In 1988, Election Day was a bad day for Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentsen. The Dukakis-Bentsen ticket lost the Lone Star state, taking 43 percent of the vote and running 650,000 votes behind the Bush-Quayle ticket.
But that Election Day was also a good day for Bentsen as Texas law allowed him to run simultaneously for vice president and Senate. Bentsen won his bid for re-election, garnering 3.1 million votes, which translated to 59 percent of the vote. Thus, a significant number of Texas voters voted against Bentsen for national office but for him for the Senate.
Bentsen’s experience was not unusual. That year, 16 other Senators won election in a state their party’s presidential nominee did not carry (15 Democrats won in Bush states; two Republicans won in Dukakis states). The same was true in the U.S. House. Democrats won a majority for the 18th straight election, winning the popular vote 53 to 46 percent — the reverse of the presidential popular vote, when Bush defeated Michael Dukakis 53 to 46 percent.
In 2014, Election Day was a bad day for Democrats in red or purple states precisely because they didn’t do what Bentsen and other Democrats did in 1988. Democrats today had very little of what political scientists call the “personal vote” — the portion of a candidate’s support that derives from his or her personal qualities and qualifications. Many fewer voters were willing to go against their presidential party preferences in 2014 than they were in 1988.
As the figure below shows, Democratic candidates in key Senate races won a similar share of the vote as did Barack Obama in 2012 in their state. While Bentsen ran 16 points ahead of the Dukakis-Bentsen ticket, in 2014 the best a Democrat in these states could do was to run five points ahead of Obama’s 2012 total (this was Mark Begich of Alaska).
As they have for several elections now, national factors such as partisanship and presidential approval largely drove the results of the 2014 election. According to the exit poll, 92 percent of Democrats and 94 percent of Republicans voted for their party’s House candidate. As voters have sorted themselves more clearly as Republicans and Democrats, they have become more likely to support candidates of the same party in different elections and have become less likely to be swayed by personal factors such as a candidate’s personality or political record.
There are a number of ways to demonstrate this trend. The figure below shows the Democratic share of the popular vote in presidential and U.S. House elections from 1948 to 2014. From the 1950s to the 1980s, Democrats maintained a consistent majority in the House popular vote while Republicans had the advantage in the presidential vote.
The seemingly permanent Democratic majority in the House was built upon districts that would vote for one party’s presidential candidate and the other party’s House candidate. The figure below shows that these districts were very common during the long Democratic majority.
But these districts have declined precipitously. The number of “cross-partisan” districts dropped to 26 after the 2012 election. Republican victories in Obama seats earlier this month increased that number to 31.
When cross-partisan districts were more common, it made sense to try to explain how candidates, particularly Democratic incumbents, could win votes even in seemingly unfavorable terrain. These explanations range from effective constituent service to voter familiarity with the incumbent; from the ability of incumbents to scare off potential challengers to the “home style” of members of Congress. Each of these factors likely contributed to a significant incumbency advantage in congressional elections. But as political scientist Dan Hopkins has argued, “Being an incumbent is not as fun as it used to be.”
The personal vote has not completely disappeared from congressional elections, of course. Republican Sen. Susan Collins ran 28 points better than Mitt Romney did in Maine. Incumbents still do casework and develop a home style. They still benefit from name identification and the ability to scare off potential challengers. But the partisanship of a state or district and the popularity of the president have become more important in explaining election results.
The consequences of this trend are profound. Congressional elections have become more and more a referendum on national politics. President Obama said “Make no mistake; my policies are on the ballot,” and he was correct. The policies of George W. Bush were on the ballot in 2006 and the policies of the next president will be on the ballot in 2018. Contemporary elections tell us more about voter opinion on national issues than did the results of elections in the 1970s and 1980s. And as a result, party control of the two houses of Congress have switched back and forth since the end of the long Democratic majority in 1994.
For individual members of Congress, the nationalization of congressional elections means that their fate is tied even more heavily than ever to the fate of their party. While individual members may try to cut a more moderate ideological profile than their political party and to “bring home the bacon” via pork-barrel politics, these efforts have more limited effects. Instead, members of Congress are often best served today by assisting their party to pass legislation — improving perceptions of their party’s effectiveness. These trends strengthen congressional parties and their leaders.
The increasing nationalization of congressional elections is the biggest explanation for Democratic losses in the 2014 elections. The silver lining for Democrats is that the Republican senators elected this year are unlikely to be able to develop their own personal vote, and if national trends favor the Democrats in 2020, these new Republican incumbents may be just as vulnerable as the Democratic incumbents of 2014.
Brian Arbour is an Associate Professor of Political Science at John Jay College, CUNY.