Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Why do Americans vote for divided government?

UPDATED: 17-April-2017*
I hate divided government and cannot wait to vote for it again
Since the end of WWII, including the 2014 midterms, there have been 34 federal elections in the United States.  Over that time Americans elected divided government 22 times. As a consequence, we have chosen a divided government state for 44 of the intervening 71 years or 62% of the time.

As 2014 2016 comes to a close we are in the fourth sixth year of our most recent iteration of federal divided government. We have a Democratic President, a Democratic Republican majority in the Senate, and a Republican majority in the House of Representatives. Democrat Barack Obama will be our President through 2016.  History and recent polls tell us there is no realistic probability that Republicans will lose majority control of the House in the 2014 mid-terms through the 2016 elections.* We will continue to “enjoy” divided government for the rest of President Obama's term. The only question now is whether Republicans can both take the Presidency and maintain majority control in the Senate with Donald Trump as their nominee. That seems unlikely. [It was a good divided government run. Back to the drawing board for 2018]

 One of the more interesting political science questions about divided government is the question of why the American electorate continues to vote for divided government. It is a simple fact that in the modern era we elect a divided government far more often than not. Why we choose divided government and whether we choose it consciously or accidentally is a subject of analysis and speculation. Is it truly a preference? Is it a statistical artifact?  Is it the result of conscious strategic voting?  Or is it the expression of a subconscious preference from an inchoate confused electorate?

Despite a range of sometimes contradictory hypothesis to explain our apparent preference for divided government, partisan punditry (particularly partisans of the party inhabiting the White House) are virtually unanimous in concluding that divided government is not a conscious choice of the voters. The conventional wisdom is that it just sort of happens - emerging as an accidental artifact of our politically divided electorate - or -  as a nefarious scheme of the dividing party who suddenly became unfairly effective at gerrymandering districts - or - as a consequence of stupid voters who do not vote in their own interest - or - simply a mysterious paradox:
Slate - October, 2010
"One explanation for our paradox is that Americans want divided government. If we have gridlock with one party in charge, perhaps we would have more legislative movement if power in Congress were divided? This might make sense as a national storyline, but it doesn't make sense in the real world, because wanting divided government doesn't tell an individual how to vote. If you are a voter in, say Pennsylvania's 8th District, would you vote against Democratic incumbent Patrick Murphy in order to get divided government if you weren't sure how people in all the other congressional Districts were going to vote? If you liked Murphy, would you say you are going to vote against him just to get divided government? For one thing, if people in other districts voted against Democrats, you could get divided government even if you voted for Murphy. Wouldn't it make more sense to stop worrying about how everyone else votes and simply pick the candidate you like?"
FDL - October, 2012
"Overwhelmingly, the American people think it would be better for one party to control both Congress and the White House. Apparently, the last two years of continuous fighting between President Obama and House Republicans as they stumbled from one artificially created crisis to the next has convinced voters that divided government only results in crippling gridlock... It will be interesting to see what impact this has on Congressional elections. Polling shows voters thinking President Obama will win a second term, so some may think the only way to get one-party control would be to support Democratic candidates for Congress."
Crooks & Liars, January 2013
I keep hearing this tired meme by Republicans who try to rationalize and justify their historic obstruction of Congress: the American people voted for (and therefore desire) divided government. Like so much of Republican talking points, it is nothing but bovine excrement. Poll after poll show that the American people are tired of partisanship and bickering.  But moreover, Americans aren't choosing divided government. Politicians are making sure that we have no other choice by gerrymandering.
Unlike the punditocracy, academia is more inclined to consider the possibility that the electorate is doing this deliberately. Sample scholarship for your reading enjoyment:
Divided Government Chapter 5 - Do Voters Choose Divided Government? 
Morris Fiorina Stanford University 

"But the patterns of divided control that exist in this country seem to suggest something more as well; namely, that there is some method in the electorate's seeming madness. Some of the aggregate features of election results are consistent with the notion that electorates want the kind of government they have and may even be voting in such a way as to produce it. If there is any validity to such suspicions, then normative discussions of the consequences of divided government are overlooking a critical ingredient."
Matthew Dickinson Middlebury College

What explains Americans love affair with divided government? In part, our explanations may vary depending on what type of divided government we see – right now the Congress is divided. That is the more rare form of divided government, occurring in just 12 years since 1947. In most other years we see a unified Congress facing a president from the other party. It is tempting to think, but harder to prove, that voters are engaged – consciously, or subconsciously – in some type of partisan balancing act. If they are consciously dividing control, the question is why? ...  Note that, as Morris Fiorina reminds us, not all voters need to be engaged in this type of reasoning for split government to occur – divided government only requires a minority of voters to split their ticket. Despite this, critics of the balancing argument suggest this still imposes a relatively high threshold of purposive voting on the part of voters.
Mark Schelker  University of St. Gallen

"One of the defining features of the American political system is its strong separation of  powers, whereby voters elect the members of the legislative and the executive separately. This regularly leads to divided government in which the party holding the executive power does not  hold a majority in the legislature, requiring compromises on policy by both parties. It has been argued that divided government is the result of rational electoral decisions by moderate voters  who balance political power between opposing party ideologies to moderate policy outcomes  (Fiorina 1992, Alesina and Rosenthal 1995, 1996). This requires sophisticated voters who  understand the institutional set-up, enabling them to make use of the extensive checks and balances inherent to a system with such a strong separation of powers."
Michael S. Lewis-Black University of Iowa
"American voters who favor divided government do appear to act on that preference,by voting a split-ticket. In 1992 and in 1996, voters who declared themselves open to different party control across electoral arenas were clearly more likely to vote one party for the presidency, another for Congress. That is, they voted to check governmental power, by dividing it between two institutions. Voters who say they want to split control tend to vote that way, and that relationship holds up under extensive testing. American voters who were policy balancers, especially those moderates who see themselves as ideologically not for the opposition, also tended to split the ticket. By voting for the opposition party, they sought to curb party extremes and obtain a moderated policy mix."
While an interesting question, the Dividist is not particularly concerned why past voters regularly chose divided government and whether they were making a conscious choice. We are more concerned about how future voters think about divided government.

Regardless of whether past voters consciously voted to maintain a divided government, we submit for your consideration that some percentage of future voters should always consciously vote to maintain divided government.

Divided government is better government. We should vote to keep it that way.

Consciously. Mindfully. Joyfully. Hopefully.

Just think how much easier we will make it for future generations of political scientists.

Divided and Balanced.
Now that is fair.
 12/28/2014 To reflect midterm results & 4/4/2016 to update page links &4/17/2017 to reflect election results 

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