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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Beware “Checks and Balances” Voters in 2020

Given how close the 2020 election is likely to be, Democrats need to pay attention to some relatively small swing-voter groups, and I wrote about one of them at New York:

[A] lot of self-identified political independents are quite proud of themselves for, well, their “independence.” A majority of them, as many political scientists have explained, are functionally partisan in their voting habits, but since they are theoretically open to going the other way, they aren’t like those knee-jerk D’s and R’s, or so they imagine. It is true that some indies have a mix of positions on issues that don’t nicely comport with either major party’s — or any minor party’s — views (notably economic liberals who are also social conservatives; those with the opposite configuration can always vote Libertarian). It’s a free country, and it’s fine with me if they want to let their freak flag fly.

There is one species of nonpartisan, however, who might be considered different from others and even pernicious: those who oscillate from party to party not based on issue adherence, or even the attractiveness or repulsiveness of individual candidates, but because they want to keep all parties and all factions in some sort of equipoise where they don’t get to have their way. These “checks and balances” voters are often very proud of themselves for the civic virtue they display in limiting the power of the overwhelming majority of citizens who are partisan. And when the two major parties are equally strong, they can even determine outcomes, as Nate Cohn and Claire Cain Miller explain in examining some Siena College polling data from battleground states concerning voters who supported Trump in 2016 and 2018 but voted Democratic in the 2018 midterms:

“Many of the voters who said they voted Democratic but now intended to vote for Mr. Trump offered explanations that reflect longstanding theories about why the party out of power tends to excel in midterms.

“Michelle Bassaro, 61, is a Trump supporter, but in the midterm election, she voted for the Democrat in her district to balance the administration’s power. She said she had voted for Republicans when Democrats were in the White House for the same reason, consistent with research that shows that some people intentionally vote for divided government.”

The research these writers referred to is a bit dated but still relevant; one study showed that an estimated 16 percent of voters, as of 2008, preferred divided government. A lot of them don’t act on this sentiment — or don’t really have the practical option to do so in a particular election — but there are enough to be dangerous in a close contest. And dangerous they are, I believe.

Perpetually divided government (which we have had more often than not at the federal level in the post–World War II era) is an invitation to gridlock, dysfunction, and citizen dissatisfaction. It’s even more damaging now that the ideological polarization of the two major parties has made bipartisan coalitions vastly less likely than in the days when liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats walked the Earth. Yet some of the same voters who consider themselves shrewd and civic-minded for keeping the two parties in balance tend to complain about stuff not getting done:

“Danny Destival, 56, who runs a greenhouse supply business in Panama City, Fla., said he’s ‘been a Southern Democrat all my life.’ But in 2016, he cast his first Republican vote because he liked that Mr. Trump was a businessman, not a politician — and he disliked Hillary Clinton.

“His main priority is voting for ‘the person who’s going to get more done’ — that’s why he stuck with the Democrats in the midterms — but at the national level, he said, the Democrats have disappointed him on that front.

“’If you’re going to Washington, you need to do something,’ he said. ‘If the only thing you’re going to do the whole time you’re there is try to get rid of the president, that’s a problem. I mean, Trump is not a great person, but you’ve got to get some work done.'”

This “swing voter” does not seem to be aware that he is part of the problem he is complaining about. And his preferred candidate for president is a symptom of how haywire things can go if the normal processes of policymaking and legislation are frustrated by divided government and the consequent gridlock. You get voters throwing up their hands and then supporting a demagogue who claims he will “drain the swamp,” only to run one of the most corrupt administrations in history with legislative accomplishments — even when his party did have unified control of the government — that would fit in a thimble. Trump is also emblematic of the recklessness a president can exhibit when thinking of himself as empowered to overpower and dominate other institutions or the rule of law itself.

Complain as we might about the folly of using one’s vote to alternate perpetually between the parties, it’s enough of a reality to sober any Democrats who believe their midterm victory in 2018 gives them an automatic upper hand in 2020. You might imagine logically that the phenomenon of a party winning a second consecutive presidential election while losing the intervening midterm would be relatively rare. It has actually happened (just going back to the end of World War II) in 1956, 1972, 1984, 1988, 1996, and 2012. Some of it has to do with differential turnout patterns in presidential and midterm elections, but the regularity with which the president’s party loses ground in the midterms suggests that voter oscillation, whether or not it consciously reflects a desire for divided government, is likely a factor. Democrats need to include in their 2020 messaging some recognition of this fact, and they to make it clear that any of their voters from the 2018 midterm who think voting for Trump will keep things under control in Washington will risk ushering in the most uncontrolled presidential term since Andrew Johnson decided to try to veto the results of the Civil War.

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