Elections at Every Level Show Ever-Starker Divides

Reid Wilson
National Journal

For the past six years, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the bursting housing bubble, and the Great Recession contributed to turbulence in American politics. Think of a bottle of salad dressing, the ingredients shaken up and mixed together. But that tumult has masked a longer-term trend that is dividing Americans along starkly partisan lines. The 2012 elections showed the salad dressing that has been left to separate into its constituent parts.

In these uniquely partisan times, the vast majority of Americans are closely aligned with -- if not necessarily willing to label themselves as members of -- one party or the other. And voting trends suggest that we are both self-segregating, living in ideologically like-minded clusters, and becoming set in our ways. This year's elections demonstrated just how close we are to a long-term political equilibrium.

This equilibrium -- stalemate, a cynic might call it -- is evident at every level, from the national race for the White House to statewide elections for Senate seats to the hyper-local contests for state legislative seats. And little suggests that things will change over the long term, a scary prospect with the fiscal cliff just weeks away.

Start with the White House: Over the past six presidential election cycles, 18 states and the District of Columbia have awarded their combined 242 electoral votes exclusively to the Democrat. Another 13 states have routinely handed their 102 collective electoral votes to the Republican nominee. That leaves just 19 states for the two sides to fight over.

Remove several states that were competitive only when Ross Perot was splitting the Republican vote and Bill Clinton was on the ballot -- states such as Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, and Tennessee -- and the realistic presidential battleground map is reduced further still. This year, Democrats and Republicans truly contested only 11 battleground states. Even then, demographic trends suggest that several of those states, notably Nevada and Colorado, are moving inexorably toward the Democratic column.

Once upon a time, voters had no problem splitting their ballots between the two parties. The 32 states that went for Bill Clinton in 1992 were represented in the Senate by 44 Democrats and 20 Republicans, evidence that Republicans could win even in blue presidential states. The 26 states that voted for Obama this year will send 43 Democrats and just nine Republicans to the Senate.

Just five Senate candidates won election in states that the other party's presidential nominee won -- and if not for disastrous Republican Senate nominees in Indiana and Missouri, that number would have been even lower.

Evidence of the political turbulence is most obvious in the House of Representatives. Lifted by anti-George W. Bush waves, Democrats picked up 31 Republican-held seats in 2006 and 21 more in 2008. The tide reversed in 2010, when Republicans scooped up 63 Democratic seats.

The results this year look more like a return to normal, with both parties retrenching in friendly regions. Democrats beat incumbent Republicans almost exclusively in the West, the Upper Midwest, and the Northeast (outliers included a majority-Hispanic district in Texas and a virtually evenly split district in Florida, where firebrand Republican Allen West lost his bid for a second term). Republicans won Democratic seats almost exclusively in the South, in states such as Arkansas, Kentucky, North Carolina, and Oklahoma (their exceptions came in Indiana and New York, where two heavily Republican seats reverted to their traditional party lean).

Even on the local level, issues are no longer trumping national waves. This year, Republicans won control of the Arkansas House and Senate, which had been in Democratic hands since Reconstruction. They were the last two legislative chambers that Democrats held within the boundaries of the Old Confederacy; after more than a century of Democratic dominance, Republicans began to win control of Southern legislatures over the last 15 years. Just in the last decade, the GOP has won control of 19 of the 24 legislative chambers in the South.

Democrats, meanwhile, picked up Republican-controlled legislative chambers in blue states such as Maine, Minnesota, and Oregon. The party appears to have won control of the New York state Senate, too, long a prize that has been just out of reach.

After new legislators are sworn in this January, Democrats will control both branches of state legislatures in 19 states, while Republicans will hold the reins in 27 states. One state, Nebraska, has a nonpartisan, unicameral legislature. Just three states -- Iowa, Kentucky, and New Hampshire -- will operate with Republicans controlling one chamber and Democrats in charge of the other. Tim Storey, an expert on state legislative politics with the National Conference of State Legislatures, said that's the lowest number of divided legislatures since 1928.

Postelection recriminations tell a similar story of booms and busts. California Democrats won enough state Assembly and Senate seats to allow them to override Republican objections to state budgets. In Arizona, for the first time since the state was admitted to the union, Democrats no longer hold a single statewide office. Democrats in states such as Alabama, Georgia, and Texas are morose over their future prospects; Republicans in the northeast are similarly glum about their odds of a comeback.

"There's not a liberal America and a conservative America; there's the United States of America," Barack Obama, then a lowly Illinois state senator, said at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, in the speech that launched his political career. "The pundits," he added, "like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue states: red states for Republicans, blue states for Democrats."

The lesson of 2012, from the White House to the state house, is that Obama was wrong. In the election that handed him a second term in office, the red states got a little redder, and the blue states got a little bluer. We are sorting ourselves, like salad dressing left to sit and separate.