The Ticket Splitter is Extinct

Once upon a time, a creature called the “Ticket Splitter” roamed the landscape, dominating politics and deciding elections.

This strange animal had habits difficult for us to comprehend today. It would go into the polling place on Election Day (there being no “early vote” and few “mail-in ballots” then), work its way down the ballot and – get this – pick and choose among candidates of different parties.

The creature might vote for a Republican for President, a Democrat for Governor and then another Republican for U.S. Senate. It might prefer the Democrat for U.S. House, a Republican for state Senate and then another Democrat for state House. 

Moving down the food chain, it would vote for a Democrat it liked here, a Republican it had met there, etc., etc.

I told you it was a strange beast.

All lesser political animals quaked before it. Every election, they sought its unpredictable favor. Pollsters, pundits and political scientists poked and prodded it, examined it from head to toe and sought to understand and predict its predilections.

No more. You can examine this week’s (still-incomplete) election returns and see that the ticket-splitter is dead, gone and buried.

Virtually every Republican in a statewide race got the same number of votes as President Trump, 2.7 million. Senator Thom Tillis got a few less, about 2.6 million. Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler got 2.8 million.

Democrats got about the same as Joe Biden, 2.6 million or less. Governor Roy Cooper got 2.8 million. Agriculture Commissioner candidate Jenna Wadsworth, 2.4 million.

Go down the ballot and you’ll see the same pattern. 

Back in the 1980s, former House Speaker Tip O’Neill famously coined the line “All politics is local.” No more, Tip. Now all politics is national. And, beyond that, tribal.

Especially in the Age of Trump. He has accelerated the tendency of nearly all voters to pick a side, Democrat or Republican, and stick with it all up and down the ballot.

North Carolina Democrats were surprised by Tuesday’s results because they underestimated (again, as in 2016) Trump’s vote-getting power. Trump – not state or local issues – decided the fate of candidates at all levels.

Some $250 million was spent in the U.S. Senate race, yet Tillis and Cal Cunningham tracked the totals of Trump and Biden. Actually, both got a little less. That reflects a lack of enthusiasm for each within their parties.

It wasn’t always this way. In 1984, when Jim Hunt ran against Jesse Helms for Senate, Hunt ran 10 points ahead of Walter Mondale; Hunt got 47.8% and Mondale, 37.8%. Ronald Reagan beat Mondale by 1.3 million votes to 824,000. Helms beat Hunt by 1.15 million to 1.07 million.

Some 200,000 voters – 10% of the electorate – voted for Reagan and Hunt. (Yep, North Carolina was a lot smaller then.)

The term “ticket splitter” was popularized by an adopted North Carolinian, Walter de Vries, a political consultant, author, and founder of the North Carolina Institute of Political Leadership. In 1972, he co-authored a book titled “The Ticket-Splitter.” 

Walt was from Michigan, where he worked for Governor George Romney, father of Mitt. He moved to Wrightsville Beach in 1972 and taught at Duke and UNC-Wilmington.

Walt died last year at age 90. He lived long enough to see the demise of the dinosaur he studied.

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