Ticket skipping: One reason GOP Senate candidates underperformed

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Did ‘race-skippers’ doom the GOP’s Senate chances? A theory emerges on why the midterms bucked trends.

For a lot of voters, the race for control of the Senate couldn’t be more important. But did some voters go to the polls and just skip over that race entirely?

That’s one theory that NBC’s Chuck Todd posed on election night as he examined Georgia Republican Senate nominee Herschel Walker’s performance. “Walker is running consistently behind,” Todd declared as he zoomed in and out of a map of Georgia counties on Tuesday night, pointing to the gap not just between Walker’s performance and Republican Gov. Brian Kemp’s, but also then-President Donald Trump’s numbers in 2020. “There’s a lot of people skipping this race. There’s no doubt in my mind.”

Increasingly, voters are what political scientists call “straight-ticket” voters — they vote for one party all the way down the ballot. That means there’s been a decline in ticket-splitting, when voters “split” their ballots between a Republican for governor and a Democrat for Senate, for example.

What Todd’s talking about is a third phenomenon: voters who take the trouble of showing up to vote but skip selecting a candidate for a race because they can’t stomach voting for either candidate. Race skipping often happens as voters get further down the ballot to races they’re less familiar with, but the fact that it’s happening more near or at the top of the ticket is somewhat unusual.

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In a follow-up conversation, Todd suggested that final results may reveal there were ultimately more ticket-splitters than race-skippers this cycle, but there’s still evidence of ticket-skipping in Ohio, Arizona, Georgia, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania — all places where Trump’s hand-picked candidates seem to have underperformed.

“I was obsessed with this. I also think there are more swing voters than we give people credit for,” Todd told Grid. “A skipper is someone who can’t bring themselves to vote for the other guy.”

The reason this is significant is it could reveal something about why Republicans performed so poorly. Ticket-splitters might be fed up with Republicans as a whole, willing to cross over to vote for a Democrat. Voters who skipped the race altogether might be sending a message about Trump.

“It is striking that in multiple states more people voted for governor than for senator even though the Senate races were often more competitive, more expensive and of greater national interest,” Barry Burden, who co-authored a study on ticket-splitting in the 1988 presidential election and a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told Grid.

Ticket-splitting itself is an increasingly rare phenomenon. That’s because voters are increasingly polarized, and if they pick a party, they tend to stick with it up and down the ballot. “Ticket-skipping” may be an extension of that. Voters perceive the parties to be so far apart in high-stakes races that it’s better not to vote at all for that race than to vote for the other party.

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“Ticket-splitting definitely exists and is driven largely by the nature of the candidates who are running, but ballot ‘roll off’ is also a factor,” Burden said.

In very close races, like the race between Walker and the incumbent Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock, it can influence the outcome of the race.

“I tend to think candidate quality is one major factor,” said David Kimball, professor of political science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and Burden’s co-author on that ticket-splitting study, though he cautioned that it’s hard to say how big of an effect those opting out of a race will be until the final ballots are counted.

An October Quinnipiac University poll released shortly after the allegations that Walker had paid for the abortion of a woman he also had a child with found that just 39 percent of voters had a favorable opinion of him, and 57 percent did not find him honest and trustworthy.

Kimball noted that it was more common for voters to cross party lines in governor’s races. “Governors races hinge to some degree on issues that are different than national issues,” he said.

He pointed to Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly in Kansas, who won reelection in Kansas, a state with two Republican senators. Kelly came in after the state government had been through years of austerity, and Kelly now manages a state with budget surpluses and full funding of local education. It’s perhaps not the only issues voters thought about — abortion certainly seems to have loomed large in exit polls in many states across the country — but it indicates that voters have different considerations for governor than they do for Senate.

Burden suggested some voters are just “less concerned” about who controls the Senate but see the relevance of the governors.

The only state we can say for sure that voters skipped a race intentionally is in Nevada — the only state that offers a “none of these” option on the ballot. In the close race between incumbent Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, it looks like about 1 percent of ballots came in with “none of these” on the Senate race. Cortez Masto is trailing her opponent Adam Laxalt by more than double that.

So ticket-skippers may be real, but there often aren’t enough of them to really matter — except, of course, when they do.

In fact, when Grid asked Kimball for other resources on ticket-splitting or ticket-skipping, he said he didn’t have much new material to offer.


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“Since ticket-splitting has declined so much in recent years,” Kimball said, “there hasn’t been much research about it.”

Thanks to Alicia Benjamin for copy editing this article.