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Senate Democrats outperforming Biden raises possibility of historic split-ticket voting

Senate Democrats outperforming Biden raises possibility of historic split-ticket voting

Senate Democrats in key battleground states have consistently performed better than President Biden in polls, fueling speculation that November could see the highest levels of ticket-splitting in years. 

Voting for different parties on the same ticket has become increasingly rare in the U.S. amid growing political polarization. While some down-ballot Democrats are polling better than the president now, observers caution the gap between them will likely shrink as the election draws closer. 

Still, the relative polling strength of Democratic Senate candidates in states like Montana, Ohio and Pennsylvania has suggested that at least some voters will back them while supporting Donald Trump or a non-Biden presidential candidate.

“This is more split-ticket voting than we would traditionally see, but there’s also a higher undecided factor than we would normally see. I think that plays into it,” said Matt Taglia, the senior director of Emerson College Polling. “The dynamics of this race are just so different from previous elections, even from 2020.” 

As much as split-ticket voting regularly gets discussed during election seasons, it has grown increasingly rare. 

In 1972, President Richard Nixon defeated Democrat George McGovern in a landslide, winning 49 states. But 190 House districts elected a Democratic representative that year, according to Pew Research Center. 

In 1988, nearly 150 districts voted one way for president and another for House. But in 2012, that number was only 26.

The 2016 elections marked the first time in modern history that every state voted for the same party in the presidential race as their Senate race. The feat nearly repeated in 2020, when Maine was the only state to split its presidential and Senate votes, backing Biden but also reelecting Sen. Susan Collins (R). 

With five months still to go before Election Day 2024, polling indicates a possible return to at least somewhat higher split-ticketing. 

Although polls have mostly shown Biden trailing Trump in key battleground states, one source of optimism for Democrats has been the consistent polling advantage of their Senate candidates. 

Democratic candidates in most of the key states that will determine which party controls the Senate — Arizona, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — are ahead of their Republican opponents by at least a couple of points, according to the polling average from Decision Desk HQ/The Hill. 

Pollsters across various polling organizations are seeing this while finding Biden behind by a few points. 

A CBS News/YouGov poll from last month of Arizona showed Biden down by 5 points and Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.), the likely Democratic nominee for Senate, ahead of his likely GOP opponent, Kari Lake, by more than 10. 

While not as dramatic of a difference, an Emerson poll of the state from late April showed Trump leading in Arizona by 4 points but Lake trailing by 2. Another Emerson poll of Pennsylvania showed Trump ahead by 4 points but Sen. Bob Casey (D) leading Republican Dave McCormick by the same amount. 

A New York Times/Siena College poll released last month showed Biden with a 12-point deficit in Nevada; if true, a concerning sign for his prospects there. But the same poll showed Sen. Jacky Rosen (D) ahead of her likely challenger, Republican Sam Brown, by 2. 

The differences vary somewhat by state to state and poll to poll, but the disparity has been consistent for months. The dynamic is also being seen in North Carolina, where Biden trails Trump by a few points but Democratic gubernatorial candidate Josh Stein and GOP candidate Mark Robinson are neck-and-neck.

Taglia said the disparity is being fueled by certain Trump voters and self-identifying Republicans backing Democratic Senate candidates. He added that independents are also leaning toward these candidates, giving them the edge. 

He said he expects the split will not be as significant on Election Day as they appear in polls. 

“I think we'll see higher levels of split-ticket voting in this election. We are seeing that reflected in the polling, but I just don't necessarily think it's going to be quite as stark as we're seeing right now,” Taglia said. “I think that we will get to something approaching a more normal distribution, but we're not there yet.” 

Democrats are largely on defense in the Senate races this year, with the map of seats up for election giving Republicans many more chances to gain. But Democrats hold an advantage: running mostly longtime incumbents whom their constituencies know well. 

Analysts said name recognition could play some role in explaining the trend, but that’s not the only factor. 

Wisconsin Democratic strategist Joe Zepecki noted that the Democratic candidates have not had trouble fundraising, while Republicans have backed wealthy candidates who can provide much of their own funds to their campaign. 

Zepecki said Eric Hovde, a wealthy candidate and likely Republican nominee for Senate in Wisconsin, has been advertising on TV for months, but he still trails Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D). 

He said Lake’s past as the GOP nominee for governor of the state in 2022 gives her name recognition, while Gallego is running for statewide office for the first time. 

Democrats have argued that Republican Senate candidates' various weaknesses will give them the advantage to narrowly hold on to the chamber. They have minimal room for error, as they likely need to win the races in all key states plus having a tiebreaker in the vice president to hold the majority. 

“One of the problems of the era of Trump within the Republican Party was that credentialed, qualified, capable, sane and sober leaders of sound judgment wanted nothing to do with being a part of Donald Trump's Republican Party and therefore opted out, which is how they ended up with scores of terrible candidates,” Zepecki said. 

It's on Biden to catch up to his fellow Democrats. 

“Everyone knows who President Biden is, and these numbers are showing that voters don't like what they see,” said Republican strategist Alex Zdan. “Trump is loved by his Republican base, Biden is tolerated.” 

Zdan said the Democratic Senate candidates may outperform Republicans because voters know they want their party to control Congress, even if they have reservations about their presidential nominee. 

He said the inclusion of independent candidates in the presidential race, like Robert F. Kennedy Jr., are another X-factor that could lead to a greater split. Kennedy is on the ballot in more than half a dozen states and says he’s met the signature requirements for several more. 

“Democratic voters can go to the polls and vote for the Democratic Senate candidate and then pull the lever from RFK Jr.,” he said. “That's an option that's open to them this year that has not been open in previous years.” 

Taglia said a party traditionally would want its presidential nominee to be leading and not fret as much if some Senate or gubernatorial candidates are trailing a bit, as the top of the ticket can bring them up through the “coattail effect.” 

“That’s not happening this time. If anything, the Biden campaign, they have an opportunity to have really good surrogates in the field there, to some degree,” he said. 

He said these Senate candidates may not want to tie themselves too much to Biden, given his unpopularity, but their advantage could help the incumbent anyway. 

“That's going to be an investment that the Biden campaign doesn't necessarily have to make where they're getting a bonus on top of their investment just from these statewide candidates turning out the vote, getting people energized, having them tune in to some Democratic issues,” Taglia said. 

But it’s not clear which party will benefit in the end. 

“If I’m either campaign, it’s not necessarily that I’d rather have one or the other [polling situation], but it’s just a reversal from what you normally expect to see,” he said.

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