As a kid it could be awfully quiet sometimes at the dinner table. On one side sat my Irish Catholic mom, the daughter of a union railroad worker. On the other side was my dad, a German Lutheran and a Chamber of Commerce Republican. Elections and the Immaculate Conception were rarely discussed.
But come election time, my folks were classic swing voters. My dad always voted for iconic Wisconsin Democratic U.S. Sen. William Proxmire. My mom was a huge fan of Republican President Ronald Reagan. They would shop for candidates like diners in a Chinese restaurant. One from column A, one from column B.
Many political pundits view ticket splitting as a quaint custom on life support. But in 2022, the practice came roaring back in midterm elections across the country, much to my delight.
Vermont reelected an incumbent Republican governor who beat his opponent by a staggering 47 percentage points. Meanwhile, incumbent Democratic Sen. Peter Welch won by 40-points.
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In Nevada, Democratic Sen. Catherine Marie Cortez Masto won reelection, but voters tossed out the incumbent Democratic governor in favor of Republican Joe Lombardo.
The split ticket pattern repeated in Kansas, New Hampshire, Georgia and Wisconsin. In Wisconsin, ticket splitting almost seems wired into the state’s political DNA.
Madison screenwriter and columnist, and might I add ticket splitter, John Roach struggles to explain it.
“It’s a puzzle to me. I am not sure it’s rational,” Roach said. “It’s almost like they don’t want to give too much power to one side. And Wisconsin voters try to balance it out in a kind of freestyle way.”
In Georgia, the politics are in a constant turn with a huge influx of new residents. Georgia was solidly blue for decades. But in 2000, the Peach State took a hard right turn for the next 20 years. Now, Atlanta’s booming affluent suburbs are deep purple.
“I think Georgia ticket splitters are great,” said Saba Long, the leader of a civic journalism organization in Atlanta. “I talk about it in my political podcast.” The millennial with both staunch Democrats and Republicans in her family argues that “ticket splitting ensures that elected leaders have a more diverse political experience.”
University of Virginia political scientist Kyle Kondik is quick to point out, however, that ticket splitting is less successful in presidential years. The numbers are sobering. Only 23 congressional representatives in 2020 were elected in a district that was won by the president of a different party.
“From a candidate perspective, it has to be disheartening that there is a certain kind of paint-by-numbers quality to politics today,” Kondik notes.
But in races for governor and U.S. Senate, the voters seem more inclined to shop around.
In the Georgia race for U.S. Senate, incumbent Sen. Raphael Warnock made a strategic decision to court ticket splitters by running an ad touting his bipartisan work with Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz. Naturally, his Democratic base was horrified.
Yet I think he had his finger on the pulse of American politics where 44% of American voters self-identify as centrists, according to a Brookings study. That’s an enormous block of voters who are bewildered by the current political climate where the extremes pass for the norm.
“When we are at gridlock, which we are now as a country, then you want to think that there are people who can work across the aisle,” said Melita Easters, a Democratic political consultant in Atlanta.
For the podcast I host called “Lost in the Middle: America’s Political Orphans,” we spend significant time listening to focus groups. They usually consist of a half-dozen people and a discussion leader trying to draw out what, why and how they think about candidates and issues.
In Georgia, a mid-50s white suburbanite and long-time Republican voter wrestled with her decisions in 2022.
“I had always been a straight-ticket voter, and I was going to vote for Gov. Kemp,” she said. “But I decided to split my ticket and vote for a Democrat for Senate. It was liberating. People should not be afraid to color outside the lines. What matters is getting it right.”
I agree. Hurray for the ticket splitters.
Don’t pull the straight lever. Pull for the right candidate regardless of the party.
I hope we see many more of them this fall.