The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Ticket-splitting is for fools

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) speaks on Wednesday in Bangor, Maine. (Robert F. Bukaty/AP)

Sen. Susan Collins has a unique distinction among 2020 Senate candidates: While we await results in a few states, so far she seems to be the only candidate who won while the presidential nominee of her party lost in her state. While the votes in Maine are still being counted, she leads by eight points while Joe Biden leads President Trump there by 10. In other words, Collins was saved by the increasingly rare phenomenon of ticket-splitting.

And anyone who split their ticket to vote for her — or for any other congressional candidate — is a fool.

Okay, I’m being a little harsh. Many of Collins’s supporters seem to have chosen her based on non-policy considerations: They’ve known her a long time, and she’s a “real” Mainer (though those are preposterous criteria for choosing a senator). But if you think that by splitting your ticket you could produce some kind of policy compromise between the two parties, you’re living in a past that has disappeared.

Ticket-splitting has been in a steady decline, though it still happens regularly when it comes to governors and federal candidates. In New Hampshire this year, for instance, Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen and Republican Gov. Chris Sununu both won reelection easily. And that’s fine — if moderation is what you’re interested in (as ticket-splitters often say they are) and you’re in a state dominated by one party, a governor from the other party will almost certainly be a moderate.

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But let’s focus on the federal level, and whether it makes any sense to vote for a president from one party and a senator or member of the House from the other. It doesn’t.

The logic is supposed to be that by splitting your ticket you’re hoping for a “check” on the president. As Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina said before the election: “The best check on a Biden presidency is for Republicans to have a majority in the Senate.” A Senate from the other party will restrain him from going too far and keep him to a reasonable course.

In other words, the argument is that a division of power produces moderation, perhaps even compromise. But it doesn’t.

In earlier eras, it could. But it can’t now. We have two ideologically distinct parties with radically different agendas. And in Congress, the opposition party doesn’t use the power they have to produce compromise. They use it to produce gridlock.

Which, from their perspective, is perfectly rational. For instance, Republicans are deeply opposed to any expansion of government-provided health insurance. Democrats, on the other hand, very much want to expand government-provided health insurance, which is why Biden has a plan to offer a public option that could insure tens of millions of people.

So if Biden becomes president and Republicans control the Senate, are they going to engage in some productive, good-faith negotiations that produce a result somewhere in the middle? No, they will not. Republicans will use their power to kill any plan Biden brings to Congress, full stop. The result is simply inaction. Which, from the perspective of Republicans, is the best outcome given the options.

You can hear similarly erroneous arguments made in defense of the filibuster, that if the majority party has to get minority support, it will compromise, producing an outcome with broader public support. Which sounds good in theory but almost never happens in practice, not these days.

While there have been a few bipartisan bills here and there in recent years, they happened because the two parties shared the same goal, not because they were forced by the filibuster to find common ground. Most often, the filibuster is nothing more than a tool the minority uses to prevent the majority from implementing its agenda.

So let’s go back to those Maine voters who chose Biden but also voted for Collins. Were they hoping for some set of outcomes between the Democratic and Republican agendas, a little from column A and a little from column B? Say, some action on climate change but also lower taxes?

Well they won’t get it. When it comes to the work of Congress, they’ll get none of what either Collins or Biden want. There will simply be no significant legislation at all.

So the only real beneficiary of ticket-splitting is the party you didn’t choose for president, because it enables them to stop the president from passing his agenda. And I suppose it’s possible there were some ticket-splitters who saw that as their goal: They wanted to get rid of Trump, but they didn’t want to see Democrats accomplish anything.

But I’m guessing their numbers are small. In all likelihood, many more of the ticket-splitters thought they were voting for moderation and compromise.

We may decry partisanship and polarization, but if that’s the context we’re living in, everyone would do better to just decide which party they prefer, then vote to give them as much power as possible. Then they can implement their agenda, and you can decide in the next election whether you liked the results.

Or you can pretend that you’re voting for something you’ll never get.

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