2020 elections

Straight-Ticket Voting Took Another Big Leap in 2020

Another Election Year, another trend toward polarization. Photo-Illustration: Megan Paetzhold. Photo: John Lund/Getty Images

If you are one of those people who wonder wistfully why Democrats and Republicans in Washington or any given statehouse cannot just get along, it’s important to understand the extent to which partisan polarization stems from voters, not just from mainstream or social media or from warring elites. That was made evident once again in the 2020 elections, as illustrated by Daily Kos Elections’ tabulation of presidential voting by congressional district. There just isn’t a lot of ticket-splitting going on these days, despite the regular attention paid to such counter-indicators as suburban Republicans voting for Biden and ancestral white working-class Democrats voting for Trump, as DKE’s David Nir reports:

Biden carried 224 congressional districts while Donald Trump prevailed in 211. That’s very close to the 222-213 split between House Democrats and Republicans that emerged from the November elections, which is due to the fact that both parties occupy a similar number of so-called “crossover” districts: Seven Democrats hold seats that Trump won while nine Republicans represent districts that went for Biden.

The number of crossover districts — 16 in total — is extremely low by historical standards but continues a downward trend reflecting our nation’s increased political polarization. Following the 2016 elections there were 35 crossover seats, which was an increase from 2012 but a steep drop from the 83 produced by the 2008 Democratic wave. For much of the post-war era, there were 100 or more such districts, according to the Brookings Institution—to find a lower proportion in a presidential year, you have to go back to the GOP landslide of 1920, when there were just 11 crossovers.

We’ve gone from 83 crossover districts the year Joe Biden became Barack Obama’s vice-president to 16 as he won the top job. And people wonder why he’s not spending too much time appealing across party lines despite his legendary commitment to bipartisanship.

NBC News took a look at those 16 remaining crossover districts, and they aren’t all that surprising. Four California Republicans in districts carried by Biden represent seats the GOP clawed back after losing them in 2018. And their winning candidates aren’t your standard-brand old white guys aping Donald Trump: Two are Korean American women (Michelle Steel and Young Kim), another is Latino (Mike Garcia), and the fourth is a former incumbent of Portuguese descent who subsequently voted to impeach Trump (David Valadao). Additionally, California’s top-two primary system means its candidates need not fear a Trump-o-centric GOP primary challenger. New York’s John Katko was a relatively moderate Republican in a rematch with a Democrat he defeated in the big Democratic year of 2018; like Valadao, Katko soon would vote for impeachment. A Trumpier 2020 winner in a Biden district was Texas’s Beth Van Duyne, but she only ran 2.3 percent ahead of the 45th president in a race for an open seat. Similarly, Florida’s Maria Elvira Salazar narrowly won in a Miami district narrowly carried by Biden. She was a Latina media celebrity running against the non-Latina freshman Democrat Donna Shalala in a 72-percent Latino district.

The Democratic crossover winners are concentrated in districts notable for a large white working-class voting population where Trump predictably ran ahead of his ticket. In Maine’s rural-dominated Second District, freshman incumbent Jared Golden faced a relatively weak opponent and wound up running about eight points ahead of Joe Biden. More typical was another freshman Democrat, Iowa’s Cindy Axne, who was reelected in a very close rematch with her 2018 opponent as Trump beat Biden by a whisker in her district. Similarly, Illinois Democrat Cheri Bustos won by four points in a district Trump won by under 3 percent. Veteran Wisconsin Democrat Ron Kind was held to a 2.6 percent margin in a district Trump won by 4.7 percent. One of the most successful 2018 freshmen in a competitive race, New Jersey’s Andy Kim, ran only four points ahead of Biden.

You can stare at these numbers all day long, but what’s clear is that we aren’t seeing the kind of massive ticket-splitting that used to be so common in large parts of the country, particularly where entrenched incumbent House members ran well ahead of the national ticket. Part of the reason for the trend is the ideological sorting-out of the two parties; today’s “centrist Democrats” or “moderate Republicans” are more in sync with their parties than their predecessors even a decade ago. Given the intense pressure to stick with the views of each party’s “base” in order to avoid primary challenges, it’s no wonder that members of Congress rarely kick off the party yoke.

Straight-Ticket Voting Took Another Big Leap in 2020