Defensive voting and split tickets.

As part of the ongoing effort to clarify some aspects of the US elections this year, this post focuses on two tactics: defensive voting and ticket splitting. Some readers may already be familiar with both concepts, but for those who are not, here is brief outline of what they involve.

Defensive Voting.

Defensive voting is the act of voting against someone by casting a ballot for their opponent not out of loyalty or agreement with the position of the opponent, but out of fear of the possibility of the disliked candidate winning. This may be due to a number of reasons but is usually based on a lesser evil approach: In order to prevent a greater evil from occurring in the form of a detestable candidate being elected, voters choose whatever alternative candidate is available who stands a chance of preventing the “bad guy” from prevailing. The idea is simply to prevent an unpalatable candidate from electoral victory even if the alternative is not entirely palatable either. There may be variations on this approach, such as voting for a clearly marginal candidate in order to help sideline a legitimate opponent, but the basic premise for such tactical voting is prevention, blocking or denial, not support, affirmation or promotion.

This is another reason why the US presidential race is so interesting. Polls show that Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are the most detested front-running candidates in US presidential history. Ted Cruz is equally loathed across the political spectrum. That means that more than the vote of their supporters, what will decide the outcome in November is who has the largest defensive voter turnout against them. A micro version of this scenario will play out at both major party conventions, since the “anyone but Trump” Republican factions and the Bernie Sanders supporters in the Democratic Party will, at least initially, vote against the front runners as much because of their dislike of them as out of support for their own candidates.

Depending on what happens at the conventions, in November it is entirely possible that some if not many Republican voters will vote for Clinton (should she win the nomination) or an independent candidate rather than Trump. Likewise, Sander’s supporters, if he does not win the nomination and receives no policy concessions in the Clinton platform, could well turn to a third party candidate such as that of the US Green Party. That could seriously tighten the race and perhaps even lead to a Trump victory, which from the standpoint of many progressives would simply help sharpen the contradictions in the US political system and lay the foundations for more significant change down the road (I refuse to use the term “revolutionary” because unlike Sanders and his supporters I have a full understanding of what social revolutions entail, and that does not include participating in deeply institutionalised electoral processes).

If the presidential race comes down to Clinton versus Trump or Cruz, then the deciding factor will be who has the most votes cast against them rather than for them. Given the intensity of negative feelings towards all of this motley crew, it could lead to a record turnout on both sides of the political divide and give previously non-committed Independent voters, particularly those who were not able to vote in closed primaries, a decisive role in the election.

Ticket splitting.

Those familiar with MMP understand this concept well. The  “split ticks” versus “two ticks” phenomenon is simple to grasp: you can either vote for a party and a candidate from that party in a general election (giving “two ticks” to the party vote and that party’s candidate from your electoral district), or you can split your party vote from your member vote (say, by voting for Labour in the party vote and a Green candidate in the member vote).

This type of voting is unusual in the US. Political parties tend to discourage so-called vote splitting because in most elections whole slates are presented as a ticket by the party to voters, for offices ranging from president to the local dog catcher. Even though voters, in practice, do split their votes among national, state and local offices, at the national level the US electoral system largely operates in binary, either/or fashion. That makes it a rare day when parties urge their supporters to split their national-level votes.

This year that day has come. Some in the GOP leadership are floating the idea that, should Trump win the party nomination, people should split their votes in the presidential race from their votes “down ticket,” that is, for other elective offices. The GOP has very real reason to be concerned that a Trump defeat could trickle down through the Senate, House of Representatives, Governorships and even important mayoral races. With that in mind, they are asking their supporters to vote Republican down ticket even if they do not vote for Trump (and in fact many in the GOP are urging voters to vote for anyone but Trump). As mentioned in my previous post, a shift in six Senate seats restores a Democratic majority to it. In the House the shift will have to be much larger but even one that decreases the Republican majority close to or below the 2/3 mark needed for passage of legislation can be devastating for GOP prospects during the next congressional term. With several prominent Republican politicians tainted by their endorsement of Trump (such as New Jersey governor Chris Christie), the chances of his dragging the entire party down with him are considered to be very possible. Thus the open calls for vote splitting on the part of some in the Republican leadership.

On the Democratic side there is less interest in vote splitting although Sander’s supporters are urging him to run as an independent if he loses the Democratic nomination for president. Should he do so, then his supporters will engage in vote splitting as well, voting for him rather than Clinton but voting for Democratic candidates down ticket. That will be what tightens the presidential race, as barring unforeseen circumstances Sanders can only act as a spoiler in the campaign for the White House. This is the most likely reason why the Clinton camp will be inclined to offer him significant policy concessions at the convention, which not only will mollify his supporters but also could help increase their defensive vote against Trump.

The Outlook.

Of course, in no small part because she is a female in a country that still has issues when it comes to gender and higher office, Clinton may have more defensive votes cast against her than those cast against Trump or Cruz. In that case the stage will be set for the mother of all federal government meltdowns once either Republican candidate assumes office, since whoever it is will very possibly be fighting Congressional Republicans as well as the Democrats from his perch in the Oval Office, to say nothing of many state an local authorities. But given those who have been scapegoated by Trump and Cruz’s neo-medieval social outlook, framed against the demographics of the country, the more likely scenario is that defensive minded voters turn out in droves, many of them splitting their tickets on the conservative side,  and Clinton rides to victory, perhaps in a landslide.

In the meantime, let’s get back to our popcorn and beverages and watch the circus/trainwreaks primaries continue to unfold.

5 thoughts on “Defensive voting and split tickets.

  1. Given that the current round of the US elections seems more and more to resemble pro wrestling I think it reinforces Frank Zappa’s idea that “politics is the entertainment arm of industry”.

    From a Pol Sci point of view its fascinating to watch the process of the curtain being pulled back and the whole ugly process being exposed.

    More technically I see Cruzis planning a last ditch (remember the Alamo!) stand in California after Trump swept the much of the East Coast. If he makes the numbers and doesn’t get the nomination it could be very interesting.

    Do you think there will be an effort to thwart him after the first round of voting, maybe a more “exotic” option, some wet works perhaps?

  2. Looks like it is all over but the shouting on the GOP side. The question is whether the RNC will back Trump and release money to his campaign. Or will they run a candidate under the Independent banner and try to save some “honour” in a losing cause.

    I would love to be a fly on the wall at RNC meetings these days. Talk about squeaky bum time!

  3. My gut feeling is they will bow but not willingly, the alternate is to risk political destruction by splitting the vote (like you noted) and setting up Hillary.

    I do wonder about the wet-work option though, its very conspiracy theory but political assassins have existed before and George Wallace being shot in 72 springs to mind as a somewhat relevant example.

    If we could all be flies on the wall I think the RNC would have more pest controllers than delegates.

  4. ” release money to his campaign “!!

    But haven’t BOTH parties got enough already??

    And isn’t that part of the problem?

  5. Edward:

    Beyond the problem of corporate money in US politics, the issue is this. By election law the respective mother groups, the DNC and RNC respectively, cannot release funds to a presidential campaign until a nominee has been selected. Of course they cheat during the primaries, but the bulk of that money is held back for the post-convention campaigns.

    This is going to make the Trump candidacy very interesting. The RNC may well decide not to fund his general election campaign or he may choose, as he has always said, to refuse any help from it. If the latter he clearly underestimates the costs of general election campaigning even for a billionaire who will try to claim many of the costs as a business expense. If the RNC decides to fund an independent candidate against him and Clinton, his costs could well become prohibitive.

    Even the Republican convention will be interesting. The RNC has contracted to rent a stadium in Cleveland, along with the setup logistics. But who is to say that it will pay for anything else, like entertainment, hookers and other social amenities, etc.? I would imagine that they only might do so if they are trying to sway delegates to vote against Trump.

    Moreover, who is going to go to the convention now that Trump is likely to be coronated? Other than butt-licking politicians like Palin and Christie and assorted other freaks like Anne Coulter, will the Republican establishment attend an event in which they guy who craps on them is crowned heir apparent? I doubt it, which will make for a very, very weird Republican convention.

    And then, of course, there will be the demonstrations. They could well make Chicago 1968 look like a pillow fight. I sure do not envy the position of the Police Chief or whoever else is responsible for crowd control and city security during the convention. Perhaps the RNC can pitch in some money towards security costs or post-convention reconstruction.

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