- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 7, 2006

Did this year’s election outcome conform to voters’ desire for divided government? It appears so. After four years of unified Republican control, voters imposed their preferences for divided government on our national legislative and executive institutions by electing Democrat majorities in the House and Senate in Congress. This electoral outcome is consistent with recent survey research showing robust support for divided government. But it also pushes to the surface some of the deeper contradictions buried deep inside the American electorate.

According to the most recent American Survey (November 17-20, 2006; 805 registered voters), voter support for divided government is strong. We asked the following question: “Thinking about divided government, where one party controls the White House and the other controls Congress, which of the following two statements comes closer to your view: Divided government is good because it provides a check on each branch or divided government is bad because it creates more gridlock in Washington.”

As the first chart demonstrates, Americans think divided government is “good” by nearly a two-to-one margin. Among partisan categories, divided government receives the strongest support among independent voters (69 percent), followed by Democrats (65 percent) and then Republicans (56 percent). Interestingly, even though the GOP lost unified control, a majority of that party’s voters still say divided government is “good” because it provides a check on each branch. Support for divided government is also strong regardless of age, gender or income categories.Looking further into differences among ideological categories, self-identified “very conservative” voters are the only group where a higher percentage thinks divided government is “bad” (44 percent “good” compared to 48 percent “bad”). In all other self-described ideological categories, strong majorities like divided government. The highest support comes among “moderates,” with nearly 72 percent preferring divided government.

Support for divided government is not a new phenomenon, arising from time to time among the electorate. Political scientist Morris Fiorina, in his book “Divided Government,” reports the results of public polls about the topic going back to 1984. In five public surveys, ranging from November 1984 to October 1994, Mr. Fiorina shows support similar to my most recent findings. Only one of his polls — from October 1992 — shows support for divided government dipping below a majority to merely a plurality (47 percent favored divided government, 39 percent unified government).

Interestingly, one month after support for united government reached a high point, voters installed Bill Clinton as president along with a Democratic House and Senate. More recent Gallup surveys show support for divided versus unified government more closely split over the past five years, yet their research, like the American Survey, also indicates a surge in support for divided government in the past few months.

Mr. Fiorina also argues that divided government may get a bad rap. Contrary to conventional wisdom, he reports that unified and divided government produce about the same amount of public-policy outputs, and with no significant differences in one party investigating the other. In other words, the facts don’t support those who say divided government only produces gridlock and recrimination.

Finally, Mr. Fiorina also argues that a lack of popular consensus on many political issues underscores popular support for divided government, and may be the reason voters continue imposing it. Americans have many incompatible wants: Balance the budget, but don’t cut entitlements; raise taxes, but not mine. Divided government is the electoral manifestation of these contradictions in the body politic.

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