What Does Divided Government Mean for the Future of Politics?

The midterm elections marked the return of divided government, with more than a third of states in split-power situations.
January 2015
Flickr/Ken Zirkel
Alan Ehrenhalt
By Alan Ehrenhalt  |  Senior Editor

Back in the 1980s and 1990s, there was some lively debate among journalists and political scientists about what voters were trying to say when they split their tickets and gave themselves divided state government.

It was an important issue back then because most of the country was actually doing this -- electing a governor from one party and a legislature from the opposing side, or voting for a Democratic majority in one legislative chamber and a Republican majority in the other. Both the 1988 and 1996 elections produced 31 states with divided government of one sort or the other.

Some states lived under this form of divided power for long periods of time. New York was the most conspicuous example. Its governorship was up for grabs every four years, but no matter who won it, voters could be counted on to bring in a Republican Senate and a Democratic Assembly, guaranteeing a split-the-difference government in which months of awkward backroom compromise ultimately gave both sides a little bit of what they wanted.

It was widely believed in those days that a large portion of the electorate was splitting tickets by design, giving each party a slice of control to prevent the other one from accumulating a monopoly on political power. I never thought this made much sense. I knew I didn’t vote this way, and I had never met anybody who did. As far as I could tell, most voters opted for individual candidates based on the limited supply of information they possessed about what the candidate would actually do in office. They didn’t march into the voting booth and deliberately select one from column A and one from column B, as if they were ordering food in an old-time Chinese restaurant.

The debate has largely subsided in recent years as divided government has gradually lost its prominence on the political scene. States have been moving into the all-red or all-blue category, voting for governments in which one party controls the governorship and both chambers of the legislature at the same time. During the past decade, divided government reached its modern low point. After the 2012 election, only 12 states fit in the divided category.

This past November, however, divided government made a comeback at the state level. Nineteen states are now in split-power situations, including several large ones: Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York and Pennsylvania, to name just a few. So it makes sense to pose a question that hasn’t been asked too much lately: What consequences does divided government have for public policy and the politicians chosen to enact it?

If you ask John Hickenlooper, the just-barely-re-elected governor of Colorado, he’ll probably tell you that dividing power isn’t such a bad way to govern a state. Hickenlooper, a Democrat, won his first term in 2010 by portraying himself as a judicious centrist eager to work with both parties. That was prudent because Democrats were running the state Senate and Republicans controlled the House. In the resulting atmosphere of split power, state politics passed a peaceful two years, in which the two parties generally cooperated and Hickenlooper preserved his reputation for remaining somewhere above the battle.

In 2012, the situation abruptly changed. Democrats took over both chambers of the Colorado Legislature, and the governor was forced into a posture of partisan leadership that didn’t really suit him. The House and Senate passed strict regulations on gun ownership and environmental protection, and Hickenlooper stuck with his party and signed them. The ensuing uproar unraveled the governor’s bipartisan image and set up a bitterly divisive campaign in which Hickenlooper won a second term by just a couple of percentage points. He had been a stronger leader, and the state’s politics had been vastly more civil, when power was divided.

That might augur well for the next couple of years, because the 2014 election gave the state Senate to Republicans, ushering in a new period of divided party control.

But for every John Hickenlooper, there’s at least one Mark Dayton. Elected as a liberal Democrat in Minnesota the same year Hickenlooper won his first term in Colorado, Dayton found himself dealing with divided government of a much different sort. He and the Republican legislature immediately launched into a nasty game of brinksmanship over the budget, one that was resolved only after an embarrassing three-week shutdown of state government in the summer of 2011. Dayton vetoed 57 bills in his first two years in office. He became an effective governor only after November 2012, when his party swept to control in both chambers of the legislature. Democrats proceeded to enact a long list of liberal initiatives that included bills instituting gay marriage, raising the minimum wage and substantially increasing state spending on education.

Republicans pushed back against all these Democratic initiatives, but failed to mount a competitive campaign against Dayton’s re-election in 2014. They did, however, win back the Minnesota House, so Dayton this year will confront a divided partisan alignment similar to the one Hickenlooper presided over at the start of his tenure. Whether the two parties in Minnesota can forge an effective split-power arrangement, or whether they return to the scorched-earth politics of four years ago, will be one of the intriguing questions of state politics in 2015. This will be true in other places as well. It’s hard to imagine incoming Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf getting much of what he wants from a staunchly Republican legislature in Pennsylvania or, conversely, Republican Bruce Rauner having an easy time dealing with the heavy Democratic majorities in Illinois.

It may have occurred to you that judging these various political situations is a highly subjective business. If so, you are right. It depends to a great extent on whether your party is winning or losing. Minnesota’s last two “peaceful” years weren’t very comfortable for the Republican legislative minority, which had to sit and watch quietly as Democrats pushed through a liberal agenda. Colorado’s Democrats didn’t enjoy the partisan bitterness that marked the past two years in that state, but many of them felt it was an acceptable price to pay for the passage of environmental bills they had been waiting years to enact. What was good for Hickenlooper, in other words, wasn’t necessarily good for all the major players in state politics.

I think it’s fair to say, in fact, that prolonged periods of divided government, especially when they generate intense partisan anger and personal hostility, tend to be corrosive to the political process as a whole. I would apply that standard to the strife that has marked politics in Maine since the beginning of 2011.

That year marked the accession to power of Paul LePage, the bombastic and quarrelsome Republican governor elected with a minority of the vote in a three-way contest the previous fall. LePage began insulting Democrats almost from the day he was sworn in. And Democrats were not shy about insulting him back. The result was an era of bad feelings that had not been seen in Maine for generations. Le-Page actually managed to win passage of a fair number of his priorities, most notably tax cuts, because he came in with Republican majorities in both chambers of the legislature. But it was not a pleasant time to be a legislator in either party, or even a politically active citizen watching the show from the audience.

It was tempting to believe that Maine politics couldn’t get any more acrimonious, but in 2012 it did. Democrats took back the legislature. LePage refused even to speak to them and for a time declined to offer them a budget to vote on. The Democratic majority sent the governor a steady supply of legislation, waited for his veto and then debated whether or not to override him. This year is almost certain to provide a fresh round of bickering, since LePage won re-election (again with a minority of the vote) and each party controls one of the two chambers.

You can say that Maine’s system of government has so far survived the Le-Page years. But it has survived at the cost of persuading a large core of voters that the state’s politics is a circus of name-calling and petty rivalry that few sensible citizens would want to participate in. And while Maine may be an extreme case, I fear that some of the states that voted for divided government in 2014 are going to see some of the same unpleasantness in the next couple of years.

It wasn’t always this way. A generation ago, when the ideological divide between the two parties was less pronounced, and politics in most legislatures proceeded largely on the basis of personal relationships, divided government tended to work rather well, or at least more smoothly. When Nelson Rockefeller was governor of New York, from 1958 to 1973, he cut deals with legislative Democrats that produced a flood of innovative programs in education, housing, environmental protection and a wide variety of other policy areas. Not all the programs ended up succeeding as planned, but both parties went home each year with most members believing that something significant had been accomplished.

Similarly, in the 1990s, Republican William Weld governed heavily Democratic Massachusetts with a style that featured occasional partisan bluster but also personal comity with the majority party’s leaders. Once, when asked how he managed to get along with Democratic Senate President William Bulger, Weld replied, “It’s simple. He makes funny jokes, and I laugh at them.”

Perhaps something like that will happen somewhere this year, but I’m inclined to doubt it. In many of the states living under divided government, it is likely to be a trying year.