Our politics may be bitterly divided, but the electorate is also narrowly divided – remarkably and consistently so. The last two decades have seen extraordinary changes in society, politics, culture, technology, demographics, and more. Yet for all that, neither of the nation’s two major political parties has been able to get the upper hand.
After two years during which the Senate could not be more closely divided, November’s midterm elections may result in an upper chamber that is again split 50-50. At FiveThirtyEight, Nate Silver has, not unreasonably, tossed up his hands. “There are three entirely plausible scenarios,” he writes: “A Republican sweep of Congress, a Democratic sweep or a split Congress (which would more likely involve a Democratic Senate and a GOP House).” Two weeks ahead of the election, RealClearPolitics’ “Battle for the Senate 2022” rates seven seats as toss-ups. Control of the Senate will turn on just a few races in a handful of states – Pennsylvania, Georgia, Ohio, Utah, Wisconsin, North Carolina – each of which promises to be determined by no more than a few percentage points.
Such slim margins are not rare. The 2000 election resulted in a 50-50 Senate; the next election saw Republicans win the majority with just 51 Senate seats; the 2006 vote resulted in 49 seats each for the Democrats and Republicans (with two independents). Republicans came away from the 2016 contest with 51 Senate seats; 53 seats in 2018; and 50 in 2020. At least when it comes to the Senate, our politics are remarkably close.
Or, consider the narrow margins in some of the presidential elections over the last two decades. The election of 2000 was so close that it turned on a question of how to count the paper ballots – from just four Florida counties – that were not fully punched. Bush v. Gore threatened to become a constitutional crisis. George W. Bush was finally awarded Florida’s Electoral College votes, and thus the election. Al Gore won the popular tally by a little more than half a million votes out of 101 million cast that year.
An election that close was seen as a once-in-a-lifetime anomaly: It had been over a century since anyone (Grover Cleveland in 1888) had won the popular vote but lost the election. We might have been forgiven, then, for expecting it to be a long time before a candidate once again won the White House without collecting the most popular votes. As it turned out, it wasn’t long at all. In 2016, Hillary Clinton prevailed in the popular vote while falling short in the Electoral College, losing to Donald Trump.
Who would have thought that two decades after the fiasco in Florida, the electorate would still – or perhaps more accurately, again – be as evenly divided as it was then? What, after all, hasn’t changed over the last two decades? In 2000 the world’s eyeballs had not yet become transfixed by smartphones (the iPhone wasn’t introduced until 2007). Social media was in its infancy: In 2000 there was no Facebook. There wasn’t even Friendster or Myspace.
The demographics of the country have changed, with an increasingly diverse population. Such changes were supposed to doom Republican chances for decades to come. In 2002, John B. Judis and Ruy Teixeira published “The Emerging Democratic Majority,” a book that confidently asserted that “overwhelmingly Democratic” minorities, would put the Democrats in a commanding position. Part of that prediction has come true. Minority group ranks had grown dramatically – “from about a tenth of the voting electorate in 1972 to almost a fifth in 2000.” And that population has been mobile, with vast migrations within the country jumbling voting patterns. A “New Great Migration” has seen large numbers of black Americans leaving failing cities such as Detroit and moving to growing cities such as Atlanta, changing Georgia from a Republican stronghold to a state where Democrats can win. Arizona has been a magnet for Californians, a population shift that has helped turn what was once rock-ribbed Goldwater country into a mauve state.
And then there are the many across-the-board changes in culture and politics. Barack Obama’s two decisive victories were supposed to transform American politics. After his commanding win in 2008 there was no shortage of pundits and political players predicting a permanent Democratic majority. Typical was Clinton strategist James Carville, who penned a 2009 book, “40 More Years: How the Democrats Will Rule the Next Generation,” arguing that “Demographics are destiny.”
Donald Trump, by opening a rift between the Republican party’s Main Street majority and the party’s elites has also been seen as making a fundamental change to the electorate. Yet we remain a 50-50 country, with national elections being decided by a handful of votes in one or another county. Who would have thought that 22 years after the bitter stalemate of Bush v. Gore our politics would still be split right down the middle?
“We’re 50-50, but not the same 50-50,” according to William Frey. Author of “Diversity Explosion: How New Racial Demographics Are Remaking America,” Frey told RealClearPolitics that though “Growing demographic groups have been trending Democratic,” they “haven’t gone as Democratic as was thought.”
Elections expert Lonna Atkeson, the director of the LeRoy Collins Institute at Florida State University, posits another possibility. She suggests that the recurring half-and-half nature of our elections is consistent with the Founders’ goals: “The Constitution is meant to frustrate majorities,” she says.
Still, it remains perplexing that the 50-50 split persists even in the face of political turmoil and turbulence. For example, Donald “Trump and Trumpism have changed the playing field significantly,” says Frey. He “helped to energize a new base of people” and created “divisions in the electorate that weren’t there before.”
Despite all these new divisions, the main, down-the-middle divide remains the dominant one. It is also the most consequential of divisions – even if the consequences are rather random. The even split in the electorate made moderate West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin one of the most powerful people in the country.
This time around the ideological direction of the nation may be determined by whether a few thousand – perhaps even just a few hundred – Pennsylvanians prefer the hulking, hooded candidate with the tats and the teleprompter, or the slight, bespoke-suited celebrity diet doctor.
The one thing that is almost certain is that, come the next election, there will be a handful of races in a half-dozen states likely to determine the direction of the nation for another two years.
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