When People Voted Across The Aisle


In the wake of Tuesday’s special election in Pennsylvania, let’s open with a couple trivia questions and circle back to the answers: In the 1976 General Election, what percentage of self-identified liberals voted for the Republican, Gerald Ford? And in that same election, what percentage of self-identified conservatives voted for the Democrat, Jimmy Carter? 

If recent times are any indication, the answers would be low and lower:

In 2016, 10% of liberals voted for Donald Trump, while 16% of conservatives voted for Hillary Clinton.

Both those candidates did try to appeal to the other side—Trump as a populist, particularly on trade, and Clinton as a moderate, particularly on the broader economy. But people still, for the most part, didn’t break from their political leanings. Pew actually suggests that people are even further apart than this election indicated on some levels.

A thread that runs through much of Smerconish.com is that politics in America is polarized, it’s not a good thing that it is, and it certainly wasn’t always this way. In my own discussions about this with political operatives, I sometimes get accused of nostalgic-but-faulty memory of past times.

I get it. I’m not old enough to appreciate first-run Archie and Edith Bunker, never mind the stuff they sang about at the piano. I will tell you, however, that the glorious Intellivision is better than whatever garbage video game system the kids are playing today. And I know that America had its serious problems back then, especially with explicit, unabashed racism.

But what about polarization? The 1976 stats stunned me:

Gerald Ford got 26% of the liberal vote.

Jimmy Carter got 30% of the conservative vote.

In hindsight, the Carter figure might be owed partially to Carter being a Southerner who was eager to discuss his religious faith, which would appeal to conservatives. At first glance, the Ford numbers are perplexing: Gerald Ford pardoned Richard Nixon, and a quarter of liberals voted for him regardless! (It makes me speculate: if Ford lets Nixon go to trial, does Ford win even more liberals and independents in coasting to another term in office?)

What makes these voting results even more spectacular is that 1976 was not a time when America was not without huge problems. Aside from Watergate, the nation was trying to recover from the Viet Nam War. The economy faced stagflation, and its cities were recovering from riots and domestic terrorism. And yet more than a quarter of Americans on both sides looked across the ideological fence to just vote for whomever they deemed best suited to run the country.

Those were the days. But I’m not here to pitch you doom-and-gloom. This week, we took a step back there.

As I write, Democrat Conor Lamb has declared victory in Pennsylvania’s special election in a US House race where he leads Rick Saccone by a few hundred votes. Whether Lamb wins after the recount, he has run very strongly in a district where in 2014 and 2016 the Dems didn’t even bother to field a candidate. Lamb did it by using his own moderate views to appeal to voters across the spectrum, claiming to be the best guy for the job.

If more people from both parties do that, the country will be in a better spot.

In Matthew Foldi’s article last week, “Here Comes the Democrats’ Tea Party,” he wrote that a Blue Wave might be full of people who upstage Democrat incumbents and moderates. However, I hope Dems look at the Lamb-Saccone race, change tactics, and stop taking their Blue Dogs out behind the shed to shoot them.

The political center mattered in 1976. The first party that wakes up and realizes that it matters today will be well rewarded. In the end we need to operate on the idea that both parties want to win--so that leaves me somewhat hopeful.