close the gender gap from the mid-teens to the low- to mid-single digits, depending on the poll.
Top Romney advisers believe this “new base” of Romney voters, mostly women but also some right-leaning GOP men, want three things from a GOP standard-bearer:
1. Zero talk of hot wars in Iran and Syria and a measured plan to move out of Afghanistan—one that doesn’t cede the country in toto to the Taliban.
2. Bipartisanship. It was no accident Romney invoked it in his closing statement and earlier discussions of economic growth and domestic policy. Romney’s pacifism in the face of Obama’s attacks—“wrong and reckless” ideas, Bush-Cheney redux, “horses and bayonets”—was designed to demonstrate a bipartisan turning of the cheek. Though still critical of Obama, Romney was nevertheless strategically soothing in backing—generally—Obama policy on Syria, Iran, drone strikes, and the U.S.-supported disposing of Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak.
3. Tie economic growth to national security. New Romney voters fear the Greece pit of debt, austerity, political chaos, and misery, and want someone who sounds like he has a plan to avoid it. Romney’s “new base” doesn’t consider this extraneous to the foreign-policy conversation and Romney advisers believe there was more to gain there than, say, on Libya—an issue Romney simply jettisoned.
It’s easy to assume that presidential candidates care only about their race and play little heed to down-ballot contests. But Obama and Romney know that each Senate victory will determine their legislative latitude in the 113th Congress. Romney went easy during Monday night’s debate for his own benefit and for Republican Senate candidates who need Democratic votes.
Team Obama wanted to reveal Romney as someone closer to craven than critical in his criticism of the president, lampooning him on the size of the U.S. Navy and for knocking the so-called “apology tour.” For Obama, toughness and grit is designed to woo Republicans who will vote for Romney but may also vote for down-ballot Democrats.
“Reaching out” is almost as much of a campaign cliché as “undecided voters” and, at this stage, just as meaningless. But Obama and Romney are doing just that—somewhat for themselves but much more and far more strategically for Senate candidates from Bridgeport to Bozeman and Reno to Roanoke.
This article appears in the Oct. 24, 2012, edition of National Journal Daily.