Not All Elections are Presidential: But They Might Be More Partisan Than Ever

Derek Holliday

Do presidential nominees dictate the fortunes of down-ballot candidates? While this has been a growing concern of many political commentators, I find evidence that elections for lower office are decided on partisan rather than presidential considerations.

Both Joe Biden and Donald Trump are viewed unfavorably by a majority of registered voters. Despite their unpopularity, both are likely to be their respective party’s nominee for the 2024 presidential election in a rematch of 2020 that few want to see again. This has Democrats and Republican political candidates for other offices worried; when voters go to the polls in 2024, will their electoral fortunes be tied to their party’s presidential albatross?

This concern is one shared by many political scientists, who have found evidence that the electoral fortunes of candidates for non-presidential offices have grown increasingly similar to those of their presidential co-partisans. As one political scientist put it, “all politics is presidential.” This has potentially serious consequences for political representation — if voters are making decisions for governor, for example, based on their views of the president, incumbent governors cannot be rewarded or punished for the actions they took over the past four years.

Are presidential candidates really to blame, or is some other force aligning presidential races with down-ballot results? To find out, I conducted a study comparing presidential influence to another major force in U.S. politics: partisanship. I hypothesized presidents are not primarily responsible for top-down influence of state and local elections. Instead, the growing importance of partisan identification more strongly structures behavior across all electoral contests.

Think of election results as numerical noise — a bunch of numbers with seemingly little pattern connecting them. To test my hypothesis, I horse-raced presidential voting against partisanship (which I measure as the general tendency for a place to vote for Democrats or Republicans, regardless of office), in a race to explain this noise. Once we account for either factor, how much noise is left? The more important the factor, the less noise there is remaining.

The figure above shows the relative predictive performance of partisanship versus presidential voting for all county-level results for U.S. Senate, Governor, State Secretary of State, and State Attorney General from 1972 to 2020 — positive numbers mean better partisan performance, negative mean better presidential. The red line shows that on average, county partisanship is a better predictor of results than presidential votes, suggesting politics have become more partisan than presidential.

Of course, these races tend to be of higher profile. Because of access to news coverage, larger advertising budgets, and greater name recognition, candidates for larger statewide office might be able to better distinguish themselves from presidential candidates. What about races for smaller offices? In the figure below, I compare the predictive power of presidential and partisan voting for every statewide contest between 2016 and 2020. Again, partisanship on average outperforms presidential voting in every office. In fact, the most obscure offices tend to have the largest partisan prediction advantage.

Candidates in down-ballot contests, then, are not just reflections of their co-partisan presidential candidates. They are, however, clearly identifiable as members of the same party. As partisanship becomes a greater dividing line in American life, candidates for lower office will have to work harder to distinguish themselves from other partisans, not just presidential candidates.

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