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Why Are Conservative Voters Supporting Liberal Ballot Measures?

Staunchly Republican rural counties voted for progressive policies at the ballot box this year, including minimum wage hikes and Medicaid expansion.

Conservative voter Missouri ballot measures
A resident of rural Stockton, Mo., casts his vote in November's election. As in some other states, many Missourians this year supported liberal ballot measures even as they voted for conservative Republican candidates.
(AP/Charlie Riedel)
Missouri Republicans triumphed in last month's elections. In defeating Democratic U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, GOP state Attorney General Josh Hawley carried 110 of the state's 114 counties. Republicans also maintained supermajority control over both legislative chambers.

Yet at the same time, Missouri voters approved a number of liberal ballot measures. They supported an increase in the minimum wage, legalized medical marijuana and a broad measure to restrict lobbying, put new limits on campaign finance and take primary authority for redistricting away from legislators. 

Not only did those measures pass statewide, but they won majorities in the state's rural counties, which gave more than 70 percent of their vote to Hawley.

The same disparity occurred in other states.

Florida's Amendment 4, which restored voting rights for ex-felons, carried the state's rural counties. In fact, it was passed by voters in every state Senate district in Florida, even as Republicans maintained their legislative majorities and won the U.S. Senate and governor races. In solidly red Utah, a majority of rural voters approved a ballot measure to expand Medicaid.

Ballot initiatives have lately been more a tool of the left, with progressives looking for ways to push ideas that have no chance in Republican-controlled legislatures.

Still, why are voters who would likely never vote for a Democrat willing to support policy ideas that are straight out of the Democratic platform?

"There's like a 20 to 25 point difference on voting for a Democrat and voting for a policy a Democrat would support," says Bill Bishop, co-founder of the Daily Yonder, which covers rural issues.

Bishop argues that politics now is more about identity -- feeling part of a partisan team -- than policy, with candidates paying an "identity penalty" because of their party affiliations. At least some voters who might like a Democrat's ideas will vote against her, simply because of her party label, he says. 

Conversely, notes Rob Pyers, research director for the nonpartisan California Target Book, "if the California GOP House candidates had performed as well as the gas tax repeal did in their districts, they would have gained three seats instead of losing seven."


Why Some Voters Go Against Party

Political scientists and pollsters have shown that voters are often willing to change their positions on issues in order to suit their party's stances. But if that's the case, it doesn't solve the mystery of why so many conservative voters were willing to support progressive ballot measures this year.

Several factors appear to be at play.

For one thing, while Republican politicians might have opposed some of these measures, they didn't always campaign against them. Florida GOP officials, for instance, are seeking to delay implementation of Amendment 4, but they ran no formal opposition campaign against it leading up to the election.

"If you're a conservative governor, and you're finding out that minimum wage increases are actually  playing pretty well, why would you go out there and talk about that issue when you'd be bringing on an additional headwind to your own victory?" says Craig Burnett, a political scientist at Hofstra University. 

Organized opposition makes a difference. Medicaid expansion initiatives were approved in Idaho and Nebraska, along with Utah. But a measure that would have extended the Medicaid expansion in Montana by increasing tobacco taxes was defeated, in no small part thanks to $17 million spent against it by tobacco companies.

Ballot measures represent binary choices. You're either for the idea, or you're not. You know precisely what you're voting for, or against (assuming the ballot language is clear and not misleading).

By contrast, when you vote for a candidate, she might pledge to support marijuana legalization or Medicaid but be unable to get the job done in the legislature, or come back with some mushy compromise.

"People do view candidates and elected officials in a different way from these issues," says Chris Melody Fields Figueredo, executive director of the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, which promotes progressive ballot measures.

Figueredo argues that voters look at ballot measures through the lens of their potential impact on their daily lives. A minimum wage increase might mean a raise. Medicaid expansion means more residents will have health insurance.

"They associate a lot of these candidates with political parties," she says, "but then they look at the ballot and say, 'I need access to health care, I'm going to vote for that.'"

There's some truth to the idea that voters are less likely to attach partisan labels to ballot measures than they automatically would with candidates, says Burnett, the Hofstra professor.

Certain policy ideas have become so closely identified with one party or the other that it's hard to imagine how they could win support from many partisans on the other side. Voter ID restrictions aren't going to be approved by voters in states with a clear liberal bent, while measures to address climate change are unlikely to win favor in conservative places.

But in general, people are sometimes willing to vote for ideas that sound good to them, even when their party doesn't approve.

"When you look at the way these ballot measures are structured," Burnett says, "there's no party attached to it. You don't necessarily know who's supporting them."

This appears in the Politics newsletter. Subscribe for free.

Alan Greenblatt is the editor for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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