OFF TO THE RACES

The Power of "Negative Partisanship"

In the current political climate, it's more important that the other side loses than your side wins.

Donald Trump supporters and protesters argue during a Trump rally in Hickory, N.C. on March 14, 2016.
AP Photo/Ben Earp
April 15, 2019, 8 p.m.

It’s no secret that the level of political acrimony in the 1970s and 1980s now pales in comparison to the current climate of partisanship. Indeed, when the Justice Department on Thursday releases Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s partially redacted report on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, reactions will inevitably fall along partisan lines.

There’s something more specific at play, however. Partisanship used to be thought of as something practiced primarily by super-believers, and in some cases that’s still true. But now we are seeing a rise in what’s known as negative partisanship, in which partisan zealots are not enamored with their own party or candidates as much as they loathe anyone in the opposition party.

As Emory University political scientists Alan Abramowitz and Steven Webster observe: “To a greater extent than at any time in the post–World War II era, the outcomes of elections below the presidential level reflect the outcomes of presidential elections. As a result, the famous comment by the late Tip O’Neill that ‘all politics is local’ now seems rather quaint. In the 21st century United States, it increasingly appears that all politics is national.”

In “The Strengthening of Partisan Affect,” Stanford political scientists Shanto Iyengar and Masha Krupenkin note that “as animosity toward the opposing party has intensified, it has taken on a new role as the prime motivator in partisans’ political lives.” Iyengar and Krupenkin go on to suggest that “the impact of feelings toward the out-party on both vote choice and the decision to participate has increased since 2000; today it is out-group animus rather than in-group favoritism that drives political behavior.”

For years my unfortunate suspicion has been that the strongest emotion in politics is not love but hate, that opposition unites, that more passion is often found among those con than pro. The title of another piece written by Abramowitz and Webster says it all: “Negative Partisanship: Why Americans Dislike Parties But Behave Like Rabid Partisans.”

This came into play in last year’s midterm elections in a big way. University of California (San Diego) political scientist Gary Jacobson, in a paper presented this month to the Midwest Political Science Association, argued that while in many ways the 2018 elections behaved much like the pattern we’ve come to expect in midterms, in its particulars the 2018 vote “was anything but ordinary.” A crucial oddity was the disjunction between presidential approval and the economy. Ordinarily, a president enjoying very good economic numbers (solid economic growth, very low unemployment, low inflation, a strong stock market, and the rosiest public views of the economy in more than two decades) during a time of relative peace would be expected to have much higher overall approval ratings than Trump was receiving.

But this election, Jacobson suggests, was far more about Trump and partisanship than about the economy, with partisans holding in line more than they have since the 1940s and '50s. Trump garnered approval ratings among Republicans in the vicinity of 90 percent but in the single digits among Democrats. Jacobson writes: “The stability of popular opinions of Trump is no mystery, for his conduct as president has given most people no reason to revise what they thought of him as a candidate. Democrats and others appalled by his character and objectives before the election have seen their worst expectations confirmed. Trump has mounted a root-and-branch assault on Barack Obama’s entire legacy (on health care, environmental protection, financial regulation, taxes, fiscal policy, immigration, and foreign trade).”

Looking over at the GOP, Jacobson suggests that “Trump has also largely met the expectations of the Republicans who voted for him, and they, like Democrats, also continue to regard him pretty much as they did before he was elected. Virtually everything he has said or done as president has catered exclusively to the coalition that elected him, its white-nationalist segment in particular, but also small-government and religious conservatives.” They enjoy his responses to critics, his disdain of the mainstream media, and applaud his rhetoric.

Operationally, we see this in House and Senate races. Jacobson points out in his MPSA paper that five of the six Senate seats that changed parties in 2018 went for the party that won the state in 2016. Now, 89 of 100 senators now represent a state won by their respective party’s presidential nominee in the last election, an all-time high.

Looking over at the House side, in 2015, Jacobson wrote in The Journal of Politics that “The changing effects of partisanship are also manifest in the incidence of ticket splitting.” Ticket splitting between House and presidential races doubled between the 1950s and 1970s, but gradually declined to the extent that in 2012 it was the smallest for any election in the entire series.” This pattern continued in the 2016 election.

The old saying that “I vote the person not the party,” once a commonplace belief, is now just a cliché. As such, it is getting harder and harder for incumbents or challengers to swim upstream. When they do, it is often because that state or district is in a transition period as it shifts from blue to red, or vice versa.

As for voters, expect them to continue taking it out on the party they hate. Their own party’s candidates are a secondary concern.

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