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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

McCain’s Divided Government Gambit

There’s a lot of talk today about John McCain’s campaign being in a state of disarray, amidst all sorts of strategy sessions and diverse advice about what he should do to halt the steady drift of public opinion towards Barack Obama. The one clear thing that’s emerged is a new stump speech in which he heavily hits one new note: the idea that Americans need to elect him president to prevent one-party domination of Washington:

“Senator Obama is measuring the drapes and planning with Speaker Pelosi and Senator Reid to raise taxes, increase spending — take away your right to vote by secret ballot and labor elections, and concede defeat in Iraq,” [said McCain]….
The reference to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is part of a new Republican effort to warn voters of the consequences of having one party dominate all of Washington, as Democrats would if Obama won in a landslide that helped his party rack up wider congressional margins.

Now you can understand why McCain is taking this tack. He’s yoked with a horribly unpopular Republican brand, and horribly unpopular conservative policies. The issue landscape is tilting decisively against him. All his “maverick” talk hasn’t convinced that many people to forget about that (R) next to his name. But the Democratic-controlled Congress is unpopular, too (even though there’s every indication that Democrats will make major gains in House and Senate races), and trust levels for the federal government in general are very low. So why not try to play on “a plague on both houses” sentiment by suggesting yourself as a personal counter-balance against excessive Democratic power in Washington? Such implicit split-your-ticket talk won’t make GOP candidates for Congress very happy, but that’s a small price to pay if it could actually help close the gap with Obama.
But could it actually work?
It’s an article of High Broderist faith to some pundits that because Americans don’t much trust either political party, or think them “extreme,” vast numbers of them may actually prefer divided government. The main data point for this belief is the preponderance of divided government over the last few decades (the situation for 29 of the last 40 years), buttressed by occasional direct polling evidence that people say they prefer it.
But a quick review of the political science literature on this subject produces a whole lot of skepticism. One good 2005 summary of the academic debate goes through the various reasons divided government is produced (e.g., midterm trends away from White House incumbents), and also why people who say they favor divided government often really don’t (e.g., they simply want their own party to win the branch of government most within reach at any given moment). Most academics definitely challenge the idea that large numbers of Americans vote tactically, with an eye towards complicated balance-of-power results.
Moreover, the most obvious conscious voting decision that could lead to divided government–ticket-splitting–has by all accounts been in a more-or-less steady decline in recent decades. And that in turn reflects the universally-recognized ideological sorting-out of the two major parties since the 1960s, which has made partisan choices clearer while reducing regional anomalies (such as the conservative Solid Democratic South of yore).
But aside from the questionable evidence supporting “divided-government” voting, one thing is pretty clear: support for “gridlock” is naturally associated with high levels of satisfaction with the national status quo. If things are going well, why risk the sort of changes that a single-party dominated federal government might enact? Pro-gridlock thinking is also typically associated with a libertarian attitude towards government (indeed, economist Milton Friedman may have been the first major figure to articulate the advantages of gridlock).
Since “right track” numbers are currently dipping into the single-digits, and the leave-me-alone coalition isn’t heavily represented among swing voters today, this doesn’t strike me as the best time for a presidential candidate to say he wants to block action in Washington.
Perhaps a full-engines-reverse, break-the-Democratic-monopoly message could work for Republicans in 2010, if an Obama administration and a Democratic Congress produce unsatisfactory results. But for now, this may just be another example of a McCain campaign desperately trying out various themes, in hopes of regaining traction.

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