Inclement political weather rocked President Obama and his party this summer. Falling poll numbers and growing voter misgivings open the door for big Republican gains in next year's midterm elections.
But more storm clouds gather. With Democrats controlling the White House and Congress, the GOP can now use voter distrust of unified party control (the same party in charge of the presidency and Congress) as a tool to make major gains in next year's elections--a political weapon both parties could only unsheathe irregularly over the past half century.
That's because Americans installed mixed governments in Washington a lot more in recent years compared to earlier in the 20th century. For example, from 1900-1952 unified government was the norm in Washington. During those years, the same party controlled the presidency and at least one branch of Congress 22 times, while Republicans and Democrats split power only four times, according to political scientist Morris Fiorina in his book Divided Government.
But since 1952, unified party control--the conditions we face now--are more rare. Voters split control in 17 elections between 1952-2008 and opted for unified control only eight times. For the past 50 years, not too long after one party achieves unified control, Americans almost reflexively put the other in charge of at least one branch of government.
Interestingly, the preference for checks and balances is not just a Washington phenomenon. Fiorina also shows a striking increase in divided legislatures and governors in states and a rise in the frequency of split U.S. Senate delegations in the post-World War II period.
Why are voters choosing to neuter a political party after it consolidates power? "Policy balancing" is part of the explanation, according to Fiorina. Does this mean voters say something like, "I voted for a Democrat for president, so now I'll choose a Republican to balance things out." Probably not. He believes voters engage in something a little less premeditated. "While not consciously choosing divided government, people may have a vague appreciation of the overall picture that plays some role in how they vote. People could be voting as if they are making conscious choices to divide government even if their individual decisions are well below the conscious level," Fiorina writes.
Polling data also supports the "balancing" theory. According to the 2008 American National Election Study (ANES), a majority of Americans prefer different parties controlling the presidency and Congress. The preference for split party control is consistent in ANES surveys and other polls asking similar questions going back to at least 1952.
But given the higher incidence of divided government over the past 50 years, neither party could consistently use the balancing argument. Republicans had a chance to apply it in 1994 after two years of unified Democratic control. Democrats used it effectively in 2006 after Republicans controlled Congress and the presidency for most of the time after 2000.
If Democrats and Obama continue pass legislation that looks like it lacks bipartisan cooperation, the GOP's call for more checks and balances become increasingly potent. Fiorina, for example, observes that ticket splitting (evidence that voters want divided government) increases during periods when partisanship is high. Voters believe it's an antidote to polarization. Highly partisan battles on stimulus, the budget and now health care may again encourage voters to send a balancing message to Washington. How? By voting for more Republicans than they otherwise would.
Trends in the generic congressional ballot--particularly among independent voters--also support this thesis. Rasmussen polls during all of 2008 found independents consistently siding with Democrats while George W. Bush was president, suggesting a preference for divided government. But in 2009, those same polls suddenly flipped. For most of this year, following the election of a Democratic president, Republicans have led consistently among independents on this crucial ballot question.
Balancing doesn't always prevail. Democrats failed to convince voters in 2002 and 2004 that they should stop Republicans' unified control. Nor did it work in 2008 when John McCain offered himself as a check on the current Democratic majority. But it did succeed in 1994 and 2006.
While the president will blame Republicans and vice versa for the lack of bipartisanship, the absence of balance in Washington is not in doubt. If the president won't include Republicans in key governing decisions, Americans may take matters into their own hands. The GOP's best weapon about the need for checks and balances might fit nicely into the hands of many Americans, resulting in citizen-imposed bipartisanship and big Republican gains in 2010.
By Gary Andres
Reprinted with permission from The Weekly Standard