Late last month, Arizona Republican Senator Jeff Flake took to the Senate floor to confirm that he would not be seeking reelection in 2018. But most of his remarks, which earned a standing ovation from his Senate colleagues, were directed at President Donald Trump. Flake castigated Trump for “reckless, outrageous and undignified behavior” that was “dangerous to democracy,” and he called on his colleagues to “stop pretending that the degradation of our politics and the conduct of some in our executive branch is normal.” Only hours before Flake’s broadside against the President, his Republican Senate colleague Bob Corker, in an appearance on NBC’s Today show, expressed similar sentiments when he branded Trump “an utterly untruthful president.” It was but the latest in a series of criticisms of Trump by the Tennessee Republican dating back several months, including Corker’s characterization of Trump’s White House as “an adult daycare center.”
In the immediate aftermath journalists were quick to label Corker and Flake’s remarks a “watershed moment”, that signaled a Republican Party on the brink of “civil war”, and they speculated that the growing party fissure would jeopardize Trump’s legislative agenda. However, while Corker’s and Flake’s attacks on their own party’s president are perhaps unprecedented, and thus newsworthy, the bigger story is just how few of their fellow partisans in Congress have followed their lead. It is easy to understand their reluctance to do so. Although many in Congress likely share Flake and Corker’s outrage regarding Trump’s norm-breaking behavior, they also recognize that in an era of ideologically polarized congressional parties and nationalized elections, their political fates depend heavily on working with Trump to achieve legislative success.
By nationalized, I mean that the electoral fortunes of Representatives and Senators are increasingly linked to constituents’ willingness to credit or blame the political parties as a whole for the state of the nation, rather than simply voting on the basis of their individual legislator’s record. Put another way, the legendary House Speaker Tip O’Neill’s famous aphorism that “all politics is local” no longer holds true, at least not when it comes winning a seat in Congress. In fact, most electoral politics is now “national”. Just how nationalized have congressional elections become? One way to estimate the relative influence of national versus local forces is to regress the outcome of the House vote in any given election on the previous House vote and on the most recent presidential vote in that House district, while controlling for incumbency and district partisanship. The coefficients on the House variable serve as a proxy for local influences, and the one on the presidential variable captures national tides. Drawing on data gathered by a number of my research assistants over the years, I have been documenting the relative growth in the nationalization of House election dating back to 1954. As the chart below indicates, elections have become increasingly nationalized since the mid-1980’s, and in 2016 the House experienced the most nationalized elections yet measured for a presidential election year.
As the next chart shows, there is a similar trend in House midterm elections: an increase in nationalization dating back to the 1980’s, with 2014 showing the highest rate of nationalization to date.
Although detecting similar trends in Senate races is more difficult because there are fewer of them and because Senate cohorts are elected at different intervals, there is some evidence, such as the decline in states that split their Senate contingent between two parties, to suggest that Senate elections have become more nationalized as well. Consistent with this claim, in 2016, for the first time since the Senate was elected through a popular vote, every state that elected a Republican candidate for Senate also voted for the Republican presidential candidate, and every state that elected a Democratic Senate candidate voted for the Democratic presidential standard bearer. In short, there is no reason to believe that Senate races are any less susceptible to the forces driving nationalization.
What are those forces – why are U.S. elections increasingly nationalized? A full explanation requires a separate post, but there are likely a number of factors at play. To begin, changes in campaign finance regulations have accentuated the monetary influence of small donors who possess more ideologically-extreme views and, aided by the ease of contributing via the internet, they are increasingly willing to spend that money wherever it will have the greatest electoral impact. That often means challenging incumbents in primaries with more partisan candidates. It also appears that the marginal impact of casework and other constituency-related activities, which helped fuel the rise of the incumbency advantage during the 1960’s, may have diminished as it has become an expected part of congressional service.
However, perhaps the most important factor has been party sorting, in which party labels have become a more reliable indicator of a person’s ideological views. Among other effects, party sorting has led to a decline in split-ticket voting in national elections from its high point in the 1970’s, as indicated in the following table.
It is important to note that the decline in split-ticket voting is not proof that voters are increasingly polarized. Instead, as Morris Fiorina argues, these trends are more likely a function of the changing nature of the candidates and positions from which voters must choose. Candidates, and the issues they run on, may be better sorted ideologically by party label. If so, even if voters retain centrist views, they may increasingly sort themselves into a particular party and vote for a straight party ticket because of the more partisan-based choices in candidates and party platforms. As parties become better sorted ideologically, party labels become an increasingly useful cue for voters trying to decide how to vote in congressional elections, and members of Congress have a greater incentive to bolster their party brand.
Whatever the explanation for the trend toward nationalized elections, I see no evidence it will significantly reverse itself in the 2018 midterms. Indeed, it is no coincidence that Corker and Flake appeared to both suddenly take a principled stand against their own president: neither is running for reelection in 2018. (Corker made his decision not seek another term public in September.) Flake, as Trump was only to happy to point out, faced declining approval ratings and a difficult reelection fight. Before breaking publicly with President and announcing he would not seek reelection, Corker had been one of the first establishment Republicans to back Trump’s presidential candidacy, and reportedly had considered serving as Trump’s running mate. Similar political calculations likely influenced those other congressional Republicans, such as John McCain during the debate over repeal of the Affordable Care Act (ACA, better known as Obamacare), who have recently broken publicly with Trump. McCain, of course, is suffering from brain cancer and is unlikely to seek reelection.
Most Republicans in Congress, however, have little incentive to challenge the head of their own party, no matter how outrageous they may view his behavior. This is particularly the case for those running for reelection in 2018. Midterm elections are always politically precarious for members of the president’s party. Since 1934 the president’s party has lost, on average, 27 House and almost four Senate seats during these elections. If those averages hold in 2018, it will be enough to cost Republicans their majorities in both chambers of Congress. Crucially, in an era of nationalized elections and ideologically well-sorted parties in which party labels serve as an increasingly important voting cue, it is not clear that individual members of Congress can easily insulate themselves from these growing national political tides. Instead, Republicans’ best option looking ahead may be to stick together and boost their party’s reputation by achieving some legislative successes. So far they have come up woefully short by this yardstick, most notably in their failure to repeal ACA. Their best remaining legislative hope before hitting the campaign trail may be tax reform – a version of which has already passed the House. As Republicans learned with the unsuccessful health care repeal effort, however, maintaining party unity in the Senate, where they possess a narrow 52-48 margin, is a more difficult task. Nonetheless, in an era of nationalized congressional elections, they have a strong electoral incentive to hang together. The alternative, to paraphrase Ben Franklin, another legendary American politician, is to find themselves hanging separately during the upcoming midterm elections.