Americans have Grown more Centrist, So Should the Parties

This last election was not normal. Record voter turnout, different voting procedures, and polarizing candidates makes comparing this cycle to any other difficult. But looking at the results of down-ballot races and ballot measures provides insight into the changing political landscape. As my colleague Iain Murray recently opined, voters rarely fall neatly into black and white (or red and blue) categories, and the extreme social and economic policies of the two major parties do not reflect the values of most voters. While American politics has grown more partisan, this election reveals that American voters have moved toward the middle and may even becoming more libertarian.

The statement that America is “more libertarian” may seem dubious. Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson received 5 percent or more of the votes in nine states during the 2016 election, while this year’s candidate, Jo Jorgensen, received no more than 2.6 percent in any state this election. That’s not just a result of greater voter turnout. While both Trump and Biden received more total votes compared to 2016, the number of ballots cast for third-party candidates this year shrunk by half or more. But while red and blue states seem to have grown redder and bluer, respectively, when it comes to who occupies the White House, voters—particularly in states viewed as Democratic or Republican strongholds—have grown surprisingly more centrist on other matters.

Take cannabis, for example. Every single ballot measure aimed at liberalizing drug laws passed, including those legalizing recreational or medical marijuana in traditionally conservative states like Arizona, Montana, South Dakota, and Mississippi, all of which approved marijuana legalization. Some red states also approved fiscal policies more aligned with progressive politics, like Florida, where voters approved raising the minimum wage to $15, and Arizona, where they approved an income tax hike on top earners. In Utah, voters even supported an amendment to remove gendered language from the state constitution.

On the other side, voters in Democratic stronghold states pushed back against some liberal economic policies. Illinois voters rejected a progressive income tax, Californians undid a law passed by the legislature to classify app-based drivers as employees, rejected a property tax increase, and opted against expanding rent control. In Washington, voters rejected a tax on plastic bags. And in Colorado (admittedly more of a purple state) voters approved a statewide income tax reduction.

Voting in senate and gubernatorial races also reveals a narrower divide between the parties, even in states viewed as staunchly conservative or radically liberal, making it increasingly difficult and perhaps inappropriate to continue divvying states into binary boxes. 

The Deepest Blues

In Hawaii, widely considered the bluest of all the states (apart from the District of Columbia), voters predictably supported Joe Biden for president. However, a greater portion of voters went for Trump this cycle than last, with the Republican receiving 34.3 percent compared to 30.4 percent in 2016.

Similarly, in Rhode Island Trump lost both elections yet slightly increased his total share of the votes to 39.1 percent compared to 38.9 percent in 2016. The same trend occurred in the race for U.S. Senate, where incumbent Democrat John Reed won reelection but with a 4 percent smaller margin than in 2014. In fact, while Reed has been winning by landslides since first elected to the seat in 1996, his margin of victory has shrunk for the last three cycles, dropping from 86.8 percent in 2008 to 66.5 percent in 2020. 

In Vermont, another deeply blue state, voters once again chose the Democratic nominee for president, and even more voters went for Biden than for Hillary Clinton. However, 69 percent of voters also reelected Republican Governor Phil Scott, even more than the 53 percent who voted for him in 2016. The Democratic challenger, David Zuckerman, had significantly less support this election, receiving just 27.5 percent of the vote. That is 40,000 fewer votes and 17 percent less of the total than Democrat Sue Minter received when she ran in 2016.

Similarly, Joe Biden’s win in New Hampshire was even more decisive than Hilary Clinton’s, but Republican Governor Chris Sununu also won reelection with a larger margin than when he ran in 2016. As with Vermont, Democratic gubernatorial candidates received progressively less support since 2012, when Democrat Maggie Hassan won with 54.6 percent of the vote. She won reelection in 2014, but with 2 percent less of the vote, and Democrats have not won the office since, receiving just 46.6 percent in 2016, 45.7 percent in 2018, and only 33.4 percent of the vote this year. 

And while Illinois voters decisively favored Biden and reelected Democratic Senator Dick Durbin, they also delivered stinging defeats to Democratic leadership in the state. A majority voted against replacing the state’s flat tax with a graduated tax—a signature issue for Democratic Governor J.B. Pritzker, who proposed to use the revenue from the tax to fix chronic fiscal woes. But voters in Illinois don’t seem interested in covering the cost of corruption and fiscal irresponsibility that runs rampant in Springfield. As my colleague Ryan Young wrote, this is a message that voters want their lawmakers to address the state’s pension crisis by cutting spending rather than raising taxes.

Perhaps even more telling, voters opted against retaining Democrat-backed state Supreme Court Justice Thomas Kilbride, the first time a sitting justice lost a bid for retention in the state’s history.

The Reddest Reds

Utah, widely considered one of the deepest red states, voted for Trump as expected and did so by an even wider margin than in 2016. However, voters were less enthusiastic about down-ballot Republican candidates than in previous years. Republican former Lieutenant Governor Spencer Cox won the gubernatorial race, but his margin of victory was 3 percent less than when he ran with Gary Herbert in 2016. Furthermore, it was one of the few races in the country where the portion of votes going to third-party candidates increased compared to the previous cycle. 

In Texas, Trump received more total votes this cycle than last but with a narrower margin of victory than in 2016. More surprisingly, while incumbent Republican Senator John Cornyn won reelection, he did so with a significantly smaller portion of the votes: 53.6 percent compared to 61.6 percent in 2014.

Similarly, a bigger proportion of North Dakota voters chose Trump this election than last. But while Republican Governor Doug Burgum overwhelmingly won his bid for reelection with 69.2 percent of the vote, he actually received 24,000 fewer votes and over 7 percent less of the total than when ran in 2016.

Montana voters once again chose Trump, but Biden took nearly 5 percent more of the total compared to Clinton’s run in 2016. But, while Republican Greg Gianforte won the gubernatorial race (after losing to the Democratic governor in 2016) and Republican Steve Daines held onto his seat in the U.S. Senate, he did so with a 3 percent smaller margin of victory, with the Democratic nominee earning 5 percent more in the 2020 election than in 2014. A majority of voters also approved a ballot measure legalizing recreational marijuana for adults.

Trump also won again with voters in Oklahoma, and voters also reelected Republican Senator Jim Inhofe. But Inhofe’s margin of victory shrunk by greater than 5 percent while the share of votes to the Democratic candidate increased four percent compared to 2014.

Finally, voters in Mississippi again voted for Trump. They also selected the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, Cindy Hyde-Smith, who won her seat with 56 percent of the vote to the Democratic candidate’s 42 percent. However, the race this election was much closer than in 2014, when Republican Thad Cochran received 60 percent of the vote while the Democratic nominee received just 48 percent. On top of that, nearly 70 percent of voters in Mississippi voted in favor of legalizing medical marijuana.

Takeaways

So, what does all of this tell us about the American electorate? As noted, the strangeness of this particular election makes decisive analysis problematic. But it seems plausible, based on the results, that many voters, particularly in deeply blue and red states, are fed up with extreme voices on both ends. This may explain why both parties, to a certain extent, lost in this election. If they want to gain ground they should follow their voters and move more toward the middle: toward policies that protect individual rights, respect bodily autonomy, and support a freer economy.