At a focus group with couples in Charlotte, North Carolina talking about the pressures put on their relationships by the contentious presidential election, one wife said her marriage had never been so bad and another said she and her husband had to watch the debates in separate rooms.
The anguish they expressed reflects the emotional toll this election is taking on the voters, but something more was going on. Three of the participants identified as “Walmart Moms” for their shopping habits, and for having children at home under the age of 18, said they were voting for Donald Trump, but would vote Democrats for governor and senator.
This is classic ticket splitting, and it hasn’t been a prominent feature of American politics for decades. “It’s been a lost art” until this election, says Republican pollster Neil Newhouse. “2016 looks potentially to break that mold.”
Attorney General James Comey’s initial announcement about finding more of Hillary Clinton’s emails could make ticket splitting a boon for down-ticket Republicans, says Newhouse. “He threw a lifeline to Republican candidates running for the House and Senate, especially in the suburbs, areas where Trump was having difficulties. Republicans were on the defensive; now Democrats have to defend a nominee who’s under FBI investigation.” (Comey on Sunday cleared Clinton of wrongdoing, but the damage done was reflected in the tightening polls.)
It’s risky to extrapolate too much from a single focus group about the voters’ propensity to stray from straight party voting, but a pattern could be emerging. Exit polls on Florida’s early voting found that 28 percent of registered Republicans had voted for Hillary Clinton, an astonishingly high number that could signal a dramatic change in voting habits.
In North Carolina, voters are angry with Republicans for supporting HB-2, legislation that requires people to use the restroom that coincides with the gender on their birth certificate. The so-called “bathroom bill” has cost the state millions of dollars in revenue from sports franchises and corporations.
The concept of splitting your vote barely existed in the early eighties, says Newhouse. One-party control of Congress by the Democrats had been the norm for so long that it was a big surprise when Republicans won control of the senate in 1980 in addition to winning the presidency with Ronald Reagan.
Since then, voters have gotten accustomed to seeing the senate flip back and forth, and it’s become commonplace for candidates to run as a “check” on the other party’s power.
Both Trump and Clinton have such high negatives, they make Richard Nixon look lovable when he first won the presidency. “This is a classic nose-holding election,” says Newhouse. “Voters don’t like either one, and they want to balance that vote with a vote for the senate,” which helps explain why Republicans in competitive senate races are running significantly ahead of where Trump is in their state.
When Newhouse polled for the Romney campaign in 2012, Republicans in competitive senate races never ran more than 3 or 4 points ahead of Romney.
“Reliving the Romney campaign is painful for me, as you know,” Newhouse told the Daily Beast, agreeing to talk about it in the context of lessons learned for 2016. “I made mistake of misinterpreting campaign intensity and enthusiasm for turnout,” he says. Republicans were more excited about the election throughout the fall than Democrats, “and I mistook that for turnout.”
Trump boasts about the thousands lining up for his rallies, while Clinton draws much smaller crowds. “An unenthusiastic vote counts just as much as an enthusiastic one,” says Newhouse. The Obama campaign relied on early voting, much as Clinton appears to be doing. “You knock on doors, you drive them to the polls, you walk them there, you baby sit. On the ground, the Obama campaign excelled by a factor of X – who knows how much?” he says.
The Romney campaign assumed African-Americans would be less enthusiastic in ’12 than ’08, and that was a mistake. “When I saw the first exit poll where Obama’s approval rating among those who had voted was 54 percent, I knew it was over,” says Newhouse. Obama was at 48 percent during the campaign, never quite reaching the 50 percent tipping point. “The fact he was at 54 percent, it was disheartening, like a blow to the gut,” says Newhouse.
The electorate that was voting in key battleground states was significantly different from what the Romney campaign or any public polls going into the election envisioned. African Americans were 10 percent of the electorate according to exit polls in Ohio in 2008, and in 2012, they were 15 percent, “and it’s not like a ton more of African Americans moved into the state,” says Newhouse. “When you see a number like that, we never picked that up. We were way off in terms of enthusiasm.”
Newhouse believes he is a lot more clear-eyed going into this election, and he is watching which candidate has the momentum in the final days. “Winners close the deal, they finish strong, the candidate who has the momentum at the end….” He doesn’t quite finish the sentence, perhaps avoiding the conclusion, recalling instead how Hurricane Sandy put Romney’s campaign “literally on ice for five days. We were campaigning in quicksand at the end.”