Close Elections, Party Politics Playing into National Gridlock
When people are being encouraged to cast their ballot on Election Day, you often hear the phrase, “Every vote counts.” That old phrase is quickly turning into a literal truth and just maybe, it’s a way out of the current political gridlock.
Larry Jacobs, professor at the Humphrey School of Public Policy & Affairs at the University of Minnesota, said party politics has changed dramatically over the past four decades.
“If you go back to the late 1960s period where there was a lot of bipartisanship, it was a very different political party system in which there was an emphasis certainly on holding party principles, but also on winning the general election,” said Jacobs, who was a featured speaker at the Midwestern Legislative Conference’s recent annual meeting in St. Paul, Minn. “That was the focus, selecting a candidate with your district who could win over that centrist voter. The policy motivations in that kind of party system was finding common ground.
“In 1968, what’s the big issue? Vietnam. Look at Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey. If you go back and study that campaign, (the two sides) look very similar. Why? Because the party system was oriented toward winning elections.”
Jacobs said party changes made in the 1970s made it easier for activists to become major forces in the recruiting and nomination process. Today, candidates must stick closely to party lines to secure a nomination.
“We’re seeing political parties acting as sorting mechanisms for the electorate,” he said. “We’ve got well over 90 percent of the electorate who are Democrats voting for Democratic candidates; this is looking at presidential elections. And well over 90 percent of Republicans are voting for Republican candidates. This was not always the case.”
Adding to the political confusion are the vastly different courses states are taking because a very small percentage of voters are deciding many elections.
“In Minnesota in the last eight elections, we’ve had control of the House of Representatives flip hands five different times,” Jacobs said. “And in each of those times, … it’s a pretty small number of voters making those differences, a few thousand votes out of several million being cast. … So (there are) dramatic policy differences based on small electoral outcomes.”
Take Wisconsin and Minnesota. Both states are very similar demographically, but they have gone in dramatically different ways politically, Jacobs said.
“(Republican) Scott Walker won (the race for governor of Wisconsin) in 2010,” Jacobs said. “(Democrat) Mark Dayton won (the Minnesota governor’s race) as close as you can possibly get, … just 6,000 votes cast out of over 2 million, a very close election. … When Scott Walker came in, he had unified control of the legislature. That win in the legislature was based on some very narrow wins. For instance, in the Senate, three seats were decided by less than 5,000 votes out of several million.”
Those few thousand votes, Jacobs noted, led to very different policy decisions in the two states.
“Small electoral outcomes, big policy decisions,” he said. “Taxes, completely opposite directions. Unions, opposite directions. Health care reform in one state, but not in the other. Education spending moving in one direction in one state and moving in the opposite direction in the other. Social issues, Minnesota just approved gay marriage and Wisconsin is approving more restrictions on abortions.”
Jacobs believes the national political parties are beginning to rethink how much influence state delegations have and the country could see a generational shift with the young people coming of age during the Great Recession trending toward voting Democratic.
But, he noted, it’s no time “for Democrats to be gleeful,” Those shifts of small groups of voters that are causing these big policy changes also could trend toward the Republicans. Regardless of which way they go, those voters may be the way to break the gridlock, said Jacobs, by forcing candidates to move once again toward more centrist policies.
“In 1984, Republicans won the Latino vote,” he said. “As recently as 2004, George W. Bush did quite well. There is a way for Republicans to do well among Hispanics; they don’t need to win them. A lot of these votes are small percentage shifts and that really opens it up. I think it’s a very interesting future and maybe a way out of some of this polarization.”