Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

A New Kind of Balancing Act: Electoral Certainty and Ticket-Splitting in the 1996 and 2000 Elections

Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

A New Kind of Balancing Act: Electoral Certainty and Ticket-Splitting in the 1996 and 2000 Elections

Article excerpt

Using data from the 1996 and 2000 American National Election Studies, this article analyzes the behavior of voters who split their tickets, voting for one party's presidential candidate and the opposing party's House candidate, in presidential election years. We test the hypotheses that balancing behavior is likely to occur only when the outcome of the presidential election is relatively certain, and that balancing is most likely to occur among relatively sophisticated voters who have reservations about the policy positions of their preferred presidential candidate. The results of the study support the presence of this type of balancing behavior in the 1996 election and suggest that balancing can play an important role in producing divided government.

The results of the 2000, 2002, and 2004 elections notwithstanding, over the last fifty years, divided government has been the norm in the United States. Only 13 of 30 elections since World War II have resulted in unified control of the executive and legislative branches of the federal government. In order to explain split party control, Fiorina (1988, 1992, and 1996) argues that divided government is a result of purposive balancing behavior by a portion of the electorate seeking moderate policy outputs not possible under unified party control.1 However, thus far empirical support for his spatial theory has generally been weak (e.g., Alvarez and Schousen 1993; Born 1994; Burden and Kimball 1998, 2002).

Despite these results, we would argue that balancing theory should not be dismissed. In line with Alesina and Rosenthal (1995), we argue that balancing behavior (1) is an option only for a subset of politically sophisticated voters and (2) can be expressed as split ticket voting in presidential election years only under specific circumstances: when voters are relatively certain prior to voting who will win the presidential election. This article tests these hypotheses with data from the 1996 and 2000 presidential elections, examples of elections with a fairly certain outcome and a very uncertain outcome, respectively.


In its simplest form, balancing theory suggests that voters compensate for reservations about the character or policy positions of the expected presidential winner by voting for a congressional candidate from the opposing party. As such, balancing is a strategic action in which voters deliberately seek to bring about divided government. One form of balancing behavior is expressed as split ticket voting. Ticketsplitters can be divided into two groups: those who split their ticket in response to local factors such as the relative visibility of the congressional candidates, and those who split their ticket as a means of balancing partisan control.2

The idea that some voters split their ticket due to local factors is not a new one. Declining party loyalties allow short-term forces, the issues, candidates, and conditions peculiar to a given election, to play a larger role in vote choice (Nie, Verba, and Petrocik 1976; Wattenberg 1991).3 Some voters split their ticket as a consequence of their satisfaction with their congressional incumbent. Constituency service, the franking privilege, gerrymandering, and campaign finance practices all provide incumbents advantages in their réélection efforts. For some voters, the appeal of incumbency is strong enough to overcome national political trends and party allegiances (Jacobson 1991; Erickson 1972; Cover and Mayhew 1981; Jacobson 1990). In addition to incumbency, voters may also split their ticket in reaction to relatively high quality candidates or vigorous campaigns. The split ballots of any of these voters, therefore, are not a consequence of purposive behavior. Rather, they are a result of voters using varying criteria in their vote choices across different offices (Burden and Kimball 2002).

With regard to voters who split their tickets purposively, Fiorina (1992, 1996) argues that balancing voters split their federal ticket between the parties as a means to seek moderate government policies. …

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