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By Jay Cost

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On Split Ticket Voting

The Argus Leader had an interesting article about split ticket voting in South Dakota. This is an anomaly I have noticed before. Why does such a staunch Republican state like South Dakota (or North Dakota, for that matter) vote Republican on the presidential level, but Democratic on the congressional level?

This is a species of a general question that has intrigued scholars over the last few decades. The reason is that Republicans, through the postwar era, have won more presidential elections - but by and large the Democrats have dominated Congress.

David Kranz notes the following about South Dakota:

South Dakota voters usually support Republicans for president. Only four times have voters here backed someone from another party. William Jennings Bryan, running as a populist and Democrats Franklin Roosevelt (on two occasions) and Lyndon Johnson defeated Republican nominees here.

So, do Republican Senate candidates running in a presidential election year benefit from the state's lopsided support for the GOP presidential candidate?

Since (1960), South Dakota has chosen a president and elected a Senator in the same year seven more times through 2004. (snip)

So what happened here in those eight years in which presidential and Senate races were on the same ballot?

Republicans were supported all eight times for president. Democrats won the Senate race four times. Republicans won the Senate race four times.

How to explain this?

Larry Sabato offers the following:

Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, tells me that he has seen trending since the early 1970s toward voter independence in such situations.

"Since then, voters have been increasingly willing to split their tickets. An example? None better than South Dakota," he said.

He uses 1972 when Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota was the Democratic Party nominee for president against Republican President Richard Nixon. McGovern was unable to carry his own state, but Democrat Second District U.S. Rep. James Abourezk ran for the Senate and defeated Republican state Sen. Bob Hirsch, filling the seat vacated by Republican Sen. Karl Mundt.

"We frequently see it because voters in America are increasingly independent and don't trust any political party fully. They don't want to give all of the political power to one party," he says.

Sabato calls it "a healthy American instinct" that plays out well here.

I think Sabato is on to something here, but the reality is more complicated than what is implied. First off, we have to distinguish between partisan voters who defect to incumbents (i.e. vote for the incumbent who is in the opposite party of themselves), partisan voters who defect to challengers, and pure independent voters. The latter category has been in decline in recent years - at least in Senate elections. Furthermore, partisan voters are, and have long since been, extremely loyal to incumbents of their party. The difference is in partisan defections to incumbents - these have always tended to be much higher, but even this has generally been in decline in the Senate since the 1990s (though 2006 might have seen a jump in the number). So, split-ticket voting is more complicated than a simple mistrust of the American parties. After all, voters tend to vote their party preference when the incumbent is of their party.

Of course, this is not to say that I disagree that party decline, in some fashion, explains at least part of split-ticket voting. I think it does. My point is simply that it is more complicated than this snippet makes it seem. If we are going to explain split ticketing by reference to party decline, then we will almost assuredly have to bring the unique role that incumbents play into the conversation.

Kranz offers another perspective:

Betty Smith, associate professor of political science at the University of South Dakota, sees this as another indicator that riding presidential coattails doesn't have much impact on voters

"It is a long history of South Dakotans electing Democrats to federal office and Republicans to the state offices," she said.

The state's conservative nature shows up during presidential elections, but voters here have a different criteria in the Senate races, she said.

"Congress and the Senate make decisions where some liberality can be an advantage to the state and to the taxpayers. South Dakotans are pretty smart when they make decisions. It is not a one-size-fits-all choice."

This is an idea that several scholars have advanced over the years. It's the idea of issue ownership. Republicans "own" certain issues that play well on the presidential level. Democrats "own" issues that play well on the congressional level.

Relatedly, others have argued that split ticket voting might be understood as strategic voters looking to create the precise mix of policy output from government. With a Republican president and a Democratic Congress, you yield a government that is moderately conservative - which might be quite appealing to the voters of South Dakota. Of course, this implies that voters have high levels of political information. They'd have to know which party controls Congress, what the likely outcome would be with divided government, whether that policy outcome suits their preferences, the likelihood that their vote will achieve their preferred result, and so on. This is a pretty hefty informational prerequisite. Many voters would not be able to make decisions like this because they do not know enough about politics.

The bottom line is that, while I would like to give a clear cut and simple explanation for split ticket voting, I can't. I don't know what the answer is. There are a lot of theories, none of which work perfectly well, all of which have their problems. I'd guess that split ticket voting is probably due to some combination of the decline of partisanship and the desire for policy balancing/issue ownership.

-Jay Cost