Newly elected presidents like to claim a “mandate”—a wholesale endorsement of their policy platform, conferred by the American people. True mandate elections, however, are rare. Short of a miracle, this election isn’t going to confer one on either President Obama or Republican nominee Mitt Romney.
A true mandate election, political scientists say, isn’t an election in which a president simply wins the popular vote, or even an election in which he or she wins by a wide margin. It’s an election in which the political community— members of Congress, pundits, Washington insiders—all agree that the voters have called for change in a specific direction.
In 2008, Obama won “by a pretty decent margin,” and Republicans reacted by opposing him at every turn, said John Sides, associate professor at George Washington University. “If they didn’t act like he had a mandate then, it’s unlikely that they’re going to change their minds now.”
There are just three elections in recent history that can be considered “mandate” elections, said Professor James A. Stimson of the University of North Carolina: 1964, which swept in President Johnson and the "Great Society"; the "Reagan Revolution" of 1980; and the Republican sweep of 1994. In those cases, the political community reached a consensus that the mood of the electorate had shifted, and acted accordingly. “Ronald Reagan didn’t have control of the House of Representatives in 1981. But nevertheless a Democratic House passed what he wanted to do, because they were afraid of the mandate,” Stimson said.
The kind of election that makes the opposition party docile has one of two factors, Stimson said: “One is an overwhelming sweep of offices up and down the ticket,” the other is “the element of surprise.” If a candidate, or a party, ends up with a big win nobody in Washington had predicted, then the chattering classes are left with only one explanation: The voters have spoken.
A newly elected president and his backers almost always try to create a mandate narrative after a presidential victory. But they’re usually up against an “equally fervent narrative from the other side,” Sides said, that the victory was due to factors other than the candidate’s policies: the economy, their candidate’s personality, or a recent hurricane, for example.
Obama has already argued that his reelection would be a popular endorsement of his deficit-reduction approach. “There’s no doubt that our first order of business is going to be to get our deficits and debt under control,” Obama said on MSNBC’s Morning Joe last week. “ … If I’ve won, then I believe that’s a mandate for doing it in a balanced way.”
Yet the voter who supports Obama isn’t necessarily choosing to reduce the deficit in a balanced way. He may not care about deficit spending at all. Obama and Romney have both described the election as a choice between two visions, but it’s a rare voter who not only has a deep understanding of the policy contrast but also agrees with everything their preferred candidate has proposed.
“What politicians and activists often try to do is say, ‘Well, the electorate has chosen a particular policy direction,’ and I think the evidence for that is nonexistent,” said Gabriel Lenz, assistant professor at the University of California (Berkeley). As most voters follow very little of the policy debate, presidential elections are better understood as referenda: on the state of the economy, or on the incumbent’s performance.
Polls have been so conflicting and contested in the last weeks of the election that it’s possible that either presidential candidate could win by a bigger margin than anticipated. While a big win for either candidate would strengthen his hand, it’s unlikely to fundamentally change the behavior of a divided Congress.
The Republican fantasy scenario—in which the GOP sweeps both chambers and the White House—would turn 2012 into a mandate election. However, a Republican Washington wouldn’t necessarily mean a single-minded Washington; GOP ascendancy could actually strengthen the party’s internal conflicts between social conservatives and libertarians, defense backers and deficit hawks.
Long-shot scenarios aside, here’s what we’re more likely to see: The man who wins the White House on Nov. 6 is expected to do so by a narrow margin. Democrats are expected to hold the Senate, and Republicans are expected to hold the House. That’s not a change election; that’s an election that locks in existing dynamics.
If anything is going to push the parties to agree on policy this year, it won’t be fear of a presidential mandate. It will be fear of a much more tangible threat: the looming package of new-year tax increases and spending cuts known as the fiscal cliff.