Mellman: ‘All politics is local’ isn’t true anymore

Mellman: ‘All politics is local’ isn’t true anymore
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Consider some facts, and contemplate their implication:

•    The number of congressional districts producing split decisions — supporting one party for president and the other for Congress — was lower in 2016 than at any point since 1920.

•      For the first time since 1916, 2016 produced a perfect correlation between Senate and presidential voting — every state that voted for Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpScarborough mocks 'Deflection Don' over transgender troop ban Pelosi condemns Trump's 'cowardly, disgusting' ban on transgender troops Trump moves to ban most transgender people from serving in military MORE elected a Republican senator, while every state that supported Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonRepublicans invest nearly 0,000 in red Arizona district Al Franken: Sessions firing McCabe ‘is hypocrisy at its worst’ Papadopoulos encouraged by Trump campaign staffer to make contact with Russians: report MORE chose a Democrat for Senate.

•      In the 1970s and 1980s, an average of 27 percent of voters split their tickets between the presidential and congressional races. More recently, a mere 10 percent of voters were ticket splitters.

•      The incumbency advantage, which reached its zenith in the 1980s and 1990s, has been cut in half, if not by three quarters, in recent cycles.

•      The correlation between the vote for Virginia governor in 2017 and president in 2016 was higher than the correlation between the gubernatorial vote in 2017 and the vote for that same office in 2013.

Taken together, these facts and others make clear that the aphorism attributed to former Speaker Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.), “All politics is local,” just isn’t true anymore.

Indeed, it is more accurate to say, “most politics is national.”

Put differently, we have moved from an era of candidate-centered elections to one of party-centered elections.

In 1972, Richard Nixon won reelection by a stunning 23-point margin, capturing every state but Massachusetts (and D.C.)

Meanwhile, Democrats won the national House vote by almost 6 points and captured 242 seats. Nearly half the nation’s congressional districts produced split decisions. The impact of the national tide on House and Senate races was muted, at most.

Such a result would be unimaginable today. Last year, the percentage of split decision districts plummeted to a mere 8 percent.

It could happen in 1972 because candidates mattered more than party.

It’s so unlikely today because party often matters more than candidates.

Votes for president in the last election tell us as much, or more, about the vote for House and Senate — and even governor — in the next election, than do previous levels of support for those same local candidates.

Split Senate delegations offer clear evidence of the triumph of the personal over the party. In such cases, one of the two senators emerged victorious despite the partisan lean of the state.

In 1978, 26 states — a majority — were represented by one senator from each party. Today, half as many — just 13 states — carry that distinction.

Incumbents were once able to insulate themselves from national trends in part by using their offices, in perfectly legitimate ways, to enhance their reputations — and get votes.

They sent baby books to new parents, certificates to high school graduates, franked mail to those interested in issues, took positions on key issues and brought pork to local communities.

Moreover, they carved out personal reputations — for independence or constituent service or issue expertise or friendliness and accessibility.

Those hard-won incumbent advantages have largely dissipated. The uniqueness of individual candidates appears to have been swamped by partisan tides.

None of this is to suggest that candidates don’t count. They surely do.

That’s why we have Sens. Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn HeitkampDemocrats desperate for a win hail spending bill Koch-backed group launches six-figure ad buy against Heitkamp Overnight Defense: Senate sides with Trump on military role in Yemen | Dem vets push for new war authorization on Iraq anniversary | General says time isn't 'right' for space corps MORE (D-N.D.), Claire McCaskillClaire Conner McCaskillDemocrats desperate for a win hail spending bill Koch-backed group launches six-figure ad buy against Heitkamp GOP Senate candidate slams McCaskill over Clinton ties MORE (D-Mo.), Joe DonnellyJoseph (Joe) Simon DonnellyDemocrats desperate for a win hail spending bill Lawmakers introduce bipartisan bill to speed up infrastructure permitting 2020 Dems compete for top campaign operatives MORE (D-Ind.), Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinThe Hill's 12:30 Report Democrats desperate for a win hail spending bill Coal miners' union to endorse Manchin MORE (D-W.Va.) and Doug Jones (D-Ala.), as well as Govs. Charlie Baker (R-Mass.) and Larry Hogan (R-Md.).

However, it is increasingly difficult for even the strongest candidates to overcome the partisan disposition of their states and districts.

Most candidates can’t escape the gravitational pull of partisanship, though sometimes the very best can (especially when they run against the worst.)

Scholars debate whether the cause lies with the voters or the candidates.

Have voters become stuck in their partisan ways or are the parties now offering more ideologically uniform candidates?

Whatever the cause, though, most politics is now national, not local.

Mellman is President of The Mellman Group and has helped elect 30 U.S. Senators, 12 Governors and dozens of House Members. Mellman served as pollster to Senate Democratic Leaders for over 20 years and as President of the American Association of Political Consultants.