Many people think that because Americans elected a Democratic president and a Republican Congress last November, the voters wanted a divided government.
New data show that was not the case.
In fact, almost 3 out of 4 Americans' choice for president and for the House of Representatives came from the same party, according to a district-by-district analysis conducted for Congressional Quarterly magazine. (See chart.) This trend toward "straight-ticket" voting has accelerated in the 1990s.
"Most voters tell pollsters they support bipartisanship, but in reality people don't vote that way," says political analyst Stu Rothenberg.
The trend could bode ill for policymaking. With most members coming from districts that are uniformly Republican or Democratic in their voting patterns, more lawmakers may be less willing to compromise on issues, analysts say. In fact, the 105th Congress hasn't accomplished much - but it's still early in the session. In the last Congress, gridlock did mark the session until the end, when President Clinton and the Republican Congress concluded that enacting legislation served their electoral interests more than stalemate did.
CQ's survey of 1996 House races found the second-highest level of straight-ticket voting since the 1952 election. The highest level was in 1992, when congressional districts registered a "split" vote in only 104 of 435 districts. In 1996, 111 districts split their vote.
The rise in straight-ticket voting is most pronounced in the South, where the Republican Party has made meteoric gains in congressional races since the 1980s. In 1984, the Democrats won 74 House seats in the South in districts that also voted to reelect Republican President Reagan. In 1996, the Democrats won only 14 Southern congressional districts that went for Republican nominee Bob Dole.
THE 1990 congressional redistricting played a role in the rise of straight-ticket voting. Under orders from the Justice Department, the states redrew districts to maximize the voting clout of blacks and Hispanics. This boosted minority (usually Democratic) representation in Congress, but also helped Republicans overall to pick up more seats, especially in the South.
Politically, the two major parties have become more polarized, leaving voters with starker choices. Since 1990, many conservative Democrats, especially in the South, have retired, been defeated, or switched to the Republican Party. At the same time, moderate Republicans represent a smaller proportion of GOP seats. The parties, too, have sought to "nationalize" local elections in recent years, that is, to have local candidates speak on national themes, such as Medicare.
"There's an ideological gulf between the parties that's widening," says John Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in California.
Gary Jacobson, an expert on congressional elections at the University of California at San Diego, says that polarization began to develop in the early 1980s, when the Republican Party led a revolt against taxes and big government - and succeeded in crafting a distinctly different identity from the Democrats. But it took several election cycles for the electorate to break old voting habits.
In 1990s, says Professor Jacobson, "the voters have caught up with their choices."
The Republican Party's newfound success in winning House races bodes well for its ability to keep control of Congress. The historic Democratic lead in voters' party affiliation has been erased. And the recent GOP successes mean higher-caliber candidates will continue to step forward.
Jacobson doesn't rule out a partisan surge that could swing the Democrats back into control of the House, at least temporarily. But the chances of that happening in 1998 are remote. For the past 150 years, the president's party has always lost seats in Congress in midterm elections, with the exception of 1934.