Singular races in an election do not happen in a vacuum. With so many other offices and ballot measures on general election ballots, there is always going to be some effect that some races have on others. How large that effect will be varies among states and state legislative/congressional districts each year.
One of the most talked-about narratives for the 2018 election is how much of an effect Donald Trump had on congressional races this year, despite the fact that he wasn’t on the ballot this year. This isn’t unusual: after all, midterm elections are rarely kind to the incumbent president’s party. Inevitably, Trump was going to have some effect, whether it was beneficial or detrimental to the Republican Party. Democrats recaptured a House majority, while the Senate stayed with Republicans (although the odds were against Democrats there, as they had 26 seats up for election compared to only 9 for Republicans).
Yet just how much of an effect Trump had on elections this year is up for debate. Maybe he had significantly influenced the election as much as the general narrative goes, but it is difficult to definitively say. Trump’s effect may be a bit overstated. There are plenty of other elections, with all their own nuances, going on in each state and district. Swing congressional districts have to be decided, key state legislative battles are fought, and controversial ballot measures are voted on, just to name a few examples. When and how all these different elections affect each other is the topic of today.
Down Ballot Drop-Off and When Higher-Level Elections Affect Lower Ones
Down ballot drop-off refers to the highest level of office having the largest number of votes on a ballot, and the number of total votes cast subsequently drops for each office going down the ballot. It almost always happens. Voters tend to care more about presidential and gubernatorial candidates more than they do something like a state legislative seat, or they don’t feel like they know enough to make decisions on lower-level races (partially because they get less coverage in the media and information about them is harder to find). There will, however, be some voters that only care about certain races further down the ballot or don’t feel comfortable making a decision about the higher-level races, but they are relatively rare.
As stated before, however, each race does not happen in a vacuum. Given that partisanship (i.e. party affiliation) is the most common heuristic (i.e., rule of thumb) that voters use to make their decisions easier, many people will vote for all or most of the candidates of the same party. Republicans tend to vote for Republicans. Democrats tend to vote for Democrats. Candidates of the same party may be seen as similar to each other even if there is a lot of difference between them. One’s perception of Trump, whether positive or negative, will potentially be applied to other Republicans, and therefore affect their choice in those other races.
Since presidents have a major impact whether they are on the ballot or not (such as a midterm election), a key part of campaign strategies becomes whether a candidate should nationalize or localize an election. Put another way, should that candidate make their election largely about who is in the Oval Office (nationalize) or should they keep the focus on their district/state they are running in (localize)? In more contested elections, it is generally a better strategy for candidates who are in the president’s party to localize an election to shift the focus away from antagonism toward the president. Candidates of the opposite party to the president generally should put a heavy focus on the president to capitalize on opposition to the president.
Note that these strategies do not guarantee victory. There are a myriad of other factors that happen across the country that candidates have to account for, not the least of which is how Republicans, Democrats, and Independents are proportionally divided in a district/state. Local issues may also far outweigh the national issues in many districts regardless of how voters feel about the president. What’s important to one district may not mean anything in another. Campaign strategies are much more complicated than simply debating whether to nationalize or localize an election, but it is a key consideration.
Can Lower-Level Elections Affect the Higher-Level Elections?
It isn’t just the higher offices that affect choices further down the ballot. The reciprocal effect can happen as well, although it is not as strong.
Campaign strategists for statewide office candidates, congressional candidates, and state legislative candidates should account for more local elections happening. For example, a city may have a particularly big mayoral election going on or a particularly controversial amendment to a city charter being voted on. Such elections bring out more voters than usual for those elections, which means potential extra votes up for grabs in bigger elections. With the amount of close elections that we have seen around the country, getting these extra votes from the most local elections could make all the difference between winning and losing.
This is a very basic overview of the reciprocal effects that elections on the same ballot can have on each other. Of course, like most things in politics, it gets a lot more complicated when it boils down to the nitty-gritty details. Perhaps such will be the subject of a future post.