PA Midterm Results Highlight Trend Toward Fewer Split Tickets

In eight of the elections examined, there was a surprising split between the presidential vote and legislative district-level races. 

By Peter Hall | Pennsylvania Capital-Star

A voter fills out their ballot in Bucks County on November 2, 2021.
Credit: William Thomas Cain/Spotlight PA

Data compiled from Pennsylvania’s 2022 midterm election results suggest voters are increasingly voting straight-party tickets, according to an analysis by the director of the Franklin & Marshall College Poll.

Only one in seven state legislative districts had winners from both major parties in statewide and legislative races. That’s a stark contrast from 30 years ago, when close to half of the districts had split results. 

That’s in line with findings from across the United States that show voters are more likely to align their votes in local races with their choices for statewide offices or president. It’s a phenomenon often used to support the theory that national politics are drowning out local issues at the polls, F&M pollster Berwood Yost said.

Nationalization, in tandem with political polarization, contributes to political gridlock that makes the government less effective in addressing people’s problems, so it’s a common topic in political science, Yost said.

The analysis follows the publication in December of “Are All Politics Nationalized?,” a collection of case studies from the 2020 election in Pennsylvania that Yost co-edited. 

“We thought it was worth testing the hypothesis that everything is becoming more nationalized,” Yost said.

In eight of the elections examined, there was a surprising split between the presidential vote and legislative district-level races. 

Almost all of the evidence in support of the nationalization theory comes from the way people vote, Yost said. But nobody has looked closely at whether local candidates intentionally align themselves with national issues. The case studies found that’s not always the case.

“The evidence is that even if local voters behave nationally, candidates are talking quite a bit about local issues,” he said.

That raises the question of what other factors are contributing to the phenomenon, Yost said.

To find out whether the ticket splitting occurred in non-presidential races, Yost aggregated data at the legislative district level for the gubernatorial, U.S. Senate, congressional and state House races in 2022.

For comparison, he did the same with results at the state House district level in the 1992 presidential election. 

The midterm election saw Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro sweep Republican nominee state Sen. Doug Mastriano of Franklin County by about 15% of the vote. U.S. Sen. John Fetterman beat Republican nominee Dr. Mehmet Oz by about 5 points, Republicans lost a congressional seat and Democrats won a narrow majority in the state House. 

In 1992, Bill Clinton won the presidential race over incumbent George H.W. Bush by about 9% while incumbent U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter narrowly hung on to his seat. 

The 2022 data showed split results in only 14% of Pennsylvania’s 203 state House districts. That’s far fewer than the 1992 election, when 43% of state House districts had winners from different parties. 

Sarah Niebler, an associate professor of political science at Dickinson College, said it’s clear that themes from national politics such as opposition to school curricula dealing with the history of racism and gender theory and the push for police reform are factors in elections at the lowest rungs of the political ladder. 

“The idea of nationalism is a lot more nuanced and complicated than people associated with one side or the other and voting that way from the top of the ballot to the bottom,” Niebler, who contributed to the book, said.

Systemic challenges

A major factor is the structure of the American political system. 

Legislative districts are largely still composed to favor one party or the other. Yost noted that the number of districts that have a voter registration gap of 10 points or less is 16% percent, comparable to the number of districts where candidates from both parties won. 

With only two major parties, it’s difficult to tell if people are voting for their party’s candidate or against the other candidate.

“If I don’t like the person that my party nominated, my only recourse is voting for them anyway, abstaining from the whole process or voting against them,” Niebler said.

Another factor is a phenomenon political scientists call affective polarization. 

“We are viewing politics in this sports mentality,” Niebler said. “My team versus your team, and I will vote for my team no matter what.”

The values that major or controversial political figures embrace may also transfer to local candidates from the same party in the minds of voters, even if a candidate is silent on such hot-button issues, Chris Borick, the director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion, said.

“If you have such a soured version of the other party and it’s not just a competitive offering but an existential threat to the way you view life it might be hard to break that idea in other levels of government,” Borick said.

Borick, who is also a contributor to the book, said there are exceptions.

“Things like candidate quality and the makeup of the electorate can lead to split ballots and different parties winning, but that’s more exceptional than it once was,” Borick said.

Borick looked at the 1st Congressional District race in 2020 as a case study. Incumbent Republican U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick., largely eschewed discussing issues at the forefront of the national Republican agenda in favor of issues in his Bucks County district. 

Fitzpatrick won handily over Democratic nominee Christina Finello while President Joe Biden carried the district.

Yost said the practical impact of nationalization in state and local politics is that once elected, leaders are likely to inject the themes they believe resonated with voters into their legislation.

The stalemate in the Pennsylvania General Assembly over an exception for sexual abuse survivors to the deadline for filing civil lawsuits against their abusers is a prominent example of how nationalized politics can lead to dysfunction. 

A proposal to amend the state Constitution to give adult abuse survivors whose claims have expired a window to seek compensation has strong bipartisan support in the state House and Senate. 

It passed in both chambers in two consecutive sessions, as required for constitutional amendments, but an administrative error in the Department of State scuttled the effort to put the proposal to voters in a 2021 referendum. The proposal passed again in 2022 and was the subject of a special legislative session in January.

Senate Republicans, however, grafted the survivors’ amendment to other proposals that would require voters to show identification at the polls, require election audits and give the Legislature veto power over executive branch regulations. Democrats in the House passed standalone legislation.

So far, neither bill has received a vote in the other chamber. 

“We see popular ideas held hostage to these other things. The voter ID thing is a national theme,” Yost said. “That’s how it operates and that’s how it’s harmful.”

The 2020 case studies show that there are exceptions when races are competitive and candidates are mindful of their messaging, Yost said.

“It’s important to realize that we aren’t stuck with this,” Yost said. “There are ways to change it. This has led to some things that aren’t great for our politics and by recognizing that we can start to think about ways to change it.” 

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