Internet Explorer 11 is not supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

The Era of Divided Government is Over

For the first time in a long time, one party holds both the legislature and governorship in 37 states.

While Washington remains gridlocked, there’s more unified party control at the state level following last fall’s elections than at any time in living memory. One party holds both the legislature and the governorship in 37 states -- with legislative supermajorities in fully half the states. There are now only three states with divided legislatures -- Iowa, Kentucky and New Hampshire -- the lowest number since 1928, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL).

There used to be a contrast between the “blue” and “red” states in presidential voting and legislatures. But now, with a few exceptions in areas such as the industrial Midwest and “fringe” Southern states such as Virginia and Florida where the GOP holds sway in state elections, the nation’s legislative map pretty much resembles the presidential map. “We do see within states the same kind of polarization or split that we see at the national level,” says Bill Pound, NCSL’s executive director.

Democrats made some gains in legislative chambers in 2012, but certainly did not enjoy a sweep like they saw in 2006 -- or like the GOP’s historic gains in 2010. “It went in both directions, which is the fascinating thing about this election,” says Thad Kousser, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego. “This hardly ever happens, where the blue states get bluer and the red states get redder, instead of the whole country going in one direction.”

There are several possible reasons this may have happened. One is redistricting, which allowed the party in power to build on its strength. Another is the highly contentious presidential election, in which neither candidate played much toward the center but instead worked to turn out his base.

But the main reason may be that there’s more of a blur of issues between the states and Washington. Where each level of government used to tackle mostly discrete sets of issues, now they have overlapping agendas, most notably in the area of health care. People on either side of the debate about Obamacare weren’t likely to split their votes for different offices. “If people are polarized in their attitudes, why would they discriminate when they’re voting at the state legislative level?” asks Alan Rosenthal, a Rutgers University political scientist.

All this means that states are likely to be operating in “parallel political universes,” Kousser says, with some states offering more by way of health care and preserving or expanding rights for gays and unions, while others will be cutting taxes, imposing greater restrictions on abortion and mandating voter ID requirements.

“All politics may be local,” Rosenthal says, “but all voting now seems to be national.”

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
Special Projects