National Elections Don’t Occur in a Vacuum
Today, all eyes are on the presidential race, and understandably so.
But national elections don’t occur in a vacuum. Understanding the results at the top of the ticket requires interpreting the result in the context of state and local races which occur simultaneously.
Elections with huge margins of victory at the top of the ticket are immediately branded as “mandates” or interpreted as a “referendum” on a particularly exigent national issue. However, all elections are fundamentally local.
Policy might be discussed and crafted at a federal level, but its results are felt locally. The impact which laws have on local communities is the only framework voters have to assess national policies.
All elections—even national ones—are therefore fundamentally local.
Surges in turnout may have nothing to do with passion for a national candidate; they occur because of state and local ballot initiatives. Issues of local law have a more immediate impact on the day-to-day lives of voters. It makes sense that people feel more passionate about these issues than the vague promises of a national candidate whose grandiose platform is likely to be stymied by the checks-and-balances of government action.
This is just an electoral form of federalism. Analysis, however, generally attempts to separate these issues. And that is a mistake which warps understanding of why voters turnout on election day.
This year, Maine may play a crucial role in the election. For the first time in history, the 2nd Congressional District, which encompasses a large swath of extremely rural farmland and wilderness, may split the state’s votes for the first time in history by voting Trump.
The demographics of this part of the state, which is sparsely populated and very agrarian, fit neatly into the populist base which Trump has cultivated.
Is this enough to drive turnout? Maybe. However, it just so happens that a gun control initiative sponsored by Michael Bloomberg’s Everytown for Gun Safety is appearing on Maine’s state ballot this cycle. Passage of the initiative would ban private transfers of firearms without background checks. Currently, Maine requires no licensing for in-state residents to carry either openly or concealed.
To the people of Maine, this is a dastardly example of “people from away” who do not understand the state’s culture attempting to come in and run things. And Mainers, particularly those who populate the northern portion of the state, are extremely proud of their culture. They, as good independent New Englanders, will go out and vote against an abrogation of their independence, regardless of the issue. The fact that this particular issue threatens the prevalence of hunting, upon which many in the sparsely populated deep woods which makes up a good swath of the state rely, is only more fuel on the fire.
If electoral models which emphasize the splitting of Maine’s electoral college votes are correct, the national implications will be emphasized. Yet, whether the burning desire to vote for Trump is the catalyst driving turnout in the state, particularly on the pro-gun right, is not clear. There is a solid case to interpret Maine’s voting pattern in this election from a primarily state and local level.
When pundits step back and look at the national election though, they will breeze pass the subtle nuances of federalism. And this is unfortunate, because it does a disservice to those who attempt to understand voter rationales.
Politics is fundamentally local; electoral results, if they are to be understood and used by parties to better secure victory in future, should also be viewed as fundamentally local.