Kristen Soltis Anderson is a Republican pollster with Echelon Insights, a columnist for the Washington Examiner and the author of “The Selfie Vote: Where Millennials Are Leading America (And How Republicans Can Keep Up).”
‘You have raised your voices in an unmistakable chorus,” President Bill Clinton said on Inauguration Day in 1993. “I earned capital in this campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it,” President George W. Bush said upon being reelected in 2004. Most succinct was President Obama in 2009: “I won.”
With just over a week until the 2016 election results are tallied, it seems overwhelmingly likely that Hillary Clinton will be the next president of the United States. And her campaign clearly has mandate-building in mind as it makes its final push. Not content to merely fight for Florida or Ohio, just one of which would be needed to deny Donald Trump the presidency, the Clinton team has deployed surrogates like Michelle Obama to places like Arizona in hopes of running up the score. It is quite likely that if Clinton takes the stage to give a victory speech, she will make a claim similar to those of the presidents before her: that Americans have clearly endorsed her vision for the country.
Some political pundits and supporters are already laying out the case for her. “Clinton is in a position to notch a resounding victory by historical standards,” Frank Bruni wrote in the New York Times. Similarly, Damon Linker argued in the Week: “The wider Clinton’s margin of victory and the closer she comes to winning an outright majority of the votes cast, the more persuasive her claim of a mandate will be. And if she actually crosses the 50 percent threshold, she’ll have one of the strongest claims to a mandate in nearly a century.” Running mate Tim Kaine told CNN: “Donald is still going to whine if he loses. But if the mandate is clear, I don’t think many people will follow him.”
Would a big Clinton win actually mean a mandate, though? In an election where voters are more disappointed than ever in the choices they face, where an astonishing number will cast a ballot primarily as a way to oppose a different candidate and where core issues have taken a back seat to tabloid headlines, even a legitimate landslide wouldn’t necessarily clarify what, exactly, Clinton had been sent to the White House to do.
Mandates are often talked about in relationship to the decisiveness of victory. But in practice, the two may not have much to do with each other. Political scientist Julia Azari, the author of “Delivering the People’s Message: The Changing Politics of the Presidential Mandate ,” describes presidential mandates as “elite constructions,” more about credible claims than objective facts. They are grand narratives about support for a particular agenda — and serve as a threat that Congress ought to go along with that agenda or else face the wrath of the voters. They are a product of those eager to leverage election results to further political goals. Consider that when Bill Clinton invoked that “unmistakable chorus,” only 43 percent of voters had raised their voices for him.
Bush’s presidency offers another good example of the disconnect between mandate and margin of victory. Despite his narrow win in 2000, his administration governed as if it had a mandate, and in its first term it enacted many of the policies he ran on, including tax cuts, education reform and Medicare Part D. After Bush’s reelection, when he defeated Sen. John Kerry by more than two percentage points in the popular vote and by 35 electoral votes, Bush decided to devote his “political capital” to fixing entitlements. The effort failed. Peter Wehner, who headed up the Bush White House’s Office of Strategic Initiatives, says the White House had a “false sense of comfort” about the public willingness to rally behind the president’s proposals.
Even electoral landslides such as Lyndon B. Johnson’s defeat of Barry Goldwater in 1964 do not protect presidents from political challenges, with Johnson’s “mandate” curdling into a loss of Democratic seats in Congress in 1966 and his loss of control of his own party by the 1968 election.
The Clinton camp seems concerned that Trump’s repeated claims that the election is “rigged” could chip away her mandate. But though doubts about legitimacy make a president more likely to assert a mandate — Azari’s research has found that mandate claims have risen as trust in government and other institutions has declined — whether or not a president has a mandate is not the same as a question of legitimacy. Presidents can be fairly and legitimately elected and yet not have a mandate to push through their agendas.
A bigger factor undercutting Clinton’s claim to a mandate is the unprecedented level of negativity that voters feel toward both candidates in this election. According to Pew, a majority of Trump supporters say their vote is mostly about taking a stand against Clinton, and nearly half of Clinton’s voters say their vote is mostly to oppose Trump. Compare that with the 2012 election, which at the time felt like an incredibly negative race. Both Mitt Romney and Obama had positive net-favorables in polls, meaning more people liked them than disliked them. Only 10 percent of voters in the exit polls that year said their vote was primarily cast as a way to stop the opponent. At the very least, Obama could claim that the vast majority of those voting for him affirmatively wanted him to be president; it would be harder for Clinton to say the same.
Yes, voters may choose to stay home, vote for a third-party candidate or write in someone else if they dislike both Trump and Clinton. But the stakes may feel too high in this election — especially in swing states — to cast a protest vote just to feel good; better to hold one’s nose and do the unpleasant thing to stave off an even graver threat to one’s way of life. (No wonder the American Psychological Association found half of Americans expressing election-related stress.)
The concept of a mandate also relies on the idea that voters do not elect just a particular person but one with a specific vision. On this front, too, the Clinton campaign is lacking. While she does discuss policy a great deal, she rarely articulates clear priorities or which issues she would tackle first. And the media frenzy around Trump has pushed all positive messaging about policy agendas out of the headlines. “I don’t know that voters could name what her policies are,” says former Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau.
Of course, elections are often more about personalities than policies, and voters may be drawn to candidates for a variety of reasons that may not overlap. But this election seems to be especially short on substance. Gallup has asked voters for decades whether or not presidential candidates are “talking about issues you really care about.” Typically as Election Day approaches, more and more voters say yes; in 2016, the trend has been the opposite. And whereas about three-quarters of voters said yes at the equivalent point in previous election years, less than half said yes in this month’s survey.
Even on the few issues that have broken through, it’s unclear that there’s overwhelming support for Clinton. Take immigration. Kaine has expressly used the term “mandate” in this context, telling voters at a rally in Nevada that a Clinton win would affirm a strong preference for immigration reform over Trump’s vision of a “deportation nation.” But while support for mass deportation is low , and a majority of voters reject Trump’s proposal to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, The Washington Post’s most recent polling shows voters fairly evenly divided between trusting Trump or Clinton on immigration issues, and Pew polling has found that the plurality of voters think there should be equal weight on border security and a path to citizenship.
If elections are a chance to sell voters on an issue agenda, both candidates have completely squandered that opportunity.
Some progressives have tried to head off debate about Clinton’s mandate by arguing that mandates are meaningless, given the toxic relationship between the parties. “The truth is that the people who have to approve or reject the president’s agenda don’t give a damn about mandates one way or the other — they’ll support what they want to support and oppose what they want to oppose, whether because of their sincere beliefs or the political demands of their districts and states,” Paul Waldman wrote in the American Prospect. And in New York magazine, Jonathan Chait called mandates “an archaic holdover” from a time when “crossing the aisle was common” and members of Congress could be influenced by “moral pressure” to pass the agenda of a president from the opposing party.
Actually, Azari’s research — going back to 1928 — shows that it is in a moment like this that mandates matter most. When party polarization is low, there isn’t much need for talk of mandates. In periods of intense polarization, invoking mandates helps presidents defend what they want to do, especially when they can’t do it alone.
And research has shown that legislators do change their voting behavior, at least temporarily, in response to perceptions of a mandate. “For some it is a means of insulating themselves from the changing electoral landscape,” write the authors of a 2003 paper published in the American Journal of Political Science. “These members’ responses to the mandate election are, we believe, an attempt to stave off the possibility of electoral defeat. For other members the mandate provides new opportunities to vote their ideological preferences.”
It’s true that after this election, there will be little incentive for either side to bend to the will of the opponent on any particular policy issue, even in defeat, and it will be shocking if the next president gets anything resembling a honeymoon period.
But even if a Clinton win does not come with a clear mandate for her specific agenda, it should send a wake-up call to Republicans. It will at a minimum be a repudiation of the way Trump has conducted himself, and the anger and division he has sown, in this campaign. Clinton may be seen as unlikable and untrustworthy, and she may not represent significant majorities on key issues, but in polls she is at least viewed as having the temperament to serve as president. If she has a mandate at all, it would be to use that temperament to thaw relations with Capitol Hill and to take steps toward progress on the sorts of major challenges — tax reform, entitlements, infrastructure — both parties agree are facing us, even though they hold deep disagreements on how to solve them.
To the extent that any presidential election is ever about choosing an individual for the express purpose of enacting an explicitly articulated policy agenda, this election is most certainly not about that. Voters are fed up and frustrated, disappointed in their choices, and disheartened by how little they have heard about the issues that matter to them.
Clinton will probably win the White House in a large, legitimate victory in the ugliest election America has seen in decades — even if the “unmistakable chorus” is not exactly singing in unison. But once the cacophony of the election has died down and governing begins, the new president will have to work to earn the support of the people on the issues that matter most.