Why the Senate Will Only Get More Polarized

As party-line voting between presidential and congressional races steadily increases, so will gridlock.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) (L) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) speak during a ceremony to celebrate the life Nobel Peace Prize laureate and former South Africa President Nelson Mandela on the occasion of his 95th birthday in the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center July 18, 2013 in Washington, DC. July 18 is Nelson Mandela Day, during which people are asked to give 67 minutes of time to charity and service in their community to honor the 67 years Mandela gave to public service. Mandela was admitted to a South African hospital June 8 where he is being treated for a recurring lung infection.
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Ronald Brownstein
Jan. 3, 2014, 5:14 a.m.

It’s too early to con­fid­ently pre­dict which party will hold the U.S. Sen­ate after the Novem­ber elec­tion. But it’s a safe bet the next Sen­ate will more closely re­flect the na­tion’s en­trenched red-blue pres­id­en­tial di­vide. And that’s a re­cipe for even more po­lar­iz­a­tion and grid­lock.

This year’s races will likely provide more evid­ence of voters’ grow­ing in­clin­a­tion to sup­port Sen­ate can­did­ates from the same party as that of their pres­id­en­tial choice. This has made it much tough­er than a gen­er­a­tion ago for either party to elect sen­at­ors from states that typ­ic­ally back the oth­er side in pres­id­en­tial elec­tions.

The tight­en­ing cor­rel­a­tion between pres­id­en­tial and Sen­ate vot­ing rep­res­ents a back-to-the-fu­ture trend in na­tion­al polit­ics. Through the first half of the 20th cen­tury, party-line vot­ing was com­mon. After Frank­lin Roosevelt’s first two vic­tor­ies in 1932 and 1936, for in­stance, Demo­crats held 89 per­cent of the Sen­ate seats in the 40 states that sup­por­ted him both times.

This re­la­tion­ship frayed later in the cen­tury, as more voters split their tick­et between pres­id­en­tial and Sen­ate races. That was es­pe­cially true in the South (and to some ex­tent in the Moun­tain West), where many voters who had shif­ted to­ward GOP pres­id­en­tial can­did­ates still sup­por­ted Demo­crats in Sen­ate and House races. The res­ult was that the GOP con­trolled only about half the Sen­ate seats in the states that twice voted for Richard Nix­on (in 1968 and 1972) and Ron­ald Re­agan (1980 and 1984).

The large num­ber of sen­at­ors elec­ted from states that leaned to­ward the oth­er party in pres­id­en­tial elec­tions en­cour­aged the Sen­ate’s cul­ture of com­prom­ise and ne­go­ti­ation from roughly the 1950s through the 1980s. Sen­at­ors who’d been elec­ted, in ef­fect, from be­hind en­emy lines were nat­ur­al deal­makers: Rep­res­ent­ing voters with mixed loy­al­ties, they had a clear self-in­terest in sup­press­ing par­tis­an con­flict.

But those in­stinct­ive bridge-build­ers are van­ish­ing. Since the 1980s, party-line vot­ing between pres­id­en­tial and con­gres­sion­al races has stead­ily in­creased. The share of Sen­ate seats con­trolled by the pres­id­ent’s party in the states he car­ried twice rose to two-thirds after Bill Clin­ton’s reelec­tion and to three-fourths un­der George W. Bush. Fol­low­ing Obama’s two vic­tor­ies, Demo­crats now hold 83 per­cent (43 of the 52 seats) in the 26 states he car­ried twice.

Re­pub­lic­ans this fall might swipe a Sen­ate seat in one or two of those blue-tilt­ing states (Michigan is their best op­por­tun­ity), but the big­ger change is loom­ing in red places. Boos­ted by the GOP’s weak­ness late in Bush’s pres­id­ency, Demo­crats hold 10 of the 44 seats in the 22 red-lean­ing states that twice op­posed Obama. This fall Demo­crats must de­fend six of those seats: reelec­tions for in­cum­bents in Alaska, Arkan­sas, and Louisi­ana, plus open seats in Montana, South Dakota, and West Vir­gin­ia. In ad­di­tion, Demo­crat Kay Hagan is seek­ing reelec­tion in North Car­o­lina, one of the two states (along with In­di­ana) that flipped from Obama to the GOP in 2012.

Obama’s loc­al weak­ness threatens all of these Demo­crats. In both the 2006 and 2010 midterm elec­tions, exit polls found that Sen­ate can­did­ates from the pres­id­ent’s party lost al­most every race in states where his ap­prov­al rat­ing fell to 47 per­cent or be­low. Gal­lup’s most re­cent polling put the pres­id­ent’s ap­prov­al rat­ing at 43 per­cent.

The 2012 Demo­crat­ic Sen­ate vic­tor­ies in solidly red In­di­ana, Mis­souri, and North Dakota show it’s pos­sible to buck these trends: Each of those Demo­crat­ic can­did­ates sur­vived an anti-Obama tide by ex­pos­ing vul­ner­ab­il­it­ies in flawed Re­pub­lic­an op­pon­ents. Yet even the most skilled politi­cians on both sides are find­ing it tough­er to sur­mount voters’ grow­ing tend­ency to vote more for the party and less for the in­di­vidu­al.

This grow­ing con­nec­tion between pres­id­en­tial and Sen­ate vot­ing has im­plic­a­tions that ex­tend well bey­ond the 2014 battle for con­trol. Red-state Demo­crats like Louisi­ana’s Mary Landrieu and West Vir­gin­ia’s Joe Manchin, and blue-state Re­pub­lic­ans like Pennsylvania’s Pat Toomey and Maine’s Susan Collins, are of­ten the most eager Sen­ate deal­makers. But the trend to­ward party-line vot­ing means there will be few­er of them. With each party hold­ing the pres­id­en­tial ad­vant­age in about half the states, it also means “the con­tem­por­ary Sen­ate will be very un­likely to see big ma­jor­it­ies” for either side, and will likely ex­per­i­ence more-fre­quent switches in con­trol, notes Emory Uni­versity polit­ic­al sci­ent­ist Alan Ab­ramow­itz.

Few­er deal­makers mean few­er deals; and nar­row, tenu­ous ma­jor­it­ies will en­cour­age the minor­ity party to wage war to deny the ma­jor­ity any ac­com­plish­ments that could re­in­force their fra­gile ad­vant­age. Both of those trends prom­ise yet more Sen­ate po­lar­iz­a­tion. “It changes the in­tern­al dy­nam­ics,” Ab­ramow­itz says. A Sen­ate that more pre­cisely tracks the red-blue di­vide is less likely to tran­scend it with cre­at­ive com­prom­ise.

In an era of un­stable ma­jor­it­ies, whichever side con­trols the Sen­ate ma­jor­ity after Novem­ber will likely find its ad­vant­age fleet­ing. But these un­der­ly­ing changes are trans­form­ing the Sen­ate more last­ingly — and not for the bet­ter.


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