Ticket-splitters are poised to play a pivotal role in a handful of key battleground states, like Pennsylvania and Georgia, where signs are growing that voters may be willing to cross party lines for certain candidates.
In Georgia, where voters will choose their next governor and U.S. senator next week, polling has routinely shown Gov. Brian Kemp leading his Democratic rival Stacey Abrams by distinct margins, while Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) has maintained a narrow edge over Herschel Walker, the Republican Senate nominee.
A similar dynamic is playing out in Pennsylvania, where Democrat Josh Shapiro has opened up a sizable advantage over Republican Doug Mastriano in the race for governor. Meanwhile, in the state’s Senate race, Democrat John Fetterman has seen his once-yawning lead over Republican nominee Mehmet Oz evaporate, leaving the two candidates virtually deadlocked.
Taken together, the polls suggest that voters who cast their ballots for candidates of different parties could make the difference in some of the nation’s premier races, despite a decades-long decline in ticket-splitting and heightened political polarization.
“I think that the benefits of being hyperpartisan are starting to fall off,” said Keith Naughton, a veteran Republican strategist. “For both parties, it’s doing as much to drive their opponents’ turnout as it does their own. So it’s going to come down more to a more moderate, middle grouping of the public that’s willing to split their votes.”
Some strategists said that the potential for ticket-splitting this year shouldn’t come as a total surprise.
Voters tend to be less likely to vote according to party lines in midterm elections compared to presidential election years when partisan sentiments tend to run higher. At the same time, factors like incumbent advantages and concerns about candidate quality may be driving some Americans to split their votes.
Kemp, for instance, has maintained an above-water approval rating for much of his first term in the governor’s mansion. And despite his pursuit of a hard-line conservative agenda, there are signs that he’s managed to attract the support of some moderates and independents with popular policies like tax cuts and pay raises for teachers and state employees.
Walker, meanwhile, has seen his campaign ravaged by gaffes and controversies, including allegations that he paid for his now-ex-girlfriend to have an abortion in 2009. And while his race against Warnock remains tight, he’s polling several points behind Kemp in most public surveys, suggesting that voters that are committed to backing Kemp may have some reservations about Walker.
“I think at the end of the day, there are a lot of people who see Brian Kemp and Raphael Warnock as relatively stable figures,” one Democratic strategist who has worked on Georgia campaigns said. “Herschel Walker is a mess. Voters see that. And Stacey — she’s a good candidate, but it’s just hard to convince people to throw Kemp out of there.”
“I think voters are being more discerning about all of this than a lot of the political class, the media gives them credit for,” the strategist added.
That dynamic has played out repeatedly in polling. A Marist College survey released on Friday found Warnock and Walker deadlocked at 48 percent support among likely Georgia voters, while Kemp led Abrams by 8 points.
But when it comes to independents, they appear poised to break for the incumbents. Forty-eight percent said they’re supporting Kemp compared to 42 percent who are backing Abrams. Warnock, meanwhile, has the backing of 49 percent of independents, compared to Walker’s 42 percent.
Naughton also chalked the strength of candidates like Kemp and Shapiro up to the fact that they’re both current state officials seeking state-level offices. Kemp is seeking reelection to the governor’s mansion, while Shapiro is still serving out his second term as Pennsylvania’s attorney general.
Naughton said that unlike Senate races, which tend to be dominated by national — and often polarizing — issues, contests for governor’s mansions often hinge more on state and local issues.
“There’s a split between state and federal races. You have state-level politicians who are dealing with less ideological, more local concerns,” he said. “These races will turn on what they’ve done, what they’ve delivered.”
While split-ticket voters could potentially swing the outcomes in Georgia and Pennsylvania, there are similar trends playing out in other states. In Ohio, for instance, Gov. Mike DeWine, who’s seeking reelection this year, is running nearly 10 points ahead of Republican Senate nominee J.D. Vance, according to FiveThirtyEight’s polling average of the two races.
Likewise, in New Hampshire, Gov. Chris Sununu, a popular Republican incumbent, is widely favored to win his reelection bid, while Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) appears to have a slight edge over Republican Don Bolduc in the Granite State’s closely watched Senate race.
With Election Day just a few days out, candidates in tough races are acutely aware that they’ll need to rally the support of ticket-splitters if they want to make it across the finish line next week. Facing the potential for defeat, Fetterman’s campaign aired an ad recently tying Oz to Mastriano, saying that he would allow politicians like the Republican gubernatorial candidate to “ban abortion without exception.”
Abrams employed a similar tactic during a debate with Kemp late last month, saying that the Georgia governor “defended Herschel Walker,” whom she referred to as Kemp’s “running mate.”
Chuck Clay, a former state senator and Georgia GOP chair, said that Kemp and Warnock’s relative strengths in their races are simply evidence of Georgia’s growing status as a battleground, where candidates can’t rely solely on a party-line vote to win.
“Georgians are going to vote the way they’re going to vote,” Clay said.