How to Vote for Divided Government

(Hint – It's not about splitting tickets)
Just Vote For Divided Goverment

The Paradox

Divided government dominates the United States federal government in the modern era. This presents a paradox. To whit - polls show that Americans distrust our current government and leadership to an extreme degree. They distrust the President to effectively govern the country. The Democratic and Republican parties have lower approval ratings than the President. Our congressional representatives as a whole are held in even lower regard than either the parties they represent or the President. One reason often cited to explain voter contempt of our political leadership is frustration with governmental gridlock and the perception that our leaders are too partisan and too ideological to work together and compromise. In short, they fail “to get things done”. And yet, despite this frustration, Americans continue to vote for divided government far more often than not. Hence the paradox.

This phenomena can be explained if one simply accepts that Americans want divided government and vote for it. Many political scientists do not find this explanation acceptable. They are split over whether this is a conscious act on the part of voters, or an inarticulate, subconscious accident of inchoate voter preferences. Some argue the reason Americans cannot possibly be making this choice consciously, is that it is too darn hard to make an individual voting decision with the intent and hope that it will result in divided government. As an example, Shankar Vendatum made this argument in Slate Magazine in October 2010, shortly before the American voters decisively decided to end the short two year tenure of Unified One Party Democratic Rule. Here Vendatum explains why Americans are incapable of figuring out how to vote to divide the government: 
“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?"
Voting for Divided Government is Easy

Vendatum was wrong. There is no reason to over-think and over-analyze how to vote for divided government. As a practical matter, voting for divided federal government is an easy decision with a simple application of common sense. You don't have to worry about how anyone else is going to vote to know how to vote for divided government. In any given election cycle the "divided government vote" is obvious and easy to understand or there is no divided government vote. This is how you do it: 
  1. Definition - Understand the definition of divided government in the context of the US Federal government. The political science definition of Divided Government in this context simply means one party does not control the executive branch and majorities in both legislative branches. 
  2. Decision – Commit to voting for divided government. I outlined my reasons to vote for divided government in the page "Voting By Objective". Your mileage may vary. 
  3. Recognition - Appreciate you are in a sliver of a minority of the electorate when you agree to change party preference on an election by election basis in order to maintain an end state of divided government. And you recognize that this is not about splitting your vote, but about voting in the manner that is most likely to achieve divided government. 
  4. Application of Common Sense – Assess the current partisan state of the executive and legislative branches. Apply a common sense, clear eyed, analysis of the simplest, most probable, most direct vote that will eliminate the risk of a new partisan unified government, and/or cast a vote that will restore a divided government status from a current unified partisan government. 
To demonstrate how easy this really is - consider this list covering the last three decades and seventeen election cycles (including the current cycle) outlining the common sense divided government vote for each election:
  • 2018 - We have Unified One Party Republican Rule with the Republicans in majority control of both legislative branches and the executive branch. The 2018 midterm divided government vote is for a straight Democratic ticket. 
  • 2016 – The House was a GOP lock, and the Senate majority a coin flip. There was no realistic possibility of the Democrats establishing unified government control this cycle. However, the Republicans could. Therefore the divided government vote was for a Democratic President - Hillary Clinton.  [LOSS]
  • 2014 – We had a sitting Democratic President. The divided government vote was for a straight Republican congressional ticket. [WIN]
  • 2012 – The House of Representatives was a GOP lock and there was a very realistic chance that the Senate could flip Republican on the coattails of a big Republican Presidential win. The divided government vote was for a Democratic President - to reelect Barack Obama. [WIN]
  • 2010 – We had Unified One Party Democratic rule, with the Democrats in majority control of both legislative branches and the executive branch. The divided government vote was for a straight Republican congressional ticket. [WIN]
  • 2008 – The Democrats had majority control of the House of Representatives and the Senate. The divided government vote was for a Republican President – John McCain. [LOSS]
  • 2006 – Republicans controlled the executive branch and majorities both legislative branches for Unified One Party Republican Government. The divided government vote was for a straight Democratic congressional ticket. [WIN]
  • 2004 - Republicans controlled the executive branch and majorities in both legislative branches for Unified One Party Republican Government. The divided government vote was for the Democratic nominee for President, John Kerry. [LOSS]
  • 2002 - Republicans controlled the executive branch and House majority while the Democrats held a one seat majority in the Senate. The divided government vote was for a straight Democratic congressional ticket [LOSS]
  • 2000 – The Republicans controlled majorities in the House of Representatives and a narrow majority in the Senate. The divided government vote was for the Democratic nominee for President, Al Gore. The backup divided government vote for Democratic Senate candidates. [SPLIT/WIN – Gore lost, but Democrats won a 50-50 split in the Senate, and took control when Senator Jim Jeffords switched parties in June]
  • 1998 – Democrat Bill Clinton was President and the Republicans controlled majorities in both legislative branches. There was no realistic chance of the Republicans losing majority control of the House so there was no explicit divided government vote. One party rule was not a possible outcome.[WIN]
  • 1996 - Democrat Bill Clinton was President and the Republicans controlled majorities in both legislative branches. There was no realistic chance of the Republicans losing majority control of the House. The divided government vote was to reelect the Democratic President, Bill Clinton. [WIN]
  • 1994 - We had Unified One Party Democratic rule, with the Democrats in majority control of both legislative branches and the executive branch. The divided government vote was for a straight Republican congressional ticket. [WIN]
  • 1992 – Republican George HW Bush was President and the Democrats controlled majorities in both legislative branches. The divided government vote was to reelect Republican President George HW Bush. [LOSS]
  • 1990 - Republican George HW Bush was President and the Democrats controlled majorities in both legislative branches. There was no realistic possibility of the Democrats losing their House majority. There was no explicit divided government vote. [WIN]
  • 1988 – The Democrats controlled the majority in both legislative branches. The divided government vote was to elect the Republican nominee – George H.W. Bush. [WIN]
  • 1986 – The Republicans controlled the presidency and the majority in the Senate. The Democrats controlled the majority in the House of Representatives. The divided government vote was to vote for a straight Democratic congressional ticket. [WIN]
  • 1984 – The Republicans controlled the presidency and the a small majority in the Senate. The Democrats controlled a large majority in the House of Representatives with no realistic possibility of losing the House. The divided government vote was to reelect Republican Ronald Reagan as President. [WIN]
I could go on. In each of these elections, the divided government vote was intuitive and obvious.

You win some, you lose some, and there will be circumstances where there is no specific divided government vote (as in 1990 and 1998). If the divided government vote is not obvious, if reasonable people can argue about what the correct "divided government vote" should be, then it is likely there simply is no "divided government vote" for that particular election cycle. In that circumstance, the moderate/libertarian/independent/dividist voting block (should one ever come into existence) goes "free agent."

Bottom line – knowing how to vote for divided government in any given cycle is easy. Very easy.  I mean “Piece of cake”, “fall off a log” easy.

We Can Make Voting for Divided Government Complex If We Want To

We can complicate the question. With two political parties, across the three elected federal branches, there are eight possible configurations of unified / divided government – 2 unified and 6 divided. For Dividists, all six divided government configurations are preferable to either of the possible unified governments. However, Dividists can disagree about how the various divided government configurations rank. Here all all eight, stack ranked by the author's preference.

All Possible U.S. Executive and Legislative Branch Partisan Configurations
Stack Ranked from Best to Worst by Dividist Preference*
*Your mileage may vary. 







Dividist Rank
President
Senate
House
Notes

1
D
R
R
Clinton 95-00, Obama 15-16

2
R
D
D
Bush41 89-92, Reagan 87-88, Nixon Ford 69-76

3
D
D
R
Obama 11-14

4
R
D
R
Bush43 01-02

5
D
R
D


6
R
R
D
Bush43 07-08, Reagan 81-86

7
R
R
R
Bush43 03-06, Trump 17-18

8
D
D
D
Obama 09-10, Clinton 93-94, Carter 77-80


One could speculate this divided government voting heuristic might evolve into a tightly organized and highly sophisticated voting block making the voting decision very granular. Looking beyond a simple divided government, a sophisticated and exquisitely organized Dividist Party could conceivably vote to maintain a divided congress at all times, where each major party holds a majority in one legislative branch. In that case, if we had confidence that the divided congress could and would be maintained, the presidential vote would be irrelevant to maintaining a divided government and always be "free-agent", "best-man", “lesser-of-two-evils", whatever. But that is getting pretty far-fetched, even for me.

Another layer of complexity could be added to our simple divided government preference if we find empirical evidence that a specific divided government configuration is more effective at fulfilling our preferred policy objectives. There is some evidence to support specific configurations. As indicated above, a Democratic President with GOP Senate and GOP House is the Dividist's favorite configuration. Some financial analysts data claim this is preferred configuration of divided government. Quoting Ron Insana in an appearance on CNBC:
"If you listen to the folks at Ned Davis Research who have tracked this back to 1850, a Democratic President and Republican Congress yields the best stock market returns of any possible governmental combination. If you look at the presidents with the biggest gains in the 20th and 21st centuries, it has been Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama. Now, it may have nothing to do with them. Maybe they just came in on the bottom of a particular cycle."
Maybe. We are just talking about 3 data points here. Democratic Presidents Franklin Roosevelt, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama did indeed have an all Republican Congress at some point during their administration. They all did show outsized stock market gains during their administrations. And who among us does not look back fondly on the Golden Age of Divided Government - the Bill Clinton (D) / Bob Dole (R) / Newt Gingrich (R) configuration? 

That said, the Dividist is dubious about any attempt to correlate political parties in power with stock market performance over any long or medium term time frame. Correlation is not causation. This particular correlation should not be taken more seriously than the Hemline Index or the Super Bowl Indicator. The reason is simple. The federal government does not and cannot control GDP, private employment, corporate profits, and/or the stock market as much Presidents or presidential wannabes would like us to believe they can. They can have an effect, but they are indirect effects. 

We are more interested in looking at correlation between political parties in power and those things that the federal government directly controls – spending, taxes, deficits, legislation, armed conflict, and currency. But lasting effects on the stock market based on the party in power? Unlikely.  

Ultimately, it is policy objectives and not the particular divided government state that matters to Dividists. Stock market gains are nice to have, but are not listed among the good governance policy criteria outlined in our divided government Voting By Objective heuristic. Restrained spending, improved fiscal responsibility, better legislation, greater oversight, fewer wars and constraints on corruption are the policy objectives we seek and expect under divided government, regardless of configuration. 

So let's keep it simple. 

Just Vote Divided.

NOTE: This is an updated version of a 2010 blog post. It is also a preview chapter from The Dividist Manifesto©,  which will be published as soon as I finish writing it. Hopefully this year. 

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