The political-science evidence is clear on this: There’s no such thing as an election mandate. There’s only what a president is able to get done with the Congress the American people gave him.
But few politicians agree. And so the days and weeks after elections are heavy with arguments about who has a mandate, and for what. The latest debate is about whether President Obama, who ran a campaign explicitly promising to raise taxes on high earners and who beat a candidate explicitly promising to refuse any and all tax increases, has a mandate to raise taxes.
Speaker John Boehner says he doesn’t. “Listen, our majority is going to get reelected,” he said the day before the election. “We’ll have as much of a mandate as he [President Obama] will … to not raise taxes.”
Boehner’s logic is, on its face, sound. House Republicans have been as clear in their opposition to new taxes on the rich as Obama has been in his support for them. And House Republicans were reelected. They have as much right to claim a popular mandate as the president does.
Or they would if they’d actually won more votes. But they didn’t. House Republicans did the equivalent of winning the electoral college while losing the popular vote.
It can be a bit difficult to tally up the popular vote in House elections because you have to go ballot by ballot, and many incumbents run unopposed. But The Washington Post’s Dan Keating did the work and found that Democrats got 54,301,095 votes while Republicans got 53,822,442. That’s a close election — 48.8%-48.5% –but it’s still a popular vote win for the Democrats. Those precise numbers might change a bit as the count finalizes, but the tally isn’t likely to flip.
What saved Boehner’s majority wasn’t the will of the people but the power of redistricting. As my colleague Dylan Matthews showed, Republicans used their control over the redistricting process to great effect, packing Democrats into tighter and tighter districts and managing to restructure races so even a slight loss for Republicans in the popular vote still meant a healthy majority in the House.
That’s a neat trick, but it’s not a popular mandate, or anything near to it — and Boehner knows it. That’s why his first move after the election was to announce, in a vague-but-important statement, that he was open to some kind of compromise on taxes.