Split-Ticket Voting Hit A New Low In 2018 Senate And Governor Races

We went into Election Day with a hypothesis: Most Americans would cast a straight-ticket ballot — with some notable exceptions, which we’ll address in a moment. And we decided a good way to test this was to look at statewide races most likely to drive turnout in a midterm election cycle: U.S. Senate and governor contests.

There were 22 states that had races for both the Senate and governor on the ballot this election cycle. And what we found was the same party swept both offices in 16 of the 21 states where each race has been called23, with Democrats capturing both races in 12 states and Republicans doing so in four. Or, in other words, our hypothesis was mostly right — most Americans did vote for the same party in their Senate and governors race. But there were five states — Arizona, Maryland, Massachusetts, Ohio and Vermont — where voters chose a Republican governor and a Democratic senator.

And while we were interested in what happened in these five states (more in a moment), we also wanted to look at every state that had both a Senate and governor race on the ballot to see just how far apart the voting margins were. The idea was this will help us understand how uncommon — or common — split-ticket voting was in 2018. And we could then situate what happened in 2018 by looking at previous midterms to see if there was a trend in how much split-ticket voting occurred between these two offices. (Spoiler: Split-ticket voting hit a new low.)

To do this, I calculated the difference between the margin of victory in the Senate and gubernatorial races for each state using the Democratic and Republican vote shares in each contest.24 And as the table below shows, Massachusetts had the biggest difference between its vote share margin in its races for Senate and governor. Republican Gov. Charlie Baker won reelection by about 32 percentage points and Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren garnered a second term with a roughly 26-point margin, producing a gap of 57 points. So, in other words, in hyper-blue Massachusetts roughly 25 to 30 percent of voters cast ballots for both Baker and Warren.25 Two other states, Vermont and Maryland, also had very large differences between their Senate and governor races — about 55 and 47 points, respectively. Along with Massachusetts, these races all featured relatively popular incumbent Republican governors — Phil Scott in Vermont and Larry Hogan in Maryland — running in strongly Democratic states that easily reelected incumbent Democratic senators. The popularity and independent streaks of these GOP governors clearly helped them overcome the sharply Democratic leans of their states.

Split ticket voting in statewide races is pretty rare

Difference between the size of the margin of victory in 2018 Senate and governor races

Senate Governor
State Winner Incumb. Margin Winner Incumb. Margin Difference
MA Warren +25.5 Baker +31.9 57.4
VT Sanders* +40.3 Scott +14.6 54.9
MD Cardin +33.4 Hogan +13.4 46.8
CT Murphy +20.2 Lamont +3.1 17
AZ Sinema +2.0 Ducey +14.4 16.5
HI Hirono +42.3 Ige +29.0 13.3
MN‡ Klobuchar +24.1 Walz +11.4 12.7
ME King* +19.0 Mills +7.6 11.5
TX Cruz +2.6 Abbott +13.3 10.7
NY Gillibrand +33.0 Cuomo +22.3 10.7
OH Brown +6.4 DeWine +4.2 10.6
TN Blackburn +10.8 Lee +21.1 10.2
WI Baldwin +10.9 Evers +1.1 9.7
NM Heinrich +23.5 Grisham +14.3 9.2
RI Whitehouse +23.0 Raimondo +15.5 7.6
PA Casey +12.8 Wolf +16.8 4
MI Stabenow +6.4 Whitmer +9.5 3
WY Barrasso +36.9 Gordon +39.8 2.9
NV Rosen +5.0 Sisolak +4.1 0.9
MN‡ Smith +10.6 Walz +11.4 0.8
NE Fischer +19.2 Ricketts +18.9 0.4

Election data as of 10 a.m. on Nov. 16, 2018. Only states with both a Senate and gubernatorial election that featured candidates from both major parties are included. This means California is excluded because no Republican candidate qualified for its Senate election. Florida is also not included because both its Senate and gubernatorial elections are still uncalled. Some data may not add up due to rounding.

*Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Maine Sen. Angus King are included as Democrats because they caucus with the party in the Senate.

‡Minnesota is included twice because it had two Senate elections this year.

Source: ABC NEWS

But these three states were notable outliers — no other state had a difference between their Senate and governor races that was greater than 17 points. That said, these less divided contests can still show you where a stronger candidate for one party may have made a difference. Take Tennessee’s Senate race, for instance. Republican Rep. Marsha Blackburn defeated Democrat Phil Bredesen there, but Bredesen — a popular former governormade the Senate contest notably closer than the gubernatorial election.

Incumbency may have been a factor, too. Both the Tennessee Senate and gubernatorial races were open seats, but in another GOP-leaning state like Ohio, there was one incumbent on the ballot, which might help explain why Ohioans elected a Democratic senator and a Republican governor. Incumbent Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown won his race by about 6 points and Republican Mike DeWine won the open-seat governor race by 4 points. Given that Ohio is 7 points to the right of the country, Brown probably benefited at least some from an incumbency advantage The two races ran relatively close together — the difference was 11 points — suggesting that most voters voted for the same party in both contests.

But we were also interested in what would happen if we took a step back and zoomed out, looking at other midterm cycles and split-ticket voting. How would 2018 compare? It turns out that 2018 is part of a trend that shows fewer Americans are splitting their tickets (at least in races for the Senate and governors in midterm elections). This election had the smallest median difference of any midterm cycle going back to at least 1990 — 10 points.26

As you can see, even though 2018 has the lowest mark in the past three decades, the median difference from election cycle to election cycle has bounced around. Still, the overall trend is one of decline, at least since 1998. You might wonder why there are fairly regular ups and downs in the chart, but this can be explained by the number of elected governors running for re-election in each cycle.

For example, only eight incumbent governors ran in the 24 states included in my calculations for 2010, whereas in the 2014 cycle there were 16 states with incumbent governors. And what I found was cycles with fewer incumbent governors running tended to show less evidence of split-ticket voting (a lower median) while cycles with more incumbents demonstrated more evidence of split-ticket voting (a slightly higher median). Part of this is because governors often benefit from an incumbency advantage. As my colleague Nate Silver pointed out in his introduction to FiveThirtyEight’s governor forecast, partisanship explains less in gubernatorial elections than it does in federal contests, and therefore, incumbency might matter slightly more for governors than it does in either the House or Senate.

No matter which way you cut it, the difference between the margins in a state’s gubernatorial and Senate races has shrunk. More voters are casting straight-ticket ballots. There are exceptions, of course, but this shift matches what we know about the larger electoral picture: voters are more partisan and the country is more divided than it’s ever been in the modern era of U.S. politics.

CORRECTION (Nov. 19, 2018, 2:30 p.m.): A table in an earlier version of this article incorrectly indicated that the Democratic Senate candidate in Arizona, Kyrsten Sinema, was the incumbent. The race was for the seat that Republican Sen. Jeff Flake is retiring from.

Something Looks Weird In Broward County. Here’s What We Know About A Possible Florida Recount.

The Florida U.S. Senate race is still too close to call. According to unofficial results on the Florida Department of State website at 11:45 a.m. Eastern on Friday, Nov. 9, Republican Gov. Rick Scott led Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson by 15,046 votes — or 0.18 percentage points. We’re watching that margin closely because if it stays about that small, it will trigger a recount. It’s already narrowed since election night, when Scott initially declared victory with a 56,000-vote lead.

The changing margin is due to continued vote-counting in Broward and Palm Beach counties, two of Florida’s largest and more Democratic-leaning counties. On Thursday evening, the supervisors of elections in the two counties told the South Florida Sun Sentinel that vote counting there was mostly complete. Under Florida law, counties have to report unofficial election results to the secretary of state by Saturday at noon, but Nelson’s campaign is suing to extend that deadline. Scott’s campaign and the National Republican Senatorial Committee are also suing both counties for not disclosing more information about the ongoing count, and Scott called on the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to investigate Broward’s handling of ballots.

Unusually, the votes tabulated in Broward County so far exhibit a high rate of something called “undervoting,” or not voting in all the races on the ballot. Countywide, 26,060 fewer votes were cast in the U.S. Senate race than in the governor race.1 Put another way, turnout in the Senate race was 3.7 percent lower than in the gubernatorial race.

Broward County’s undervote rate is way out of line with every other county in Florida, which exhibited, at most, a 0.8-percent difference. (There is one outlier — the sparsely populated Liberty County — where votes cast in the Senate race were 1 percent higher than in the governor race, but there we’re talking about a difference of 26 votes, not more than 26,000, as is the case in Broward.)

To put in perspective what an eye-popping number of undervotes that is, more Broward County residents voted for the down-ballot constitutional offices of chief financial officer and state agriculture commissioner than U.S. Senate — an extremely high-profile election in which $181 million was spent. Generally, the higher the elected office, the less likely voters are to skip it on their ballots. Something sure does seem off in Broward County; we just don’t know what yet.

One possible reason for the discrepancy is poor ballot design. Broward County ballots listed the U.S. Senate race first, right after the ballot instructions. But that pushed the U.S. Senate race to the far bottom left of the ballot, where voters may have skimmed over it, while the governor’s race appears at the top of the ballot’s center column, immediately to the right of the instructions.

Sun Sentinel reporters talked with a ballot expert, who said that some voters may not have noticed the Senate race (perhaps thinking it was just part of the ballot instructions) and started filling out their ballot with the governor race instead. That theory is supported by a data consultant who’s worked for several political campaigns in Florida, who found that the parts of Broward County that fall in the 24th Congressional District did see higher levels of undervoting than other parts of the county. That might be because the 24th District was uncontested, which according to Florida law means that the congressional race did not appear on the ballot at all. As you can see in the sample ballot above, the congressional race would also appear in the lower-left corner on many ballots, along with the Senate race. In districts where there was no congressional race on the ballot, however, that corner would have looked even emptier, perhaps making it easier for voters to inadvertently skip over the Senate race.

An alternative explanation is that an error with the vote-tabulating machines in Broward County caused them to sometimes not read people’s votes for U.S. Senate. If that’s true, we would probably only find out if there is a manual recount. According to Florida law, any election that’s within half a percentage point (as this one currently is) triggers a machine recount; then, after the machine recount, if the race is within a quarter of a percentage point, it goes to a much more complex manual recount — a.k.a. each ballot is recounted by hand. As long as the machine recount doesn’t change the Senate results too much (barring a surprise in the remaining ballots in Broward and Palm Beach), it looks like that’s where we’re headed. In addition, Republican former Rep. Ron DeSantis and Democratic Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum are separated by just 0.44 points in the governor’s race, so that could go to a machine recount, too.

But recounts rarely change the outcomes of elections. A FairVote analysis found that the average recount from 2000 to 2015 shifted the election margin by an average of just 0.02 percentage points. The largest margin swing was 1,247 votes — coincidentally also coming in Florida, in the 2000 presidential race. If Nelson is going to stage a comeback in the Sunshine State, he’ll almost certainly have to close the gap between him and Scott even more in the next couple of days.