Mellman: Updated evidence of our increasingly sclerotic national and state politics
My earliest recollection of my paternal grandmother deals with her memory issues.
She took me on a trip to her beloved Florida as a present for my graduation from kindergarten.
I don’t remember playing in the pool or the ocean, though I’m certain we did. I do vividly recall going out shopping with my grandmother one day, ducking in and out of various stores. After perusing some merchandise, I suddenly looked around — grandma was nowhere in sight.
I searched the store, to no avail.
As a fully-fledged kindergarten graduate, I kept my wits about me, barely, and returned to our hotel, where I sidled up to the tall desk to get a room key. No luck in the room either.
After returning the key, I went back to the shops. Following some futile searching, a wave of relief washed over me as I ran to my grandmother who, at that moment, turned to me, asking, “Do you like this shirt?”
She had no idea we had been separated, that she had lost her 5-year-old grandson from Ohio in Miami Beach.
Back at home, I told my parents this strange tale, and they explained that grandma suffered from arteriosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), which reduced blood flow to the brain, causing memory lapses.
Decades later we learned that it was likely Alzheimer’s, which had nothing to with arteries, hardened or otherwise.
But the word – sclerosis – stuck with me. I’ve written here before about our increasingly sclerotic politics at both the national and state level.
Thanks to my colleagues at The Mellman Group, we have some updated evidence on this point, coming from Senate races.
In 1998 the same tranche of Senate seats was up as in this last cycle.
In the late 1990s, Senate and presidential candidates fared quite differently in the same states.
We compared the margins for the 1998 Democratic Senate candidates in each state to the margin for Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton in that state two years before (using absolute values so pluses don’t cancel out minuses). The margins for the Senate candidates in 1998 differed from Clinton’s ’96 margin by an average of over 21 points.
How did things change by 2022?
Last year, the difference between the margins for Senate candidates and presidential candidate Joe Biden shrank to less than 6 points.
In the late ’90s, votes for president and Senate were largely uncorrelated. By the 2020s, they had become tightly linked, demonstrating our political sclerosis.
Zeroing in on the key states of 2022 clarifies the story.
In Pennsylvania, Clinton performed 36 points better than the 1998 Democratic candidate for Senate. The difference between now-Sen. John Fetterman’s (D) margin and President Biden’s was less than 4 points.
In New Hampshire, the difference crumbled from 50 points in the late ’90s to less than 2 points last cycle. In Georgia, it slid from 11 to 2.5. In Nevada, the differences in margins were very similar, and very small, in both sets of years.
In near-miss states such as North Carolina, Ohio and Wisconsin, Democratic Senate candidates improved on Biden’s margin by similar numbers, ranging from 1.6 to 2.6 points.
At the state level, voters increasingly cast their ballots in similar partisan proportions for different candidates in different circumstances.
This political sclerosis reduces the system’s responsiveness to realities.
It used to be that great candidates fared much better than bad ones; a country doing well yielded very different results than the country in dire straits; parties putting forward wise polices got more votes than parties putting forward a seemingly reckless agenda.
No longer. Those factors still matter, but far less than they once did.
For over half a century, scientists were wrong about the cause of memory problems like those afflicting my grandmother, but they saw the consequences clearly.
Here too we witness the consequences of our hardened partisan habits: Citizens mostly just vote for the party they’ve always voted for. I certainly do.
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, as president of the American Association of Political Consultants, and is president of Democratic Majority for Israel.
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