Skip to content

Misunderstanding of divided government

Shankar Vedantam writes:

Americans distrust the GOP. So why are they voting for it? . . . Gallup tells us that 71 percent of all Americans blame Republican policies for the bad economy, while only 48 percent blame the Obama administration. . . . while disapproval of congressional Democrats stands at 61 percent, disapproval of congressional Republicans stands at 67 percent.

[But] Republicans are heavily tipped to wrest control of one or both houses of Congress from the Democrats in the upcoming midterms.

Hey! I know the answer to that one. As I wrote in early September:

Those 10% or so of voters who plan to vote Republican–even while thinking that the Democrats will do a better job–are not necessarily being so unreasonable. The Democrats control the presidency and both houses of Congress, and so it’s a completely reasonable stance to prefer them to the Republicans yet still think they’ve gone too far and need a check on their power.

But Vendatam thinks this explanation doesn’t work. He writes:

One explanation for our paradox is that Americans want divided government. If we have gridlock with one party in charge, perhaps we would have more legislative movement if power in Congress were divided?

This might make sense as a national storyline, but it doesn’t make sense in the real world, because wanting divided government doesn’t tell an individual how to vote. If you are a voter in, say Pennsylvania’s 8th District, would you vote against Democratic incumbent Patrick Murphy in order to get divided government if you weren’t sure how people in all the other congressional Districts were going to vote? If you liked Murphy, would you say you are going to vote against him just to get divided government? . . .

Debunking the debunking

I think that, in his eagerness to explain undesirable political outcomes as the product of irrationality and “unconscious bias,” Vedantam is missing the point.

To start with, a small swing of 10% of the vote would result in a large swing in the political outcome. To take the example above, if you like Patrick Murphy, you can vote for him, and if you prefer his opponent, you can cast your vote the other way. No problem. But there are lots of people in the middle. Preference for divided government may be only a small factor, but it can be enough to swing some votes.

Vedantam writes:

Wouldn’t it make more sense to stop worrying about how everyone else votes and simply pick the candidate you like?

Aaahhhh, sincere voting! Wouldn’t that be wonderful. But it’s hardly irrational for voters to be strategic and to not merely “simply pick the candidate they like.” It’s pretty funny for the author of a book called The Hidden Brain to bring up evidence of cognitive illusions from business to sports to politics–and then recommend that voters simply “stop worrying”!

Why does this bug me?

I’m sure Vedantam is correct that voters are irrational in many ways. Voters are also misinformed (we give some examples in chapter 8 of Red State, Blue State) and their perceptions, even of verifiable facts, are disturbingly correlated with partisanship. And I’m a big fan of the research on cognitive illusions. So I’m not at all opposed to applying ideas of “the hidden brain” to politics.

And I’m not saying that preference for divided government explains all or, necessarily, even most of the anticipated vote swing in 2010. But don’t be so quick to dismiss the idea.

What disturbs me in Vedantam’s otherwise interesting article is the oh-so-quick move to explain away uncomfortable political trends with psychological explanations. Whether the argument is that whites voted for Obama because it made them feel good about themselves, or that people are planning to vote Republican in 2010 because “our unconscious bias favors action over holding steady, regardless of whether that makes sense,” my response is: Maybe so. But let’s consider some more direct explanations first.


  1. Jonathan says:

    As another sign of unconscious bias, the statement "If we have gridlock with one party in charge, perhaps we would have more legislative movement if power in Congress were divided?" betrays a bias towards "action." I suspect that many of those who prefer divided government regard gridlock as a feature, not a bug. It wasn't gridlock that got us the health care bill and the stimulus bill, and a preference for disallowing any change that both parties don't favor (or you can call it gridlock, to be pejorative) may in fact be the impetus for a rational desire for divided government.

  2. Andrew Gelman says:


    Yah, good point. I certainly don't want to suggest that voters are necessarily being rational by swinging toward the Republicans, any more than I want to imply that their voting patterns in 2008 represented an optimal choice. Rather, my point is that rational strategic voting can be part of the story, and I think Vendatam was too quick to leap to psychologizing.

  3. Paul says:

    Plus, the point about not knowing how everyone else will vote doesn't hold either: it's a midterm election, the president is going to be a democrat. Divided government at least as often refers to president of one party, congress of another as it does house of one party, senate of the other.

  4. Ed says:

    This "preference for divided government" thing is a furphy.

    Consider an election where 48% of the voters vote for both the Democratic candidate for the executive and the Democratic candidate for the legislature. Another 48% of the voters vote for both the Republican candidate for the executive and the Republican candidate for the legislature. The remaining 4% split their votes. In this case, 96% of the voters have definitely voted for the same party to control both the executive and the legislature, but the result is "divided government". Alot of American elections are this way.

    Then you get cases where voters put one party in control, and then two years later change their minds and back the other party. Well since executive elections are every four years, they can only change the legislature and would have to wait two years to change the executive. Again the result is divided government, though the voters may not want that.

    Then you get the whole conservative rural voters electing a conservative Democrat to the legislature but voting for the Republican in the executive race dynamic. This is basically what produced the Republican President/ Democratic Congress pattern that prevailed between 1968 and 1994. The realignment of the South simply occured at the presidential level decades earlier than it did at the Congressional level.

    After 1994 Congress and the President have tended to align. You had two reversal elections (1996 for Congress, 2000 for the President) where voters simply didn't get their preference for either the Congress or the presidency, and then the off-year elections where changing the presidency as well as the Congress simply wasn't an available option.

  5. Andrew Gelman says:


    Exactly. To get divided government, you only need a small percentage of voters to split their votes. And it's perfectly consistent (although, I admit, it seems weird at first) to have a majority of voters choose Republicans for Congress even while most voters hate the R's more than the D's.

  6. Allison says:

    I'd like to second Paul, above.

    I'll also provide an existence proof: I absolutely used this as my rationale the first time I voted. The reasoning behind my preference for divided government was that I was a moderate, not a big fan of either party's policy positions on certain key issues, hence would be best served if Congress and the President had to compromise to get anything done. I also preferred "gridlock" (no change) to extreme, uniform change in one direction.

  7. Ray says:

    Politics is the same the world over. Here in Australia we ended up with a deadlock in our recent elections.

    The outgoing ruling party only managing to form a Government with the support of a couple of minority party politicians and two so called "independents" who supported them.

    What stirred up most controversy was the fact that the two independents were elected in areas where the vote against the the outgoing Government was around 80%