In 1988, Republican presidential nominee (and incumbent vice president) George H.W. Bush won 40 out of 50 states and a 7.8% margin in the popular vote. On the same day, Democrats in the House of Representatives won an 85-seat majority with a 7.7% lead in the popular vote. That's a 15.5% discrepancy between the popular votes for President and House.

In 1984, Republican Ronald Reagan won re-election carrying 49 states and he won the popular vote by 18.2% while Democrats won a 71-seat majority in the House and won the popular vote by 5.1%. That's a 23.3% discrepancy.

In 1980, Reagan was elected with 44states and a 9.7% popular vote margin. Meanwhile in the House of Representatives, Democrats won a 51-seat majority with a 2.6% lead in the popular vote. That's a 12.3% discrepancy in the popular vote.

Going back further to 1972, Republican president Richard Nixon was re-elected with 49 states and a 23.2% margin in the popular vote. At the same time House Democrats in the house won a 50-seat majority with a 5.6% popular vote advantage. That's a 28.8% discrepancy.

Why were there such a huge discrepancies? This has not happened since 1988.

In 2016, the discrepancy between the popular votes for president and house was only 3.2%. In 2012, it was 2.7%. In 2008, it was 4.4%. In 2004, it was 0.2%. In 2000, it was 1%. In 1996, it was 8.5%. In 1992, it was 0.6%.

Nowadays it seems most voters give all of their votes to candidates from the same party (at least for federal elections). So it's hard for me to understand how 30-40 years ago large numbers of voters were splitting their votes. What changed? Why were voters so willing to split votes 30+ years ago but not today?

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    Ross Perot's presidential candidacies make it hard to interpret the 1992 and 1996 data points. – Jasper Nov 8 at 2:56
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    I didn't know Nixon won 49 states! – Andrew Grimm Nov 8 at 7:36
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    Small terminology nit-pick. You shouldn't use % to denote those discrepancies. The correct unit to use is percentage points. – Arthur Nov 8 at 14:04
  • I've taken out the bold emphasis. It seemed to be emphasising a great deal of pedantry. – Mozibur Ullah Nov 8 at 14:32
  • @AndrewGrimm: It's actually rather fascinating, but the TL;DR is that the opposition candidate's campaign fell apart on the candidates own faults rather devestating. Ironically, nothing related to the Watergate Break-In sank the Democratic Ticket in '72. – hszmv Nov 8 at 22:49
up vote 35 down vote accepted

Southern Democrats

In 1972, most southern states were overwhelmingly Democrat. But these Southern Democrats had a different ideology than Northern Democrats. They were more conservative, particularly on moral issues (e.g. sex outside marriage and abortion bad). Democratic presidential candidates tended to have Northern Democratic ideologies. As a result, Southern Democrats often voted for Republicans for president, but they would vote for other Southern Democrats for Congress.

In 1994, this changed. Southern Democrats increasingly voted Republican for Congress as well as the presidency. In fact, there is only one Southern Democrat left in Congress: Senator Joe Manchin from West Virginia.

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    Thanks Brythan, well said and certainly a factor. I almost used that word in my answer; remembering back to those times Southern Democrats churned up images of even older democrats dating back to the civil war. I remember electoral maps that were almost entirely red, not just the south. – Burt_Harris Nov 8 at 1:26
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    @WesSayeed: The alignment “democrat = progressive, republican = conservative” wasn’t always established the way it is now, so as Southern Democrats saw it, Democrat politics were their particular kind of conservatism, and the Northern Democrats were the ones who were “not really Democrats”. Historically, the key differences between the parties have changed at various points, and the current alignment of democrats with progressive liberalism emerged (essentially) from the Northern Democrats “winning” the long factional battle with the Southern Democrats over the course of the 20th century. – Peter LeFanu Lumsdaine Nov 8 at 9:26
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    @WesSayeed Though we all like to think we're freethinkers, statistically one of the most stable attributes a voter has is their partisan identification. When the mainstream Democratic party became more socially liberal, and the Republican party more socially conservative, people didnt just swap parties. The ones that did were mostly younger and more socially active. It takes big issues, like a presidential candidate, to make people to change their vote. The local candidates from the south were still just as conservative as the voters. The full shift took decades due to generational replacement – Tal Nov 8 at 15:39
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    2010 is also important to note here. Here in TN, we still had quite a lot of Democrats up until 2010. My home congressional district (the home of Al Gore) had been blue almost without exception from reconstruction through 2010. Moderate Democrats pretty much stopped existing at the national level during Obama's first 2 years of office. Pelosi and Reid were forcing all Ds to back Obama's progressive agenda, which was very unpopular with the right-center districts represented by many moderate Democrats at that time. They all caved to Pelosi and they then all got voted out in 2010. – reirab Nov 8 at 17:32
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    Between 2004 and 2010, TN's Governor and both houses of its legislature also flipped blue to very solid red as the state Democratic Party leadership shifted to following the progressive wing of the party that was controlling the party in Washington instead of the moderate Democrats that had previously controlled TN politics. – reirab Nov 8 at 17:34

A lot of factors probably involved, for example the home states of presidential candidates and their running mates may have more influence over general election voting that strict party loyalty. Nixon and Reagan were from California, the state with the most electoral votes. Bush was from Texas, 2nd only to California in votes.

The 1984 electoral landslide is a strong example of this, with challenger Walter Mondale winning only his home state of Minnesota, and the perpetually Democratic District of Columbia.

1984 presidential electoral map(map from https://www.270towin.com/1984_Election/)

For Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush I can get more specific. They had the support of a group of voters sometimes called the Reagan Democrats who voted a split-ticket. Some authors spoke of a Reagan Mandate, the phrase Peace thru Strength resonated. Reagan supporters and the country at large, seemed to share his desire to take a stronger line with the Soviet Union and favored spending more on national defense, which (perhaps counterintuitively) lead to reduction of tensions of the Cold War.

During Reagan's terms, it seemed there was a more bi-partisan cooperation between legislative and executive branches. Chis Matthews called this time "When Politics Worked" in writing about Reagan and Massachusetts Democratic House Speaker Tip O'Neil.

Some of that carried over to Democratic support in Bush's election.

Tip and the Gipper

consider the sad statistical point of view.

if americans were perfectly uninformed, and everyone voted for one of two candidates, the split would be (statistically) 50/50.

perhaps the trend towards an even split reflects a trend towards being uninformed voters.

  • The premise of this question is incorrect. If you are touting statistics, please note that an event that is isolated such as a flip of a coin, you may conclude that any other flip has a 50/50 chance. Elections and power of an ideology is cyclical, and based on trends and the next cycle does not necessarily follow the results of the previous one. Liberal ideology as a political power is trending down and conservatism is trending up, just look at the number of elected liberal seats from the max in the 90s to now to see the trend – Frank Cedeno Nov 8 at 15:55
  • @FrankCedeno I'm not sure where you're getting the idea that conservatism is trending up. Nationalism seems to be trending up and conservatism down (to take the UK and US examples in 2016, both Brexit and Trump were opposed by conservatives, and both Brexit and Trump were part of primarily nationalist movements). – De Novo Nov 8 at 23:23
  • A 50/50 split is also the natural state of a first-past-the-post election system: each political party adjusts its position to attract the majority of voters; since two parties are both doing this, the split tends to cycle around 50/50. – Mark Nov 8 at 23:55

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